Teresa Knirck began studying Russian at Richland High during the Cold War.
Americans were paranoid and fearful of the Eastern Bloc powerhouse.
Twenty years later, she was teaching Russian at Hanford High when relations between the two nations still were frosty.
But that didn't stop her from taking groups of Richland students to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev between 1982 and 1995.
Never miss a local story.
That's truly how you learn about a culture and its language, said Knirck, who taught for more than 30 years before retiring this year.
But in the past decade, the number of Russian instructors in the Northwest has dramatically dwindled, along with some other languages.
"I worry a little bit," said Knirck. "I think (language) opens up the world to you."
Now, new graduation requirements starting with next year's freshman class could bring a resurgence to foreign language classes in Washington schools.
Educators say language courses are still recovering after years of budget cuts, making it hard to start programs and find and keep qualified teachers.
The revival of foreign language classes and a renewed focus on their importance in a global society and marketplace have many language teachers thrilled.
But building a successful language program has different challenges than other educational basics, such as math or science.
The class of 2019 and beyond will be required to take either two credits of a foreign language or courses related to a specified career path.
The Washington State Board of Education added the credits rule last spring to better prepare students for either a college education or for entering the work force after graduation.
"My guess is that you're going to see a growth of world language," said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Ron Williamson.
Thousands of students already study foreign languages in Tri-City high schools, and hundreds more are enrolled in similar middle school classes and Spanish-English dual-language programs in Kennewick and Pasco schools.
Educators say language classes improve communication in the foreign language and a student's native language, and give students a better understanding of other cultures.
"I think people are recognizing the importance, and the importance of starting early," said Lauren Kiolet, a former language teacher and president of the Washington Association for Language Teaching, or WAFLT, in Olympia.
Many colleges and universities encourage or require high school graduates to take some language classes before arriving on campus.
But language offerings at Washington high schools have shrunk in recent years -- particularly nontraditional languages such as Japanese, which was popular in the '90s.
Hanford High struggled to replace Knirck when she became a guidance counselor several years ago, so she went back to teaching a few Russian courses.
After she retired in June, administrators couldn't find a new teacher even though 40 students expressed interest in taking some level of Russian this year.
Kennewick High dropped German years ago because of lagging student interest.
In all, more than 1,900 Kennewick high school students took foreign language courses during the 2004-05 school year. That's dropped to 1,600 to 1,650 students each year in the past five years despite increased high school enrollment.
Only in the past 10 years have school districts shown interest in bolstering foreign language offerings, Kiolet said, likely a result of an increasingly global marketplace and students and parents wanting more academic options.
Language departments still are prone to budget cuts and being forced to take on more courses without additional money, she said.
And there is no indication that districts will receive more money for language courses to support the new graduation requirements.
Educators admit that much of the popularity of a language class has to do with the teacher. Programs can wither after a teacher leaves.
"It's hard to find another Teresa (Knirck)," agreed Richland Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley.
Unlike core classes such as mathematics, science and English, what foreign language courses a school offers depends largely on what students request.
That might not be so much a factor of the value of a class as much as the personality of the teacher or the perceived ease of the class workload, officials said.
"We run a student-generated schedule," Baddley said.
Linguistic skills an asset
Spanish, French and German are the three primary languages offered in Tri-City high schools and in school districts around the state, officials say. Pasco schools, however, do not offer German.
Spanish is the most often taught -- Pasco and Richland each have three to five times as many students taking Spanish compared with the next most popular language offered in their high schools.
The Tri-Cities' large number of Spanish-speaking residents makes Spanish fluency valuable as a career skill, instructors said, but fluent German, French and Russian speakers also are needed, especially by government agencies.
Even careers not usually linked to liberal arts often benefit from people being bilingual or trilingual.
"(Russian) is a big research and scientific language," Knirck said.
Sophomore Blake Binns, 16, a third-year German student at Richland High School said Spanish and French were "too mainstream."
He wanted to learn something different, and senior Quenten Estrada, 17, chose to study German because he wanted to learn a language that's part of his cultural heritage.
Sophomore Sam Brown, 15, said it was her father who inspired her to take the class.
"He'd randomly say stuff (in German) and I wanted to know what it meant," she said.
Quenten and Sam want to travel and spend time in Germany and other German-speaking countries, such as Switzerland and Austria.
And Blake is planning on a career in mechanical engineering, a field with a long German history.
"I didn't know that until I learned about it a few years ago," he said.
Educators agree there's more to be gained than learning vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs.
Knirck said her visits to Russia with students served as a reminder of how Russians and their government kept a close eye on foreigners.
The groups typically stayed in the nicest hotels and were steered toward the best restaurants, part of the Russian government's effort to leave tourists with favorable impressions, Knirck said. The Russian people they met usually were friendly and interested in the students, but their visit was tightly controlled.
"You had to have a (government) tourist guide, you couldn't just wander around," she said.
Students always appreciated experiencing aspects of Russian culture they had only read about, such as how Russia's national identity was still framed by wars that ended decades ago.
"World War II is like yesterday to them," Knirck said. "They came out of great suffering."
Early learning helpful
Educators say more needs to be done to promote the value of foreign languages.
That includes more language offerings and more opportunities for younger students to take classes.
"The French program should also be offered before high school," said Marthe Sanchez y Barr, who teaches Spanish and French at Southridge High.
She said the benefits are clear from high demand for spots in Kennewick and Pasco's dual-language programs.
Those courses put native English and native Spanish students in kindergarten and teach primarily in Spanish before transitioning to more English as the students move up each grade level.
And both districts also offer American Sign Language, which also count toward foreign language credits, school officials said.
Tri-Cities Prep in Pasco, a private Catholic high school, offers only Spanish to its 200 students, but Principal Arlene Jones said they hope to branch out, potentially adding Mandarin Chinese. The school has a number of students from China.
Techniques for teaching languages also have improved in recent decades, increasing a student's ability to retain a second language after they've graduated, Kiolet said.
"The language is there if you want to use it," she said. "You don't know what you're path is going to be after high school."
Blake, Quenten and Sam liked the idea of the new language requirement.
"It really helps people learn more about each other," Quenten said.