Fall 2012 News News: Russian Studies

Russian: A Graduate Student Gives Back (video)

Erin Alpert with Profs. Prokhorov, Ginzbursky-Blum and Corney at her recent talk at W&M

Erin Alpert graduated from the College in 2007 with a degree in Russian and Post Soviet Studies.  During her time at W&M, she studied abroad in Russia thanks, in part, to a scholarship she received from the Reves Center.

“One of the highlights of my college career was definitely my summer study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. I loved having the opportunity to live with a host family, study in a Russian university, and explore the country whose language I had been studying in the classroom.”

Currently, Erin is pursuing her Ph.D. in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh.  Despite living on a graduate student’s pay, Erin contributes something each year to the Dobro Slovo Scholarship Fund, which annually provides a scholarship to one W&M undergraduate who is studying at St. Petersburg State University through the department’s study abroad program. Watch a video about Erin’s graduate experiences below:

“Even though as a graduate student I don’t have much extra to spare, I always find a way to contribute to the Dobro Slovo Scholarship Fund so that other students can have the same opportunities that meant so much to me when I was at William and Mary.”

It is generous donors like Erin who give a little each year that allow RPSS to continue supporting deserving students in their pursuit of a truly globalized education.  One such current student, Sophie Kosar (‘14), received just this kind of support for her trip to St. Petersburg in the summer of 2011, the results of which exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Modest Gifts Pay Big Dividends

Sophie’s 2011 summer trip to St. Petersburg featured many of the staple experiences students abroad have: classes in the target language, great times with the host family, and many fond memories of a city explored and friends made.  Where her experience differed begins with the research and film project she and her fellow students were tasked with by their group leaders, Alexander Prokhorov and Jes Therkelsen .

According to Sasha Prokhorov, “In 2011 WM students made several key innovations in their research projects.  First, they redefined their understanding of the sites of urban memory.  Instead of focusing on the sites that interpreted the past, they examined the sites that create history in the present and define St. Petersburg’s future.  For example, Alex McGrath analyzed the project for the new skyscraper The Gazprom Tower and Sophie Kosar studied the Marine Facade, St. Petersburg’s new seaport. Second, student added to their traditional tools of analysis, pen and paper, the new media, lapel microphone and digital camera. In addition to research papers, they produced documentary films. Third, students included in their film crews collaborators from St. Petersburg University School of Journalism.  Russian students helped WM students and served as their field producers.  The result of this genuinely international effort was a multimedia portal that combined the interactive potential of a blog, immediacy of a documentary and reflexive power of a research paper.”

Sophie and her partner’s film project approached the theme of memory through a somewhat non-traditional angle: the myth of St. Petersburg and the construction of the Marine Façade.  “Our projects were supposed to be about sites of memory, which makes one usually immediately think history and monuments and things like that,” says Sophie, by way of introduction.  “My project was on contemporary issues and contemporary problems.”

Sophie’s topic – the Marine Façade, a commercial port and business center meant to facilitate tourism and increase revenue in the city.  While many Petersburg residents were onboard with the proposed plan, which would also include the building of new neighborhoods and expanding city transportation, some were less than excited about the prospect of such a Western urbanization of the traditional Vasilievsky Island, one of several islands making up St. Petersburg.  This new, largely commercial and highly modernized region would clash with the city’s traditional aesthetic, thereby diverging with Petersburg as these residents viewed and remembered it.

However, as Sophie explores in the paper she wrote about her research into the Marine Façade, the myth and memory of St. Petersburg is a double-edged sword.  The traditional Petersburg many of the Marine Façade’s opponents used to support their case was itself an example of an extremely modern, Western city planned and built by Tsar Peter the Great as a means of connecting Russia with Europe.  Founded in 1703, Petersburg embodied from the very beginning the tensions between the old and the new, the East and the West.  As Sophie explains, the Marine Façade is simply continuing this tradition.

Researching a site of memory and making a documentary about it led to more opportunities the average study abroad student does not have, like interviewing a variety of pivotal figures in the Marine Façade discussion.  “First we interviewed an architect Rafail Dayanov who does historical restoration in the city,” describes Sophie.  “Then we interviewed the PR manager for the Marine Façade managing company Alexander Shimberg who is doing all the port business, all of the current development, all of the land reclamation.  And then we interviewed an opposition NGO leader Tatiana Sharagina.”

This experience, facilitated by the Dobro Slovo scholarship, not only did wonders for Sophie’s Russian, it gave her vital research and writing experience.  “Going to St. Petersburg last year was great, not only because it helped me a lot with my Russian, it gave me more confidence definitely…Doing independent research, especially at the undergraduate level, is invaluable.” Watch excerpts from our interview with Sophie in Kazan via Skype:

Sophie’s hard work abroad has led to more unexpected and pleasant surprises.  The research paper she wrote about the project has been published in Columbia University’s Birch, the first national undergraduate publication devoted exclusively to Slavic, East European, and Eurasian cultures.  It has also been featured in Vestnik, the School of Russian and Asian Studies’ newsletter.  Meanwhile, the documentary she and her partner made has been screened several times, including at the Global Film Festival, an international venue, in Feb 2012, where she got to walk the red carpet at the Kimball Theater in Colonial Williamsburg.  It was also screened at the University of Virginia’s Slavic Forum.

And all this is thanks, in large part, to the scholarship alums like Erin contribute to every year.  Such donations go far beyond the financial – they enable students to expand their horizons and inspire them to pursue new adventures and opportunities.  Sophie is currently spending her junior year studying Russian in Kazan, something she would have been hesitant to do had she not been able to go to St. Petersburg the summer before.  “I am so glad that I went last year.  It’s so much better, so much better.”

For all those generous alums, Sophie, and others like her, appreciate all that you do for them and plan to pay it forward themselves.  “I know that I for one, having received donations, definitely in the future am going to want to help out because it’s really important and I feel like if you can help other students, inspire their love of learning about x, y, or z, then it’s definitely worth it.”

So, thank you to all who contribute.  Without you, many of our students would be unable to have the kind of amazing experiences abroad that Sophie has had.  And don’t be strangers!  Sophie perhaps says it best: “It was really cool to meet all of the alums at Homecoming.”