Nick Kupensky just got back from one of the best summers of his life.
The 24-year-old Brookfield High School graduate just spent the summer traveling Europe, teaching English to a group of Russian biathletes. Because of the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, the athletes will need to know basic English in order to travel, train and do interviews.
"For three months in the summer, we followed the team across Europe to training camps. We eat, sleep and play poker with the team," said Kupensky. After crossing Russia and spending June in Finland (including a week in Helsinki), Kupensky had to return home to resume classes at Yale, so he was not able to join the team in traveling to Bulgaria.
Photo special to the Tribune Chronicle
Nick Kupensky is shown on a day trip to Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s estate in Mikhalovskoe, Pskovskaya Oblast, Russia. Pushkin, who is considered the founder of modern Russian literature, was exiled here in the 1820s after clashing with the government.
Photo special to the Tribune Chronicle
Russian biathletes are shown studying in Kalevala, Finland. From left are Andrei Makoveev, Viktor Vasiliev, Evgenii Ustiugov, Aleksei Volkov and Andrei Cherezov.
Kupensky, who is studying Slavic languages at Yale, graduated from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania with a triple major in English, Russian and comparative humanities before heading to International University in Moscow to study Russian. There, he became involved with OxfordCrown, a group that finds teachers to teach English in Russia. The sponsor of a team of young Russian biathletes was looking for someone to teach them some English - Kupensky had a friend at OxfordCrown who put him on the top of the list.
"In Russia, these guys are famous," Kupensky says of the athletes he taught. "People would recognize them walking down the street."
Kupensky, along with a Russian girl named Julia, worked with the athletes, first teaching them simple nouns for use in hotels and restaurants. "One guy only knew two words (in English)," he said. '"Door' and 'house.' But after two months, they were speaking English."
Kupensky incorporated cultural lessons with his English lessons. "I was doing mini-lectures in U.S. culture - the history of New York, Chicago, Boston. To teach phonetics and pronunciation, he had the athletes sing their favorite songs, including "Winds of Change" by Scorpions and "We Are the Champions" by Queen. They also watched NBC Nightly News and BBC News on Kupensky's iPod and watched mob movies like "Goodfellas."
While teaching the athletes, Kupensky was also simultaneously working on a textbook. "There is no text on English for athletes," he said. In between working with the athletes, he also learned a thing or two from them. "I have this whole lexicon on Russian guns. They wanted to learn vocabulary associated with shooting." Kupensky said he would research the terms, find the English equivalent, and then teach it back to them. "I learned so much about guns."
One of the athletes. Ivan Cherezov, had a wife and young child, who Kupensky also helped with English. "He was one-and-a-half, learning Russian and English, too. He called me 'Dyadya Nick,' or 'Uncle Nick,' in Russian."
Kupensky's Ohio roots helped him to better connect with his students. "Being from the Midwest made me an excellent Russian ambassador," he said. Not only did he dispel the image that all Americans are from big cities like New York, but he also taught them about the history of Walmart in order to teach them how to shop for themselves.
Kupensky has some crazy stories about traveling across Europe, likening his adventures to the film "Eurotrip," which he claims was based on another Brookfield-ian who went to Europe. "But after all these crazy trips, I absolutely love being home. I went from poker and vodka with gold-medal athletes to Truck Night in Brookfield in two weeks."
He has tentative plans to rejoin his new friends at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "They learned a ton of English in three months, but there may be a linguistic atrophy between now and then." He also adds that OxfordCrown and similar groups are always looking for Americans to teach English, for anyone who has a degree and a bit of the wanderlust.
He connects his experience with the Page One high school journalism program from 1999 to 2003 with his educational path. "There was a long series of dots connected, but if it wasn't for Page One, I wouldn't be where I am."