Mariela Perez-Cabarcas and Tyrone Davis III, seniors in Course VI pursuing minors in Russian and Eurasian Studies, both went to Russia during IAP through MIT Global Teaching Labs, and taught at The Skolkovo International Gymnasium. Mariela taught computer science, circuits, physics, and biology; and Tyrone taught computer science and business.
The MIT students traveled to Russia in January, before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Since that time, the MIT-Skoltech collaboration has been terminated, as MIT President Rafael Reif explained in a letter of February 28. Reif stated that “in light of the Russian government’s violent invasion of a peaceful neighbor, we have determined that we must not continue the MIT Skoltech Program.”* We spoke with Mariela and Tyrone about their experiences and reactions to recent events.
What got you interested in studying Russian? Was your interest connected to your career plans?
Mariela: I actually have a family connection. My stepmom is from Kyrgyzstan and she spoke some Russian at home. Also, when I first came to MIT, I had an ROTC scholarship, and I thought I might want to work for the Department of Defense, where it would be good to have “critical language” knowledge. But over time, it became less about that. I just love the culture, the food, the people. Once I started taking classes, I enjoyed studying the language. I had Maria Khotimsky, who is really wonderful teacher, and she makes learning very engaging. I took her Russian literature class and it got me really interested. I loved reading Nabokov.
Tyrone: I’m a chess player. Back when I was younger, it seemed to me that chess history had deep roots in Russia. When I started taking classes, I fell in love with the language and culture, separately from my initial impulse related to chess. For me it was unrelated to professional aspirations. It was an escape from the technical side of education to a more humanities and artistic side of education at MIT. It’s contributed just as much as the tech side to my education, my personal development, my personal discovery, and my life.
You have both recently traveled to Russia. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the news, what’s your reaction?
Mariela: It’s heartbreaking. We were just in Russia, teaching at the International Gymnasium of Skolkovo. And now MIT has cut ties with Skoltech. It’s shocking to have just been there, now realizing we might have been the last GTL [Global Teaching Lab] class to go there, at least for a while. We were the first ones in two years to go because of Covid. It’s a privilege we got to go there when we did. But it’s sad the state of the world is the way it is.
Tyrone: After taking Russian language for years, and then going there in person—It humanized the Russian people. I was met with nothing but love, care, hospitality and welcome. And now seeing the war break. It highlights the dichotomy between the government and the people. I actually discussed the tensions with Ukraine when I was there with people. Nobody I talked to expressed the views Putin is putting forward. People I talked to did not think war would break out nor did they seem in favor of war. It is surreal now to see what has happened.
Besides your interactions at the school, did you have a chance to interact much with people in Russia?
Tyrone: We took a couple of trips exploring St. Petersburg and Moscow. I also participated in a chess tournament. It was fulfilling talking to people. We’d start up conversations with train conductors, taxi drivers, and people in restaurants. Sometimes I felt at first people seemed very reserved, almost showing a lack of emotion. But once you start talking to them, they were very warm and friendly. When they hear you speak Russian, their eyes open wide, and it’s all love then.
Mariela: We were the only two MIT students on the trip who actually spoke Russian, so sometimes we got to do some translating. It was pretty useful to know Russian and not have to rely on GoogeTranslate!
How do you see Russian continuing to figure in your life?
Mariela: After visiting Russia, I thought I might want to spend a long time living there or visiting. Given the current circumstances, that seems a little less likely. I think if I can’t go to Russia, I would still consider traveling to another Russian-speaking nation to experience more of the culture, and for personal intellectual and cultural stimulation.
Tyrone: I don’t see a specific direct connection to my future, but many loose ones. I co-founded a nonprofit called The Gift of Chess, and I plan on going to Lagos, Nigeria as part of our global outreach initiative to bring chess sets and technology to impoverished communities. The idea is to get chess education into the hands of children who might not otherwise have access to them. If our reach grows, Russian might come in handy in the future, working in different countries on the nonprofit. I also plan on working in finance, where Russian surely will come in handy.
* For a full text the letter from MIT President L. Rafael Reif see MIT NEWS.