Alumni and Careers

Some Russian department alumni go on to use their Russian-specific knowledge and skills in their education and careers after Bowdoin, while others branch out into new, unrelated professional directions but still cherish the experiences and connections that their Russian studies have brought into their lives.

Our alumni report that the experiences and habits of mind and work they developed in the course of their undergraduate Russian studies—such as excellent memory and communication skills, analytical and creative thought patterns, and the ability to connect with people across linguistic and cultural boundaries—remain with them well beyond their college years. We are proud of the diverse accomplishments of our alumni and are glad to be able to share some of their stories here.

Alumni Profiles

Nicholas Tonckens ‘16

Nicholas Tonckens

Class of: 2016

I came to the Russian language, as so many American college students do, by sheer serendipity.

About Me

As high school drew to a close, I began casting about for a new language to learn, partly to bolster my internationally-oriented career ambitions but mainly out of a general desire to better understand the world. I found myself entranced by the sounds of Russian, so deeply strange to my Anglophone ears. I tried teaching myself Cyrillic and some rudimentary grammar and vocabulary, but it wasn’t until I arrived at Bowdoin that I had the opportunity to really sink my teeth into Russian; or rather, for the Russian bear to sink its teeth into me. Without question, I found it difficult, but the tight-knight Russian community at Bowdoin helped me persevere.

Things really got interesting in my sophomore year, as the events of the Maidan protests gave way to the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas. My nascent interest in Russian politics and foreign policy blossomed into a full-blown fascination. I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years honing my language skills at Middlebury’s Davis School of Russian, and for the duration of my time at Bowdoin took as many Russian-related courses as I could. The summer after graduating as a dual Russian – Government & Legal Studies major, I finally traveled to Russia on a Critical Language Scholarship. My experience there was endlessly fascinating, enormously educational, and certainly long overdue; my advice to anyone who’s caught the Russia bug is that there is simply no substitute for being in-country. 

Upon my return, I moved to Washington, DC, where I began working as the Russian Studies intern at the American Enterprise Institute. For nine months, I was able to completely immerse myself in Russia’s politics and foreign relations, writing daily news briefs and assisting with both editorials and research papers. I loved every minute of it. I have since moved on to a legal policy forum in Boston. I am now applying to law schools and International Relations programs, with the aim of completing a dual JD-MA in the next five years. I can’t say for sure where this path will lead me, but I know that my relationship with Russia and its language will continue to guide me along it.

Kenneth Cortum ’16

Kenneth Cortum

Class of: 2016

Major(s): Mathematics, Russian

Before I ever came to Bowdoin, I knew that Russian was going to be my major.

About Me

In high school, I studied 20th century Russian history, listened to Russian music, and even taught myself Cyrillic. However, I did not expect to what extent Bowdoin’s Russian department would allow me to explore my varied interests: languages, music, and culture. My professor and advisor summarized my experience in the Russian department well to my colleagues in the last few weeks of my senior year, “His work in the Russian program did not earn him a degree in Russian, but rather a degree in Slavic.” I think what is unique about Bowdoin’s Russian department is that the department allows you to explore your own unique interests pertaining to Russia and other Slavic cultures. Learning Russian is an experience that not only opens the door to travel to and understand past and contemporary Russia, but learning Russian opens the door to every other Slavic language. Because the Russian department allowed me to pursue my interests in other Slavic languages and cultures, I explored my interests in the former Yugoslavia during the summer and I received permission and funding to conduct honors research on the topic of folk music in post-war Poland. I am thankful for all the experiences the department was able to provide, but I am most thankful for their help in preparing me to apply for Fulbright. As a direct result of my experiences in Eastern Europe and the freedom to explore my own interests in the department, I was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Bulgaria. Having returned to the US and having begun my career, my job as a schoolteacher does not utilize my knowledge of Slavic languages and culture every day. However, Bowdoin’s Russian department fostered within me a truly unique liberal arts experience, inspiring me to become a passionate life-long learner.

 My biggest piece of advice to those interested in studying Russian is to stick with it and keep an open mind. Your path in Russian does not put you on any one pre-determined career field. The Russian Department does an excellent job at giving you the chance to explore your interests and thus your career.

Jennifer Goetz ‘15

Jennifer Goetz

Class of: 2015

Major(s): History, Russian

Without Russian at Bowdoin, not only would I not be able to pursue the career of my dreams in academia, but I also would have missed out on countless adventures and friendships.

About Me

I graduated from Bowdoin in 2015 with a major in Russian and History. Since starting out in Russian 101 my first year, I have made it to Russia three times and have become engrossed in its history, literature, and language. My junior year of college I went abroad with ACTR to St. Petersburg, where I stayed with an amazing family that I’m still in touch with. After graduating, I accepted a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Ulyanovsk. There, I discovered an incredibly warm and generous community that welcomed me and made me feel at home within Russian culture. In 2017 I started a history PhD at Columbia University, leading me back to Russia in the summer of 2018 to do archival work in Moscow. None of this, from the research and reading in Russian to the connections I’ve made each trip, would have been possible without the enthusiastic instruction and support of the Russian department throughout my time at Bowdoin.

After taking Russian 101, I never looked back. I’m so grateful for the experiences my Russian education has given me: taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian, dog-sledding at Baikal, eating home-made syrniki in near-strangers’ homes. Without Russian at Bowdoin, not only would I not be able to pursue the career of my dreams in academia, but I also would have missed out on countless adventures and friendships.

Luke Drabyn ’15

Luke Drabyn

Class of: 2015

Without the continued support and substantial guidance I received from my professors and colleagues within Bowdoin’s Russian department, and the rigorous curriculum it offered, I am certain I would never have been able to secure such a valuable and life-changing experience abroad.

About Me

I graduated in 2015 with a double major in Government and Legal Studies and Russian, and immediately afterward journeyed to Kiev, Ukraine on a Study/Research Fulbright grant for a year. I utilized my Russian language skills to communicate with and interview scores of individuals—students, attorneys, physicians, and bureaucrats, among others—to conduct research on the Ukrainian government’s negligence toward its human trafficking problem, and the effects Russia’s aggression on the country’s eastern border was having on the internally displaced people forced to leave their homes and livelihoods. Without the continued support and substantial guidance I received from my professors and colleagues within Bowdoin’s Russian department, and the rigorous curriculum it offered, I am certain I would never have been able to secure such a valuable and life-changing experience abroad. My stint in Ukraine only reinforced my interest in pursuing an interdisciplinary career that will allow me to merge my interests in human rights, security, and the political and economic development of Russia and the post-Soviet states. I am currently working in Washington, DC as a Communications Associate at the Government Accountability Project protecting whistleblowers and holding governments to a higher standard. In the future I hope to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs and join the Foreign Service—and ideally spend as much time as possible living and working in eastern Europe.

Evan Gershkovich

Evan Gershkovich

Class of: 2014

Major(s): English, Philosophy

Minor(s): Russian

Even though my parents were born in the Soviet Union and I grew up speaking Russian at home, I never had a real connection to Russia.

About Me

Even though my parents were born in the Soviet Union and I grew up speaking Russian at home, I never had a real connection to Russia. We didn't have any close relatives left to visit, my parents didn't have many emigre friends in the States, and I never took an interest in the country's history or literature. In short, I never planned to live in Russia. 

Then I decided to become a journalist. In a profession that has lost about a quarter of its jobs in the past decade, young journalists have had to get creative. Some seek out stories in the so-called heartland or along the southern border, others head to war zones, and others still relocate to a foreign country if they know its language. A year ago, I did the latter, taking a job as a reporter for The Moscow Times, an independent English-language news outlet. The decision has far exceeded my expectations. In terms of work, there are stories aplenty with the opportunity to report them out, and no news day is ever dull. And as far as living here goes, well, in a country that has never been quite sure whether it is part of the West or the East, where moral clarity is often more gray than it is black and white, where extremes seem to be the norm in all spheres of life, and where train travel is relatively cheap and the destinations varied, it's just as interesting. 

Zackary Suhr

Zackary Suhr

Class of: 2014

In a time of renewed geopolitical tensions, it's as important as ever to be conscious of the ways that differing perspectives are informed by historical experience and cultural values. There is no better way to build that awareness than through the sustained study of another language and its contexts.

About Me

The best part of studying Russian at Bowdoin was the community—a motley group of students and professors who coalesced around their shared interest in the language. Like scores of Bowdoin Russian students before me, I benefited from the benevolent intensity of Professor (now Emerita) Jane Knox. I still remember her proclaiming Mayakovsky and Blok between bites of salad during a dinner class, urging us to walk rhythmically in order to internalize iambic meter, and offering extra credit to anyone who could demonstrate the art of Tuvan throat singing.

I didn’t begin studying Russian at Bowdoin, but through coursework and conversation I made quick progress towards proficiency. More importantly, I developed a deeper sense of the complexity of Russian history and culture and the ways that the collective trauma of the past plays out in individual lives. I was hooked, and I went on to complete a master’s degree in Russian regional studies. I subsequently spent a year working on governance assistance programs in Eurasia at a nonprofit before starting my current job in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department, where I am excited to be helping advance international understanding through the study of language and culture.

In a time of renewed geopolitical tensions, it's as important as ever to be conscious of the ways that differing perspectives are informed by historical experience and cultural values. There is no better way to build that awareness than through the sustained study of another language and its contexts.

Melanie Tsang

Melanie Tsang

Class of: 2013

Major(s): History, Russian

My studies of Russian and Russian literature fulfilled the Offer of the College for me in many ways. I can think of no better way “To be at home in all lands and ages”, as former President of Bowdoin William DeWitt Hyde promised, than by cultivating a genuine appreciation for another culture and the history with which it is intertwined.

About Me

My studies of Russian and Russian literature fulfilled the Offer of the College for me in many ways. I can think of no better way “To be at home in all lands and ages”, as former President of Bowdoin William DeWitt Hyde promised, than by cultivating a genuine appreciation for another culture and the history with which it is intertwined. The critical lens and thoughtful approach to examining problems that I developed through my studies of the central philosophical debates in nineteenth-century Russia (specifically in the 19th Century Russian Literature course with Professor Raymond Miller) not only informed my intellectual explorations as an undergraduate, but also enabled me to creatively solve problems in the workplace at the digital media and technology firms I worked for in New York City in the four years following my graduation, and continue to guide my current interests in the field of international affairs. Thus, the lines “To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket / And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake” truly resonate with me. My studies with the Russian Department encouraged me to continually challenge myself to produce original analyses on topics related to enduring theoretical and social questions, and I believe this experience provided me with invaluable critical thinking skills that helped me advance the organizations I worked for, both in the setting of a small team at a start-up and on a large team at a subsidiary of a publicly traded corporation.

At present, I am entering the field of international affairs and public policy. I am pursuing a Master of International Affairs degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), with a dual concentration in International Security Policy and Economic Policy. This past summer, I interned at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in the Office of Europe and Eurasia. My internship experience was particularly fascinating for me because it brought together the numerous dimensions of my studies at Bowdoin, as well as my professional work, and illustrated to me the interdisciplinary nature of policymaking. I believe that my studies at Bowdoin helped prepare me well for this experience. In the future, I look forward to continuing to learn and contribute to U.S. policymaking as it relates to Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet states.

Uchechi Esonu ’13

Uchechi Esonu

Class of: 2013

My experience as an area studies major allowed me to live abroad with a greater understanding and appreciation for the sociocultural space I was inhabiting and tourist sites I visited.

About Me

After graduation from Bowdoin I received a Fulbright ETA grant to Croatia for the 2013-2014 academic year. My time as a Russian major made being a language assistant so much easier. Not because teaching is easy, but studying the Russian language was difficult for me at first, so I was able to empathize with my students when explaining how certain terms and grammatical structures don't translate directly. Also because Croatian and Russian are in the same language family, I had a general understanding of some issues that they may experience. My experience as an area studies major also allowed me to live abroad with a greater understanding and appreciation for the sociocultural space I was inhabiting and tourist sites I visited.

Currently, I work as a Market Researcher in Seattle and stay in touch with the friends I've made throughout my travels.

Mira Nikolova posing in front of river cityscape in Russia.

Mira Nikolova

Class of: 2013

Major(s): Psychology, Russian

I would not have thought at the start of my Bowdoin career that I would major in Russian or that it would turn into my professional path, but it has been a great journey so far.

About Me

I would not have thought at the start of my Bowdoin career that I would major in Russian or that it would turn into my professional path, but it has been a great journey so far. I am an international student from Bulgaria and, having never traveled outside of my country prior to Bowdoin, I was very excited to start my college experience on a different continent. I was looking forward to exploring new subjects, joining new clubs and developing new academic and extracurricular interests. Heavy emphasis on new… and different (the more, the better!).

I had never learned Russian in Bulgaria, still I was not planning on taking any classes that were somehow related to my cultural background. I did, however, take a fascinating class in the spring of my freshman year on Central Asian film and literature that focused on regions and cultures that used to be part of the Soviet Union. That, alongside the genuine enthusiasm and encouragement of Prof. Jane Knox, resulted in my taking up Russian language and, later on, Russian literature classes. A year later, I declared a double major in Russian and Psychology and currently (five years after Bowdoin), I am at the tail end of a Slavic Studies PhD program at Brown University. I am completing my dissertation on spatiality and exile in 20th century Russian poetry.

Being able to continue my studies and to now add teaching Russian to them has been a very rewarding experience. I have spent time in Russia and the Czech Republic and I look forward to soon pursuing a full-time teaching career in Slavic Studies. As I always tell my students, taking a new language is an immensely beneficial experience—not to mention that Russian, despite its linguistic complexities, is a lot of fun to learn! There is a different and deeper understanding of the target culture that comes through learning its language. Sometimes it also makes you reevaluate and appreciate your own culture from a different angle. So, if you’re thinking about taking Russian (or if you—like me back then—are not), don’t hesitate to give it a try.

Jade Hopkins ’12

Jade Hopkins

Class of: 2012

Major(s): Russian

I can’t speak completely to how Russian has influenced my life after college because it has in fact shaped it; the person I am now was partially made in my two years in Moscow...

About Me

I started studying Russian first semester of my first year at Bowdoin. To be honest, it was the only class that I knew I wanted to take; some people love France, some people study Britain, I was a Russophile, and I wanted to be able to read Russian books in the original. I had never heard of perfective/imperfective verbs.

Russian was the course (and eventually major) that was a constant for my four years. Every time course selection started, I knew where at least one of my four credits was coming from. I studied abroad in Moscow my Junior Year, slipping on the inch-thick ice outside of my dorm, doing homework while drinking tea from a wide cup, smelling the cakes from the Bolshevik Cake Factory outside of my window on the freezing cold nights. I liked it so much that, less than a year after graduation, I moved back to Moscow to teach English.

I am grateful for this decision everyday. Moscow is a fascinating city, and the chance to live in it for two years, make friends, navigate the metro, and learn Russian changed my life. I can’t speak completely to how Russian has influenced my life after college because it has in fact shaped it; the person I am now was partially made in my two years in Moscow, where I learned to be grammatically incorrect all the time, that people who don’t smile can be the friendliest people in the world, and to consider dill an acceptable condiment for all foods. I miss Russia every day, and I plan to return. For now, I satisfy myself by sitting in restaurants for hours on end, wearing scarves around my head in the winter (it is warmer), and still occasionally speaking Russian (even though I’m just an administrative assistant in Boston; you’d be surprised by how many people speak it).

Daniel Mark ’09

Daniel Mark

Class of: 2009

Major(s): Russian

I began studying Russian at Bowdoin College in 2005, and that decision changed the entire trajectory of my life.

About Me

I began studying Russian at Bowdoin College in 2005, and that decision changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Professionally, my education and experience in Russian studies have propelled my career. I studied, worked and lived in Russia for several years as a teacher and translator. After returning to the United States, I earned an MA in Russian history, and I have worked in research institutions and DC think tanks. Most recently, I worked in government doing translation and Russian community outreach. With all of the recent attention on Russia and Russian-American relations, an education and background in Russian will open all kinds of doors for you.

The decision has also had a huge impact on my personal life. My time in Russia was one of unforgettable, vivid, and extraordinarily exciting experiences. I made many lifelong friends in Russia, and I am married to a beautiful Russian woman. Russia and Russian culture can seem forbidding and even off-putting at first, but once you’re hooked there is no going back.

If you’re an adventurous sort, and you’re at all curious about Russia, I strongly recommend that you consider Russian studies at Bowdoin. The excellent, comprehensive education I received there prepared me for Russia and opened my eyes to a world that is mysterious, wondrous, and endlessly fascinating.

Joseph Kellner ’09

Joseph Kellner

Class of: 2009

Major(s): Russian

There's little limit on how much Russian you can learn, or how far you can develop your interest in any particular direction.

About Me

I graduated in the Russian department in 2009, and most events of my life have somehow circled around Russia since then.  Since my junior year abroad in Irkutsk with Middlebury, I've now been back to Russia for two more long stays once to teach English in the Caucasus, which was pure good fun and great for my Russian, and once, in 2014-2015, to research and conduct interviews.  This, because two years after Bowdoin, I went to UC Berkeley for a PhD in Russian history.  I had no previous history background, but because Bowdoin prepared me quite well with language, I was able to catch up with my colleagues in history while they struggled with verbs of motion, the genitive plural, and other such Russian grammatical puzzles.  I'm now in my sixth year in that program, still living in Berkeley, and perhaps a year or so from completing my dissertation and degree.  My hope is to teach history at the university level.  Advanced students in the Russian program at Bowdoin, or in the history program, are welcome to write me with questions.

The Russian major makes sense for a lot of reasons.  First, because of the small size of the program, students just get a quality of instruction they won't find elsewhere or even in other programs at Bowdoin.  There's little limit on how much Russian you can learn, or how far you can develop your interest in any particular direction.  Second, I think that, despite the post-Cold War delusions of certain short-sighted people, Russia is and will remain a hugely important country, and speaking the language will have important applications in many different spheres of the economy and government for a long time to come.  And finally, Russia is just plain interesting it is a complex and distinct world civilization, foreign and peculiar enough to retain your interest for life, but accessible and familiar enough that you can a) find work, and b) transfer the skills and knowledge to other aspects of your life.  Both of these things can be said about the language as well complex and distinctive, but accessible to those (like me) who are willing to work, but have no particular brilliance in language-learning.

Albert Mayer ’03

Albert Mayer

Class of: 2003

Major(s): Russian

Studying Russian at Bowdoin remains one of the most enjoyable and rewarding learning experiences I've had.

About Me

In retrospect, speaking Russian in class at Bowdoin was good training for speaking in court. To improve as a Russian speaker, I had to be mindful of declensions and pronunciations unlike anything in the English language, but also willing to make declension and pronunciation mistakes as I practiced speaking aloud with classmates. I've found developing litigation skills similar in the sense that, with the facts and the law in mind, you have to set aside anxiety and perfectionism, stand up, and make the clearest, most accurate presentation you can. As an added bonus, Russian literature includes the most brilliant explorations of crime and morality that I've read.

Studying Russian at Bowdoin remains one of the most enjoyable and rewarding learning experiences I've had. Engaging with such a rich, sophisticated culture and language each morning inspired and motivated me throughout college, and while I don't speak Russian in my job as a trial attorney with the Department of Justice, I still listen to Russian radio stations at night and on travel!

Katie Lampadarios ’00

Katie Lampadarios

Class of: 2000

Major(s): Russian

I find it so hard to generalize my life in Russia. I remember falling in love with the countryside.

About Me

After graduating from Bowdoin in May 2000 I found myself on a plane full of Peace Corps trainees on our way to Vladivostok, Russia. Vladivostok is commonly thought to be in Siberia, but is in reality in the Russian Far East. It's proximity to Korea and China is felt in the cuisine and people. Vlasivostok is a city on the water with lots of hills and Soviet-styled apartment buildings. While in Vladivostok, all of the trainees lived with Russian host families. My parents were Galina Savvovna and Valentine Ivanovich. Galina is a telephone operator and Valentine is a mechanic. After two months of training we became official Peace Corps Volunteers. I moved to what would be my home for two years. Nakhodka is a city of two hundred thousand people. It is on the water and one of the biggest ports in the Russian Far East. The people I met and became friends with were teachers, students, sailors, and business men and women. My school was a gymnasium with a special program in foreign languages. As a result, my students had a pretty high level of English which made it easier for me as a new teacher. I was terrified to teach, but the support I found from my English teacher colleagues was amazing and the growth I accomplished as a teacher and leader was due in large part to them.

I find it so hard to generalize my life in Russia. I remember falling in love with the countryside. Russia's land is vast and varied. I lived in a country full of hills. I visited a country full of mountains and hot springs and a country full of plains. I remember endless train rides through birch forests seeing a wooden house now and then. I remember the love of life that Russians carry with them. Going visiting to people's houses, eating lots of food and drinking vodka were a common event in my life there. Going to the banya was an event that every single Peace Corps volunteer adored. We were lucky to have a public banya in Nakhodka and we soon discovered that sitting in a steam room, beating each other
with birch branches and jumping in a pool of freezing cold water was an ideal way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The Russians I met were complicated people and while I have grown to love them, I know that I will never truly understand them. But that's ok. They challenged me on America, our politics, and our lifestyle. We used to have long chats over cups of tea or bottles of vodka, and those sustained my soul in a country far from all that was familiar. People keep asking me if I would do Peace Corps again. I would and I would and will go back to Russia.