For the second year in a row, University of Montana alumna Courtney Bentz will experience full immersion in the Russian language on a Critical Language Scholarship.
Funded by the U.S. Department of State, Critical Language Scholarships are highly competitive, with 550 typically awarded out of around 5,500 applications. The scholarships are worth between $5,000 to $7,000, and recipients travel overseas to study one of 15 languages declared critical by the U.S. government.
“I’d always known I wanted to travel and work internationally with people from different cultures,” Bentz said.
Bentz, who is from Billings, fell in love with learning new languages when she studied French in high school. As a student at UM, she chose to study the language written on her family’s old immigration papers – Russian.
In 2018, Bentz went to Kyrgyzstan for 10 weeks on a $3,000 Gilman Scholarship to study Russian and Kyrgyz – her first time traveling internationally.
Ona Renner-Fahey, head of the UM Russian Program, said studying abroad is a rewarding way for students to experience language immersion and increase linguistic and cultural fluency.
“While any cultural experience abroad can push you out of your comfort zone, the experience is deepened even more when you are simultaneously navigating through it in a language that is not your native language,” Renner-Fahey said.
One of the biggest challenges for Bentz was learning how to decline the Kyrgyz national drink without offending the hosts. Made with fermented sheep dairy and mare’s milk, the drink is offered in both restaurants and homes, sometimes in shot glasses. Unfortunately for Betz, she is lactose intolerant, so she had to learn to communicate she couldn’t drink it – putting her language skills to the test.
“These national drinks are a big part of their huge culture of hospitality,” Bentz said. “It’s very important to the Kyrgyz. It’s a really phenomenal thing to participate in.”
Last year, Bentz earned a CLS for a program based out of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, over the summertime. Due to the pandemic, the program ran virtually.
This year, she earned a second Critical Language Scholarship – a very rare feat – for Vladimir, Russia, which also will be virtual.
Every Monday through Friday, the now-virtual CLS program consists of two hours of class, an hour-long meeting with the teacher once a week to go over grammar or culture and a presentation on special topics like dachas, or Russian summer cabins. Bentz said her favorite part is meeting with a language partner twice a week.
Keeping up on a language outside of school and a conversation partner has been difficult for Bentz, who graduated with her degree in Russian a year ago.
“Even though I’m kind of nervous about that, I’m also really excited to get to speak Russian and get back into it,” she said. “I really love the language.”
Bentz now works for the International Rescue Committee as an AmeriCorps member, helping build financial and digital literacy programs at credit unions for immigrants.
“I’m in the process of helping people further stabilize and also get that kind of inside knowledge of how American economics work that people who are born here get to know through their lives,” she said. “So it just kind of makes the learning curve a little less severe.”
Bentz plans to spend another year at AmeriCorps through July with the IRC and then go abroad when she can. She eventually wants to work for the federal government through the Foreign Service or the Office of Language Services, specializing in Russian.
Renner-Fahey, who met Bentz as a first-year student, said Bentz took advantage of many out-of-classroom activities UM offers.
“Courtney seemed to intentionally make the most of her college experience, through knowing what the Honors College and Global Leadership Initiative could offer her, through actively pursuing scholarships and other opportunities, and even through fostering close friendships through the Russian program and her sorority,” Renner-Fahey said.
She said the Russian program strives to create community among students and alumni and open up the world of possibilities that comes with learning a language.
“There are so many wonderful opportunities out there for students of Russian – from fully funded study abroad programs through the State Department, like the CLS, to exciting and unexpected study abroad locales such as the Russian Far East, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan,” Renner-Fahey said. “We try to encourage students to apply for everything.”
Bentz said the most important lesson she has learned is one of perseverance and adaptability – especially as cultural immersion experiences look a bit different these days.
“If you really want something, keep trying for it and keep going forward as much as you can,” she said.