Studying Russian in Daugavpils, Latvia
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
During the Cold War, Russian was unequivocally considered the most important language for US national security and defense, and federal funds poured into university language programs accordingly. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Russia was viewed as less threatening, and so the language was also viewed as less and less important for national security. Students and professionals began to focus on other regions and languages. Unfortunately, the current unrest in Ukraine has shown Russia to still be a very real threat to US interests abroad; however, today there are not enough young American experts on Russia, its language, or its culture to replace those retiring who studied Russia in the Soviet Union.
Having studied Russian in an overseas immersion program, I will be able to stand out in an already small pool of qualified applicants when applying for government intelligence positions. Having the language skills helps me to not only read newspapers or listen to the news, but also understand the way Russian speakers think. For instance, when Russian speakers want to say “I have a car,” they do not use the verb for ownership like in English, but instead say, “A car is near me.” It’s an entirely different way of thinking about personal property and ownership, and without an intimate knowledge of the language, it would be difficult if not impossible to recognize these potentially incredibly important differences in thinking. Because I will be better equipped to understand how Russian speakers think, my analysis will be more nuanced and detailed.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
Undoubtedly, the biggest lesson I learned was that knowing a foreign language is so much more than simply a resume builder. A new language opens up a whole new world of thought, literature, and people. At times while I was in Latvia, I found myself more motivated to study Russian not because it would help me get the job I wanted, but because I wanted to speak with the people around me and know what they thought about philosophy, politics, or even just daily life. Everyone I talked to seemed to have a totally new perspective on the same world I thought I knew so well. And I found this to be a much stronger motivator than simply trying to boost my career. The experience taught me that language is not so much a tool to be trained in as it is a tradition that connects people across great distances and the passage of time.
How have you changed after this experience?
Even now, three weeks after returning to the US, I am still discovering how I’ve changed after living in Latvia, despite staying there only a short time. Perhaps the most easily recognizable change has been in my language skills. Before I left, I had only taken one intensive introductory Russian course at Georgetown. I could stumble through a few basic phrases and understand at about the same level. In contrast, by the last week of classes I was able to debate details of the US-Iran agreement on Iran’s nuclear program with my classmate and teacher with only a few mistakes and pauses to look in the dictionary.
On a related but deeper level, living in an environment where almost no one understood my native language helped me to better understand how many Russian speakers might feel in countries that discourage the use of Russian. Assimilation would be a painful and difficult process because it is hard to leave behind the things that remind you of home. Learning a new language is a slow process, and I found myself humbled on many occasions early on when encountering difficulty forming even simple sentences like asking for water. Now, however, not only am I more confident in my Russian, but also in my ability to speak in front of crowds or introduce myself to strangers, in English or in Russian. Being among people so different from myself not only helped me to better understand their values, beliefs, and views, but my own as well. This experience not only improved me professionally, but also changed me for the better personally.