Bianca is an alum of the 2020 Russian summer program. This story was submitted as an entry to the NSLI-Y 15th Anniversary Storytelling Competition.

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The open window brought in the smell of fresh-cut grass and the warm hug of summer morning heat. I could hear the faint rumble of the lawnmowers outside being put to work — a sound I had grown accustomed to after just a few months of online school.

It had been five weeks since I first connected with my classmates and language teachers. August was settling in, making days feel longer than ever. I was settling in as well; it had been a strange, strange year. Needless to say, I hadn’t expected to be studying with my fellow Russian students over Zoom, sitting at my desk and hearing the chirps of the red-winged blackbirds outside my bedroom window — a sound all too familiar here in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, I had expected to be sitting in a classroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Despite the change of plans, I was having an incredibly wonderful time studying Russian virtually.

“Bianca, looks like you’re up first,” I heard my resident director say.

My eyes widened in surprise; for an unknown reason, I had convinced myself I was going second. Going first came as a slight shock. Regardless, I was ready, having rehearsed my speech more times than I could count. It was time to present.

Towards the beginning of our virtual summer intensive our resident director had us pick topics for our end-of-program presentations. After a few minutes of deliberation, I quickly decided on fashion as my research topic.

It goes without saying that our Saturday morning meetings with students from Moscow left me a sweaty mess. I’m not at that high of a level of Russian, am I? I thought to myself as I looked over the questions I had for the students while throwing out Russian greetings I had just become slightly familiar with. Among my research questions, two of my big questions included “Where do Russian people find inspiration for their clothing?” and “Are there any prominent or famous fashion designers in Russia?” I knew I was challenging myself as a Russian language beginner. I was pursuing a research topic that proved to be difficult to discuss in an unfamiliar tongue. Regardless, it was a topic I was deeply passionate about.

As I talked to a number of young Russians about fashion and clothing, I found that I was more passionate about fashion and sustainability than I initially thought. I found that most young Russians shop at fast fashion brands, such as Zara, Bershka, and Stradivarius. Furthermore, shopping for secondhand clothing and thrifting are not common practices in Russian culture. This new information made me think a lot about the future of sustainable fashion in Eastern Europe, and if one even existed.

As I honed my amateur Russian skills and continued to learn about the clothing culture, I realized that I could make a difference in the world of fashion. As someone that is eager to work in the sustainable sector of the fashion industry, and as someone whose knowledge of Eastern European languages is growing, I realized that I could make a global difference. As I refine my connections and experience in sustainable fashion, and as I improve my language skills, I can pursue important, eco-friendly changes and trends in Eastern Europe. I have the potential to change an aspect of Eastern European culture. The NSLI-Y program I had participated in gave me this strength and courage.

I clicked “share screen” and watched as the lavender theme of my slideshow appeared on the Zoom call. I felt a wave of adrenaline hit me as I realized I was about to present my favorite topic to a large group that included 10+ native Russian speakers. A topic that could change a global community, its ideology, and its habits.

"Менязовут Бьянка, и вот моя презентация."