Spotlight Iowa City: Passionate about her students


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It was likely Russian lecturer Irina Kostina’s passion that did it for UI student Stephen Theulen.

He wasn’t planning to take Kostina’s intensive summer Russian course, but he changed his mind (despite not having a place to live or a job in Iowa City) after a couple run-ins with Kostina. She was persistent. He took her summer course.

“She’s way more than just a teacher,” Theulen said, noting how Kostina engages students in her classrooms.

This year, Kostina will take eight students to Moscow in March. She made the same trip a year ago with Theulen and six other students. The group will be exposed to Russian culture, attending a three-week seminar, living with a Russian family, and finishing with the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language, which allows students who pass to continue education in Russia.

“It will be your own experience,” Kostina said. “Not somebody’s experience.”

But before any trip, she must ensure the students are ready for full immersion in Russia — and that involves an intense language preparation.

That’s where Professor Margaret Mills of the Asian and Slavic languages and literatures department says Kostina excels. She overhauled the Russian program, Mills said.

“She really pushes them hard,” Mills said. “She pushes them to their limits, but they leave class every day knowing that she really cares about them and that she wants them back in there tomorrow.”

To prepare the students, Kostina taught an intensive language course during the winter break.

During the course, students studied Russian from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a total of more than 90 hours. Intensive study is the best way to learn a language, she believes.

“Russian is difficult, but it is language and was created by people, so we can learn it,” she said.

She first came to the UI in 1992 to teach a two-month summer course. In 1993, she was invited back to teach for another year. At the end of that year, she was offered another contract, and she has taught at the university ever since.

Kostina’s frank manner and elegant appearance (she seems to favor dangly earrings and wears her long dark hair pulled back), may seem intimidating at first. This was certainly Katherine Otto’s first impression.

“I love her now, but at first I was a little terrified,” Otto said.

As time goes on, many students come to see Kostina is both passionate and caring. Otto, now a double major in Russian and English, will be among the students to travel to Moscow.

“I’ve never had a more dedicated teacher,” she said.

It’s clear that Kostina feels the same way about them.

“I believe truly our students are the best,” she said. “They have a lot of attention and love from us.”

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