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Love for Language: Fulbright Grant Takes Student to Korea

Poetry is a precise form of writing in many ways, one where each word is chosen carefully for its significance to the entire work. So when you take those words and try to translate them into a different language, the meaning, beauty or flow can easily be lost.

That's how Eric Swinn '06 feels about the English translations of the works of some of his favorite poets, who are Russian. He loves Mikhail Lermontov and Sergei Yesenin for the masterful way they use the Russian language. "Their language is so rich, they've been able to keep the rhyme and the rhythm without going into the mundane," he says.

Swinn is a lover of language, getting his degree in Russian and French, and he's ready to take on the words of yet another culture. Swinn will spend the next year living in South Korea thanks to a grant he won this spring from the Fulbright Program for U.S. Students. The program allows Americans to study and conduct research in more than 150 countries. Swinn will be teaching English in a secondary school.

Swinn says he is ready for the task, partly because of three of his activities during his time at Willamette. One was interacting with Koreans at a church in Salem, which taught him about that culture. Another was tutoring students at Tokyo International University of America, which got him used to the rote style of teaching used in East Asia.

The third, which perhaps gave him the most experience, was teaching Russian at South Salem High School. The school asked him to teach one Russian class when its regular teacher went on maternity leave. Swinn, who has a temporary teaching license, agreed.

"A lot of the ideas I had about what I would be like as a teacher were broken down," he says. "I have always imagined I'd be the sort of teacher like Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Dangerous Minds' or Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society,' but what really made them great instructors was how they were able to adapt to their environment, not how they made it adapt to them. I finally learned that the best way to be an effective teacher is to pay scrupulous attention to the students' needs, which vary drastically day to day."

Swinn became interested in the Russian language when he discovered its literature, specifically its poetry. He spent his entire junior year studying in Ukraine, and he plans to return to Eastern Europe through the Peace Corps after his Fulbright experience. He wants to gain more exposure to Slavic languages, particularly the way people living in small villages share their history through oral tales.

Swinn is interested in studying languages as a whole, beyond just learning how to speak them. "I always have languages running through my mind," he says. "It's interesting how language develops."