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This page is maintained by the President of the Critical Languages of the Southeast Region (CLOSER) or their designee. If you would like to contribute to the page or add an upcoming event to the list of announcements, please contact Michelle Verbitskaya. Available job positions for critical language educators may be submitted to


The mission of Critical Languages of Southeastern Region (CLOSER) is to promote the study and advancement of critically important and yet critically under-taught world languages in order to develop mutual understanding, cultural competence, and intersectional cooperation between educators, learners, and professionals in all fields. CLOSER aims to develop, sustain, and popularize K-16 critical language initiatives across the Southeast Region of the United States. CLOSER welcomes and actively cultivates domestic and international partners.

Board Members


Dr. Alla Kourova is an associate professor of TESOL and Russian at the University of Central Florida. She  graduated from Moscow State University with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Teaching Foreign Languages. She is the author of more than 50 publications on language teaching and cross-cultural communication. Dr. Kourova is a recipient of several prestige awards: National 2015 AATSEEL award for Excellence in Teaching (Post-Secondary), the University Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, the Scholarship for Teaching and Learning Award, the Research and Teaching Incentive Program Awards. For last four years Dr. Kourova has received multiple US Department of States grants: US – Russia Dialogue Program, STARTALK grants, and Fulbright Hays-Group Grant. Dr. Kourova has received multiple US Department of States grants: US – Russia Dialogue Program, STARTALK grants, and Fulbright Hays-Group Grant. Her pedagogical credo is teaching language through culture.

Vice President

Snezhana Zheltoukhova, Ph.D., has been teaching linguistics and Russian as a world language since her graduation from Moscow (Lomonosov) State University. For a decade, she continued teaching the language and culture at Carleton College, Pomona College, Beloit College, University of Missouri-Columbia, Indiana University Bloomington, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, Zheltoukhova is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Director of Language Commons at Stetson University. Her research interests are within the field of second language acquisition and pedagogy, specifically world language tutoring, analysis of discourse and interaction, sociocultural theory, and technology-mediated language learning.


Irina Pidberejna is a STARTALK instructor of Russian at the University of Central Florida since 2017. She has her Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from the University of Alabama. She speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English and Spanish and advocates for bilingual and cross cultural opportunities in all educational settings.


Educational Technology Chair/Treasurer

Michelle Verbitskaya, M.A. is an Ph.D. student in Second Language Acquisition at the Ohio State University. Originally from Eastern Siberia, Russia, Michelle is a bilingual speaker of English and Russian, an instructor of Russian for STARTALK at UCF, and an instructor of Issues in Second Language Acquisition. Michelle's research interests concern L2 writing, intersections of identity, social movements, and language, teaching Russian as L2, and language ideology. For a sample of video projects, click here.


Dr. Barry J. Morris earned a BA in Russian and political science with a specialization in international relations from Tulane University, and an MA and PhD in international relations and international political economy from Emory University. He has been a professor and university administrator in the U.S., Africa and China serving in various posts including Vice Provost, Dean and Professor of International Relations. As Senior International Officer, Chief Global Strategist at UCF, and the Board of Directors of NAFSA—Association of International Educators he has participated in the Fulbright Hays Group Project Abroad Program “Building Bridges with Language and Culture in Russia.”

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  • Saturday, March 02, 2024 3:49 PM | Anonymous

    Associate Professor of Russian Dr. Kourova, along with her former students, Irina Pidberejna and Michelle Verbitskaya, delivered a captivating presentation on “How Words Shape People: Business Russian Through Proverbs” at the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages conference in Las Vegas. The presentation delved into the significant impact of language on cultural and business practices.

    To read more, visit

  • Thursday, December 07, 2023 2:58 PM | Anonymous

    University of Central Florida hosted Zhenya Evtushenko for a Night of Poetry. On November 11, the guest presented the poetry of his world-famous father Evgeniy Evtushenko.

    Evgeniy Evtushenko was a Soviet and Russian poet. He was also a novelist, essayist, dramatist, screenwriter, publisher, actor, editor, university professor, and director of several films. In 1961, he became famous for his poem Babi Yar that revealed the forgotten tragedy — in September 1941, Nazi occupying forces murdered more than 33,000 Jews in the ravine near Kyiv, Ukraine. Yevtushenko’s deeply moving poem was first published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta.


    The event was organized by Dr. Alla Kourova as a part of the annual International Education Week at the University of Central Florida. International Education Week (IEW) is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Education that celebrates the benefits of international education and exchange across campuses worldwide. 

  • Sunday, November 26, 2023 7:31 PM | Anonymous

    CLOSER board members, Dr. Alla Kourova and Irina Pidberejna, presented at the annual FFLA conference on October 26-28. They hosted a sessions titled "How to Start Talking: Practical Ideas for Classroom and Extracurricular Activities."

    Irina Pidberejna was nominated for the Teacher of the Year award. Congratulations!

  • Friday, April 14, 2023 5:13 PM | Anonymous

    For the Day of Giving, the Russian-American Community Center of Florida, Inc. gifted a $10k fund to support and advance Russian language studies at the University of Central Florida. 

    The long-lasting partnership between the university and Russian-American Community Center included a number of collaborations, including cultural events and Russian language learners education through the STARTALK grant. 

    The Russian Program thanks its partner for this generous donation!

  • Saturday, January 21, 2023 6:44 PM | Anonymous

    During the 2023 FFLA conference that took place in Kissimmee, FL, members of the Critical Languages of the Southeast Region presented their work at several sessions:

    • Connecting Classrooms to Learn Language and Culture (presented by Dr. Alla Kourova and Larisa Filimonenko)
    • Designing and Customizing Educational Videos to Teach Russian as a Foreign Language (presented by Tatiana Makarova and Maria Molchanova)
    • Russian Immersion Program: "STARTALK" (presented by Sabina Amanbayeva)
    • Re-Shaping Stereotypical Cultural Representations in an Introductory Russian Program (presented by Michelle Verbitskaya, Yulia Dochtennikov, Alla Kourova, and Irina Pidberejna)

      CLOSER also hosted a round table dedicated to discussing the issues of Teaching Critical Languages in Impossible Times (and Places). During the round table discussion, teachers, professors, districts employees, and language-oriented professionals shared their experiences, concerns, and ideas. As a result, new connections were formed across several districts of the southeast which will focus on bridging language teacher at K-12 and post-secondary levels. 

      The director of the Critical Languages of the Southeast Region, Dr. Alla Kourova received two awards: Teacher of the Year 2022 and Most Valuable Teacher. Congratulations! 

    • Monday, October 03, 2022 11:33 AM | Anonymous

      An important message for high school seniors, college freshmen, and their parents!

      The University of Central Florida (UCF) wants to invite you to participate in the STARTALK (Start Talking), Russian Language Program sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA), "How Words Shape People: Understanding Business Russian through Proverbs"

      The program consists of 4 parts:

      Part 1: January 23rd - May 23rd, 2023, 90-minute online lessons once a week.

      Part 2: June 12th-June 30th Russian Language camp. The camp will take place at UCF. Living expenses and food will be covered.

      Part 3: September 19th-April 9th, 2024. 60-minute online lessons once a week.

      Part 4: April 23, 2024. Exam and graduation.

      Russian Lessons will be led by experienced language instructors who were part of the UCF STARTALK Program for the last 6 years.

      The program is open to high school students and college freshmen in every state. Students who have successfully completed Part 1 and Part 2 of the program will have the opportunity to receive college credit hours at UCF.

      Register here (until Dec. 5, 2022): 

      If you have any questions, please contact the director of the program Dr. Kourova at

    • Monday, March 21, 2022 9:46 AM | Anonymous

      We have all expressed our unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine. In solidarity with those who are in Ukraine and living in fear of attack, we stand firm with the organizations who call for cutting formal ties with institutions and with those who are actively supporting the Russian war effort.   

      We want to do everything we can to show our support for Ukrainian scholars and students. At the same time, we are concerned about calls for blanket bans on the participation of individual Russians and Belarusians in scholarly events and scholarly exchanges.  

      We strongly oppose the vilification and exclusion of our Russian and Belarusian students. Banning Russians and Belarusians based solely on their citizenship or place of birth goes against our fundamental principles of scholarship, open communication, and dialogue. Such sanctions have the potential to harm those living in authoritarian regimes who are opposed to the war and are powerless to change their oppressive governments. We encourage all members of our community who stand against the war in Ukraine to come together and support all the students who are in this situation.  

      We encourage language educators and learners to watch the videos below.


    • Wednesday, March 02, 2022 9:11 AM | Anonymous

      Last week, CLOSER's Director, Dr. Alla Kourova, and Vice President, Dr. Snezhana Zheltoukhova presented their research at the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) conference in Philadelphia, PA. 


      Dr. Alla Kourova presented her work "Shaping Stereotypical Cultural Representations in an Introductory Russian STARTALK Program." Dr. Snezhana Zheltoukhova had two presentations: "Embracing Diversity in an Online Intensive Language Course" and "Videoconference as a Mediating Tool: In-class Interaction and Learner Autonomy." 

    • Wednesday, December 08, 2021 12:44 PM | Anonymous

      Learn more about the partnership between UCF Global and the Russian Program at UCF here:

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