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Blugold helps area high school student from Russia adjust to new language, culture

| Judy Berthiaume

Starting high school can be a challenging time for many teens as they adjust to new rules, new teachers, new expectations and a new building.

But one teen who recently moved to Eau Claire had even bigger challenges as he began his high school career this fall — he had to learn a new language and figure out new cultural norms.

A freshman at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Lev Romanovich Banshikov had spent his life in Russia until his mother brought him and his sister, Valaira, to the United States in late 2014 in search of a better and safer life. The family lived briefly in Oregon but moved to Eau Claire in fall 2015.

“It is very difficult for me as I have a problem with the language barrier,” Lev says of adjusting to Eau Claire and Memorial High School. “It is hard for me to communicate in America. I have troubles with directions not because I don’t want to follow them, but I can’t understand them.”

Fortunately for Lev, a UW-Eau Claire sophomore who also was born in Russia heard his story and wants to help.

Every Tuesday, Sergei Raspel, an elementary education major who came to the United States as a young boy after being adopted by an American couple, meets Lev at his high school, where he uses his Russian language skills to help the teen better understand his school work as well as American cultural norms that may be confusing to him.

During their time together each week, they focus on Lev’s studies, but Sergei also is helping Lev understand how to better function in America. For example, he explains the meaning behind certain American phrases that can’t be easily translated.

“I believe in mentoring and I believe in helping everyone be who they are,” Sergei says of his motivation for spending time with Lev. “We hang out, I help him with his homework in math and science, and other stuff. He feels safe with me. He needs a friend and he needs someone who understands his story.”

While Sergei has lived in the United States for many years and his English is excellent, he has nurtured his connections to his native country. He’s studied the Russian language, ensuring that his language skills remain strong even after years of living in America.

“I’m very proud of my culture,” Sergei says. “I’m proud of who I am so knowing Russian is important to me.”

Lev is grateful to have someone who speaks Russian help him navigate high school and to better understand American culture. It’s also helpful to talk with someone like Sergei, who can relate to Lev’s story of moving from Russia to America.

“It’s nice to have someone who understands my background and where I came from,” Lev says. “It’s nice that I can just be myself. A lot of times people are telling me what to do and I don’t like that a lot. I just want to be myself, and when I am with Sergei he allows me to do that. I can talk to him about my day. I can tell him about my past from Russia. He helps me a lot with my homework and helps me understand the process a little bit more.”

While Sergei’s Russian isn’t fluent, Lev says it's comforting to speak his language to someone other than an adult.

“It’s nice to have that culture and identity,” Lev says. “I don’t want people to strip me of my culture by telling me to be a certain way or look or act or behave a certain way. I often feel bad about my culture and who I am because other students think I am weird. I wish I could talk English just as well as they could but it’s a very hard language. Sergei does not judge me; he shows me how it’s cool to just be myself and be happy with myself because I am unique and different. He goes out of his way to provide opportunities for me. He is a friend and a mentor but also a positive role model.”

With Sergei’s support and friendship, Lev’s school work is improving as he’s learning to speak and understand English better.

“But it’s a work in process,” Lev says. “It’s nice to have a student from the university to help me to believe in my abilities, and to show me what I can strive for, and that college is for everyone. It’s nice to talk about my emotions with him and not feel like I’m being judged. I’m still transitioning in Eau Claire and with Sergei’s guidance and help, I’ve come to understand a little bit more on how America works.”

Moving to the United States was scary, but Sergei is showing him that people here are kind and willing to support him as he finds his place in his new school and community.

“Sergei is putting me on a path to see me succeed,” Lev says. “He is funny, kind, energized, patient, but most importantly, supporting. It’s nice that someone from the university takes time out of their day to help me with my struggles and problems and to just be there for me.”

While Lev clearly benefits from the friendship, Sergei says he also gains a lot from his time with the high school freshman.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Sergei says of their friendship. “But it’s also way for me to build my confidence in my ability to be a leader and to be a resource. It’s a chance for me to use some of my gifts in a good way by helping to change another person’s life.”

Sergei, who learned about Lev through his work as a mentor in the Blugold Beginnings program, says that his friendship with Lev is another way for him to connect to the Eau Claire community.

Building those campus-community connections is an important part of his college experience, Sergei says.

“If you come to UW-Eau Claire and don’t get involved in the community, you are really missing out,” Sergei says. “You’re missing opportunities to network but also to have a real experience. Getting good grades is nice, but having those experiences is even better.”

Photo caption: Sophomore Sergei Raspel, who was born in Russian, meets weekly with a local teen who recently moved to the U.S. from Russia to help him adjust to a new language and culture.