When she was 17, Jennifer Black ’92 traveled to Russia for the first time and discovered in that “fascinating and alien place,” no one understood her language. So, she made a simple decision: “I thought, ’maybe I’ll just learn to talk to these people and then come back,’” she says with a laugh. And that’s exactly what she did, double majoring in Russian and government and legal studies at Bowdoin and spending a semester of her junior year abroad, a move she says helped her to “get over the initial hump” of living in a foreign place.
After graduation, Jennifer took a position at the United States Embassy in Moscow, where she processed immigrant visas for three years and used her language skills on a daily basis. In 1998, she began working for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) location in Votkinsk, a city in central Russia. As a member of the DTRA team, which works under the U.S. Department of Defense, Jennifer monitored the comings and goings of weapons and dangerous materials from Votkinsk’s missile assembly facility to ensure that all activity within the base was in compliance with Russia’s treaties with the U.S. She describes the job as “very limiting and very restrictive…like being in a mid-level security prison.” Contact with the outside world was extremely limited, and employees used escorts when traveling into the city center. Jennifer admits that the job “sounds terrible when you tell other people,” but says the atmosphere became increasingly collegial over time. “I never had a sense that it was adversarial,” she says of her interactions with the Russian employees at the factory.
It was never her intention to work in arms control, Jennifer says, but she credits her generation’s exposure to the Cold War for instilling a sense of responsibility to prevent nuclear threats from reoccurring. Her job allows her to “be a part of the mechanism to making sure [the Cold War] never returns,” she says, while working to increase the transparency of military operations. These days, Jennifer is stationed in Darmstadt, Germany, working with conventional arms control inspection teams run by the DTRA. After four years, she estimates this is the longest she’s ever been in one place, a statement few of her colleagues can make.
“I abandoned plan-making for a while,” she says simply, “and I’ve ended up in some of the most fascinating places I ever could have imagined.”
Originally published in Vol. 79, No. 3, Summer 2008 Bowdoin Magazine.
Posted February 01, 2005