Zachary Rybchin: From Russia, With Latvia

Not every 6th grader is ready to study Mandarin.

Zachary Rybchin was.

A new student at Bedford Middle School, already interested in the world around him, he took on the challenging of learning a difficult language.

At Staples High, Zachary fed his passions for history and international relations. He joined the Model UN, Debate, Mock Trial and Junior State clubs. He took Advanced Placement courses: European History with Carol Kaye, US History with Eric Mongirdis, Economics with Drew Coyne.

And he continued to study Mandarin.

His teacher, Chris Fray, also speaks Russian. He learned the language while working on a fishing trawler there.

Zachary Rybchin

During Zachary’s sophomore year, Fray told the class about a US State Department program. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth began in 2006, as a way to encourage teenagers to learn Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Mandarin, Persian, Russian and Turkish — languages critical to our security, The government covers all costs.

Zachary went through the rigorous application for the Russian program. He wrote essays, and sat for interviews. Finally, out of thousands of applicants, he was one of 400 accepted.

But COVID struck that spring. The summer program was scratched.

He applied again in 2021. Again he was accepted. Again, the pandemic forced its cancelation.

The third time was the charm — almost. Because of the invasion of Ukraine, the State Department did not send students to Russia.

Instead, they went to Latvia. The Baltic nation shook off decades of Russian rule in 1991. But many Russian speakers remain.

Zachary lived with two of them. They spoke no English. When he arrived, he spoke no Russian.

Zachary Rybchin with his host mother (and her cat) on his last night in Latvia.

It was not easy. But through intensive daily classes — including work with an individual university partner — Zachary and his 19 fellow participants learned.

They also learned about Latvian history and culture. They explored the beautiful city of Riga, and beyond (including a trip to “secret” Soviet-era bunkers).

It was a great, educational and important 7 weeks — one absolutely worth waiting 3 years for.

Zachary Rybchin (back row, center) and his group in the Latvian Parliament. They met and talked with an MP there.

Now how will he retain the language skills he’s learned?

Zachary is young for his grade. So instead of heading directly to college, he’s taking a gap year in Israel. There are more Russian speakers there than in the US, he notes.

Next year, he’ll begin classes at historic St. Andrews University in Scotland. He’ll continue his Russian studies there.

And then?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Zachary says. “There are so many career paths. Give me a few years. I’ll let you know.”


Zachary Rybchin this month, in Jaffa, Israel.


One response to “Zachary Rybchin: From Russia, With Latvia

  1. Kudos to Zachary for his persistence and perseverance. I took a beginner’s Russian language course in the summer of 1967 (or possibly 1968) when I was 14 (or 15). It’s a very difficult language to learn and I never pursued it after that one summer.