Evan Harris

Russian: Madison Stafford

To Madison Stafford, the most difficult aspect of learning Russian was the alphabet. 

“The worst thing about the alphabet for second language learners is that if you come from English or Spanish or one of the Romanized alphabets, you end up with the characters that mean something different in English than they do in Russian,” Stafford said. 

Stafford realized this when she took her first exam in an introductory Russian language class and promptly received an “F.” She shared how dyslexia impacted how she picked up the language — writing was a challenge. 

“I was crying because I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get sent to the disabilities office and am not going to be able to study Russian,” Stafford said. “I’m not going to be able to continue, but I loved the class.” 

However, Stafford passed with flying colors when her professor Dr. Billy Hamilton allowed her to retake the exam as an oral assessment.

“Dr. Hamilton kind of leaned back and chucked a little bit and said … ‘I’m not ready to give up on you yet.’” Stafford said, smiling. 

From that point forward, Hamilton mentored Stafford through a large part of her Russian minor. Through extra meetings during office hours and setting her up with a tutor, Hamilton worked to build Stafford’s confidence and skills in Russian vocabulary and grammar. Stafford explained that — at a university where she felt out of place as a multiethnic student — a beloved professor believed in her. 

“There’s a culture at Wake Forest that I just didn’t know how to decipher,” Stafford said. “And, you know, here was this professor — this very established, well-loved, well respected professor who spoke six languages and had a doctorate and had so many books in his library you couldn’t even count them … and he believed in me, and he felt that I could do it.” 

Over time, Stafford established herself as a Russian minor. According to Stafford, the group of students studying the Russian language is small, creating a close-knit community. One of her favorite memories is celebrating Maslenitsa — a Russian spring festival similar to Mardi Gras. Every year they can, Russian language students and faculty gather to make blinchiki — Russian crepes — topped with sour cream or — more popularly — Nutella. 

As she reminisced on these cultural celebrations, Hamilton came up frequently. Stafford laughed as she recalled the time Hamilton attempted to gain permission from the university to drink vodka and burn effigies with his students during Maslenitsa. Although his efforts failed, Hamilton succeeded in gaining the love and respect of many of his students. Stafford wears a bracelet that reads “Thank you, my friends” in Russian — the last words Hamilton spoke to Stafford before he passed away during the fall 2021 semester

Although Hamilton is no longer physically there to encourage her, Stafford plans to use the confidence he instilled in her to graduate school. She plans on spending the next year studying illustration at the Maryland College Institute of Art. After receiving her master’s degree, Stafford hopes to work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

Stafford shared that studying the Russian language and pursuing illustration is the result of her love for both subjects. Although she promised herself in high school that she would not turn her hobbies into a career, her passion won out. 

“At some point, I just realized I couldn’t leave it behind,” Stafford said. “Part of it was, when [Hamilton] passed away, I just realized that life is far too precious to spend it learning things you don’t like.” 

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