COLUMBUS — Two Mississippi School for Math and Science students will study Russian in the former Soviet Union this summer after winning $7,000 scholarships sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Hillary Gerber and Sydney (Sam) Matrisciano, both 17, were chosen to participate in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, which sends students abroad to study Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and four other languages that the U.S. government deems critical.

In June, Gerber will travel to Moscow and Matrisciano to the former Soviet republic of Moldova. During their six-week immersion, the two students will live with host families, attend intensive Russian classes and take part in an array of cultural activities.

Gerber, the daughter of Warren “Chip” Gerber and Maureen Gerber of Columbus, and Matrisciano, daughter of Suzanne and Louis Matrisciano of Winona, are students of MSMS world language teacher Margaret Mary Henry. MSMS, located on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women, is the only high school in the state that offers the Slavic language.

“At a time when relations between Russia and the United States are under great strain, our country needs specialists who understand Russia and speak Russian,” Henry said. “Our government is wise to invest in these two gifted young scholars.” The teacher added that MSMS’s decision in 2012 to begin offering the critical language reflects the global aspect of the school’s mission: “In developing the gifts of young Mississippians who aspire to understand Russia deeply and speak Russian fluently, MSMS is forming global leaders who can help the United States engage constructively in the world.”

More than 3,500 high school students applied this year for programs in the seven languages offered under NSLI-Y, according to Emily Matts, program manager for NSLI-Y, which is administered by the American Councils for International Education, in Washington, D.C. Gerber and Matrisciano were among about 600 selected to receive the merit-based scholarships.

“I am extremely excited to experience Russia at its heart – Moscow,” said Gerber, who will be studying from June 29 to August 12 at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “I am really excited to learn about the language, culture, and history. I am nervous as well, because Russia is so far away and it is so different from the United States.”

A member of the Class of 2017, Gerber will be attending Rhodes College in Memphis, which has awarded her the Diehl Scholarship of $21,000 per year.  Although she has not yet decided on a career, she plans to major or minor in Russian.

Matrisciano, a junior, will study at the Ion Creangă Pedagogical State University in Chisinau, Moldova from June 14-July 31. “I am hoping this program will accelerate my understanding of Russian and prepare me for future work in an international field,” said Matrisciano. “I plan to major in Russian, with a minor in either French, international studies, or political science.” She aspires to become an officer in the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Both Gerber and Matrisciano won gold medals in the 2017 Olympiad of Spoken Russian, held April 6 at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Four current university students who began Russian at MSMS will also be studying in Russia this summer.

Mississippi State University junior Kristen Conguista of Brandon, an electrical engineering major and Russian minor, and State freshman Christian Donoho of Columbus, who is majoring in computer science and minoring in Russian, will be studying at the GRINT Centre Gateway to Russian Language and Culture for International Students at the Moscow University for the Humanities. Both have received scholarship funding from MSU to assist with their studies abroad.

Kimya Jamasbi of Tupelo, a sophomore Russian major at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Mary Frances Holland of Lucedale, a sophomore international studies major at the University of Mississippi, have won federally funded Critical Language Scholarships for eight weeks of study at Lobachevsky State University in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. (Holland studied in Moldova in 2015 after winning an NSLI-Y scholarship.)

Russian is spoken by more than a hundred million Russians, but it is also the lingua franca of the vast former Soviet Union, a second language in territory stretching from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Central Asia.