Role Reversal: Student Teaches Russian To Her History Professor

When Sandra Mathews-Benham travels to Kazakhstan someday, she’ll be able to introduce herself, order a meal, and ask for directions.

Kazakhstan Map“She could survive in Kazakhstan,” said NWU foreign exchange student Gulbanu Ibragimkyzy who has spent the past five months teaching Russian to Mathews-Benham.

Ibragimkyzy, who hails from the city of Kyzylorda, was a student this year in Mathews-Benham’s history classes. By day, she was the typical college student, soaking in U.S. historical facts and lessons. By evening, the roles reversed when Ibragimkyzy helped Mathews-Benham soak in the Russian language.

Their relationship started in January when Ibragimkyzy stopped by her professor’s office to admit she wasn’t fully understanding her history class. She asked Mathews-Benham for extra books that would better familiarize her with the United States, hoping the extra reading would gain her some extra credit too.

“Exchange students know they don’t know our history,” said Mathews-Benham. “And they usually work harder at understanding it than my other students.”

While visiting, Mathews-Benham asked questions about Ibragimkyzy's country of Kazakhstan, formerly part of the USSR. Mathews-Benham mentioned she took a Russian language class as a student at Nebraska Wesleyan in the mid-1980s.

“I even pulled out my old textbook that was copyrighted in the 1970s,” said Mathews-Benham. “Of course I remember nothing from it.”

That conversation led to a new role for Mathews-Benham: student. Amid her history class preparations and research, the professor spent about six hours a week learning Russian from Ibragimkyzy.

They started with the alphabet and then moved onto basic words. She had regular homework assignments and tests. She made her own flashcards to help with memorization. 

When Mathews-Benham would mispronounce a Russian word, Ibragimkyzy would say “repeat again!” Mathews-Benham even admits she would purposely mispronounce words to see how her teacher would react. Ibragimkyzy would continue with “repeat again!”

“She is such a serious teacher,” said Mathews-Benham.

“Part of being a learner is believing in yourself,” said Ibragimkyzy, who fluently speaks three languages and picked up two others — Spanish and French — while at NWU. “I know how hard it is to pick up a new language. It took me six years to learn English.”

By mid-May the duo finished 13 textbook chapters in 14 weeks. Mathews-Benham successfully passed her final exam on the same day Ibragimkyzy successfully passed her history final exam.

While she speaks the basics, Mathews-Benham is not finished learning Russian. She intends to make it through the entire 40-chapter textbook and the two plan to continue their lessons via Skype when Ibragimkyzy returns home.

Upon her return to Kazakhstan, Ibragimkyzy will finish her final year of college and then pursue a master’s degree. Her year at Nebraska Wesleyan was made possible through the Global UGRAD Program in Eurasia and Central Asia. She’s attending college on scholarship after being named one of her country’s highest performing students.

Mathews-Benham treated her Russian teacher to lunch just before Ibragimkyzy boarded a plane back home. Mathews-Benham said she’ll miss her private Russian lessons and her new friend.

“But after I get through that textbook, I want to go visit her in Kazakhstan,” said Mathews-Benham.

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