University of Vermont

At Home -- and Work -- with Russian

For recent majors, job market is speaking their language

“I think I scored major ‘Russian Soul Points,’” says Fulbright scholar Kirsti Dahly ’11 in her blog from Siberia, “when I compared my getting better at finding mushrooms (to Tolstoy character) Levin’s improvement wielding a scythe during harvesting – when you stop over-thinking it, things come more naturally.” (Photo courtesy of Dahly)

“чувствовать себя в своей тарелки” is “to feel at home,” explains Kirsti Dahly in “Sequins and Snow" the blog she began shortly after her recent arrival in Khanty-Mansiisk, Siberia. For some, just looking at that phrase could cause dizziness, much less arriving alone in a place more frequently associated with banishment to a land of ice and hard labor. But definitely not Dahly, who graduated in May, won a prestigious Fulbright award and is teaching English and American culture at Ugra State University. She is embracing the people and her work with a sense of both joyous enthusiasm and earnest deliberation on the lines between global unity and meaningful differences.

“I have two goals for the year,” Dahly says in an email interview, “to improve America’s reputation in the eyes of people who only see it through our pop culture, and to show how we’re all connected. As globalization spreads, we have to start thinking about culture: should one cling to its unique customs, or should one strive to erase boundaries? This is something I'm experimenting with here and trying to figure out where I stand. To ignore differences is naive, to emphasize them pushes people apart, and it's impossible to blindly preach, ‘it's not better, not worse, just different.’"

While Dahly faces these issues with young Russian college students (and faces cooking her first beet, a “headstrong tuber”), her classmate, Sam Vary, is building his rapid-fire Russian as a news producer in New York for Russian Television International (RTVi). During his interview he was invited along on a typical shoot, in this case to cover the trial of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Given his command of the language, Vary was offered the job on the spot. The only American working in the bureau, his assignments range from news translations to identifying key events to cover; supervising photographers and reporters on the scene to making connections with the White House, the mayor’s office, FBI and major art institutions to gaining access across the yellow tape at crime scenes… heady stuff for a 22-year-old.

“'Foreign’ journalism,” says Vary, who double-majored in Film and Television Studies, “is something I feel passionate about. New York is such a vibrant environment, I’m making valuable connections -- I feel like I can go anywhere from here.”

Hard talk

UVM’s Russian majors have a history of success -- Joe Bowman ’01 was a founding partner of the first venture capital firm in Russia -- but as a group this year’s graduates show particular “industriousness and ingenuity” notes Professor Kevin McKenna. Oliver Chase, a Fulbright finalist with a double major in economics, landed a sales job in Moscow with a medical sports product distributor. (Chase, a high school chess champion, originally learned Russian with the dream of competing in Moscow speaking the native language. He spent a year abroad studying at St. Petersburg University while playing chess tournaments on the side.)

Peace Corp finalist Sam Mishcon, with a double major in Japanese, is awaiting his assignment in either Ukraine or Moldova. After spending a month in St. Petersburg over the summer, Ross Cunningham, also a double major in economics, is a first-year law student at George Washington University where he’s considering a career in international law.

There are a couple of things that all of these students have in common besides an incredible facility for language (Dahly has a Spanish minor, Cunningham a minor in French). Russian, as McKenna will testify, is difficult but somehow seductive.

“The harder I worked at it,” says Vary, “the more I fell in love with it.”

Dahly says she was thinking of dropping Russian after her first two semesters because it was “so miserably difficult and demanding.” But two years in, “something clicked and I became infatuated with everything Russian.”

The other thing that ties them is Professor McKenna, ambassador, mentor, tough coach and ultimate cheerleader. “Typically,” he says, “I have lines of students outside my door.” They come to continue class conversations about Russian literature, to talk about potential careers or study abroad -- all passions of his. In a small department, students tend to take one or two classes with McKenna every semester.

“He showed us all what we are capable of,” says Dahly. “He constantly pushed us far beyond what we thought were our limits and we ended up realizing, basically, ‘what we were made of!’ That’s a hugely important lesson to learn in college.” She also enthusiastically mentions, as does McKenna, relatively new assistant professor Kathleen Scollins who “provided dazzling energy and unceasing encouragement and support… What a combination,” Dahly writes, “his high expectations and her encouragement -- it was incredible.”

Outside of the classroom, McKenna sends every current major a postcard when he’s in Russia, exchanges emails with former students about their accomplishments and has plans to meet up with those he can when he’s in Moscow this fall.

In the classroom, apparently, he can talk tough. “I point out to every one of my students, ‘don’t find yourself on June 1 not having a job lined up in advance,’” McKenna says, banging his hand on the table for emphasis. Not quite Khrushchev and his shoe, but students apparently take the point.