Julia Vail: Reporting on Russia

Published: August 4, 2009

Julia Vail studied with The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) under the Russian as a Profession program (now part of the Russian Studies Abroad program), combining language and subject study with a hands-on internship in Moscow. She has used this experience to help land a full-time career in journalism and publishing.

SRAS: When did you first become interested in Russia?

Julia Vail: When I was about 7, my parents told me that people who lived in the Soviet Union were not allowed to go live somewhere else if they wanted to. For some reason, that idea just astounded me.

Julia Vail interned with the Moscow Times in Russia as part of her study abroad program through SRAS.
Julia Vail interned with the Moscow Times in Russia as part of her study abroad program through SRAS.

SRAS: One of your first experiences with Russian culture was when you had requested a penpal from the Soviet Union. Can you talk a bit about that experience – how was the program run and what sort of things did you learn about the Soviet Union from your penpal?

JV:  I found the penpal exchange program in the back of a National Geographic Kids magazine, and immediately showed it to my parents. I think I was ten at the time, and had always been fascinated by the Soviet Union.  When I wrote in to request a penpal, I was paired with Olga, a girl a few years older than me who lived in a village in the Ural Mountains. She spoke and wrote English fairly well, though I’m not sure if she received any outside assistance. If I’m not mistaken, I think everyone in her class was required to participate in the program as part of their English language class. That was one of my first memories about our interaction: why could she speak my language while I was completely ignorant about hers? It seemed unfair to me that she had been given the opportunity to learn my language but I had never really been given the chance to learn another language.

Another thing that struck me was the vast difference between our ways of life. While I sent her color photos of me and my friends playing in the swimming pool or in the neighborhood playground, she would send stark black-and-white photos of her village, which consisted of rows upon rows of nearly identical box-like houses. It made my childhood seem almost frivolous by comparison, and really drove home some of the harsh realities that people faced in the Soviet Union.

SRAS: So when did you first start learning Russian?

Tabitha near the telescope array.
The above is an illustration taken from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, printed in the USSR. It shows a village much like the one seen by Julia in the pictures her penpal sent. (click for large version)

JV: When I was studying in an architecture graduate program, I came to the realization that I was in the wrong field. I began asking what really fascinated me the most, and I kept coming back to my love of Russian culture and my fascination with foreign language in general. (I had enjoyed studying Spanish in both high school and college.) I picked up an elementary Russian book in my spare time, and once I got into it, I couldn’t stop. When I ultimately dropped out of the architecture program and enrolled in my first formal Russian course, I was able to test into the intermediate level.

SRAS: You majored first in International Relations and Russian, and after earning that bachelor’s degree, went on to get a master’s in journalism. Did you plan to get them in that order – and if so, why?

JV: I built my career plans piecemeal. I always knew I wanted to do something to promote international understanding and cooperation. I thought that combining an International Relations and a foreign language curriculum would be the best way to accomplish that. Once I got those degrees, I had to give some serious thought as to how I wanted to put my education into practice. Since promoting cultural understanding was my major goal, I thought that getting an advanced degree in communication would help me get my ideas across better, whether in English or Russian. After all, if you can’t communicate effectively in your first language, learning a second one won’t do you much good! I eventually decided to pursue journalism with the ultimate goal of working for an international news agency.

SRAS: You’ve been very active with using your Russian as well. Stateside, for example, you volunteered to teach an Uzbek refugee family English through Catholic Social Services. How did you come to be involved with this, what did you learn from it, and would you encourage other students to get involved (also, can non-Catholics participate)?

GRINT students visit Red Square
Russian Studies Semester: Study Russian and more in Moscow and gain professional experience!

JV: Where I’m from in Alabama, there aren’t too many opportunities outside of the classroom to practice your Russian. I thought it would be a good idea to do some volunteer work and improve my language at the same time. I contacted Catholic Social Services on the advice of a former professor and was assigned a wonderful family who had recently arrived from Uzbekistan: a father, mother and five children ages nine to 20. I can’t even describe what a fantastic experience it was. I was able to help the oldest son study the English vocabulary he needed for his driver’s test, and was able to celebrate with the whole family when he passed it. And I’ve never been so exhausted as the time I tried to explain algebra in Russian to one of the daughters. I don’t think I’ve ever used so much of my brain at once! It was really eye-opening to hear the perspective of Muslims who had lived in the former Soviet Union. In terms of language, I also learned the importance of thinking on your feet. If I didn’t remember a particular Russian word or phrase, I had to quickly think up another way to get my point across, or risk facing seven uncomprehending stares. I’d add that the opportunity to tutor is not open only to Catholics. I’m not Catholic, and I always felt welcome. Try Googling “Catholic Social Services” and your state or city to find out how to volunteer.

SRAS: While earning your Master’s degree, you chose to sign up for SRAS’s Language as a Career (now part of our broader Russian Studies Semester program). As part of this, you interned with the Moscow Times through SRAS. Can you discuss what you did for them and what you learned from it?

JV: On my first day as an intern at the Moscow Times, I came fully prepared to make copies and bring coffee for the reporters. I was shocked when I got my first story assignment that day. I quickly found myself conducting phone and in-person interviews in Russian, walking around downtown Moscow in search of information, and submitting full-length articles for publication. Being able to combine my language studies with the reporting internship was ideal, because I was able to immediately turn around and apply what I learned in class to a real-world situation. It’s one thing to have a face-to-face conversation with a professor; it’s another thing to try to communicate effectively with a city official who’s driving around Moscow while talking on a cell phone with bad reception. The internship also broadened my vocabulary significantly, since each story topic had particular jargon that I had to learn in the course of researching the story. I left the internship with eleven full-length articles to add to my portfolio.

SRAS: After earning your Master’s, you also interned for Voice of America’s Russian News Service. How did you land this internship and what did you learn from it?

Julia attends a traditional Russian birthday party at fellow student's host family's apartment.
Julia attends a traditional Russian birthday party at a fellow student’s host family’s apartment.

JV: I heard about the internship through a friend in Moscow that I had met while I was studying abroad through SRAS. I submitted an application, was called for a phone interview in Russian, and was accepted over the phone. Since Voice of America is a broadcasting service rather than a newspaper, I got plenty of opportunity to practice phonetics. I learned very quickly how to correctly pronounce certain words and where to place the emphasis in Russian phrases. Since I wrote and translated all of my own material, I also got first-hand experience with translating English to Russian, which I think is considerably harder than Russian to English.

SRAS: That’s an impressive resume you built up. Where has this educational track taken you professionally? Are you still using your Russian skills – or at least skills learned in Russia as part of your current profession?

JV: Though I don’t use my Russian in my current job, I definitely use the skills I learned in Russia. Throughout my internship at the Moscow Times, I would say to myself, “I’ll never be afraid of English interviews again!” Conducting interviews in Russian helped me get over my shyness and organize my thoughts and questions quickly, whether in English or Russian. I landed my first reporting job out of graduate school at the Philanthropy Journal in Raleigh, N.C. My boss told me that she hired me partly because of my experience abroad. She said that, when people decide to practice journalism in foreign countries, they demonstrate that they are not afraid of new experiences and putting themselves out there to get a good story.

SRAS: What advice would you offer students hoping to study journalism in Moscow?

JV: Be bold, but cautious. The myth about brusque, impatient Russians is just that: a myth. There are always exceptions to the rule, but for the most part the Russians I encountered were very forgiving of grammatical errors and generous with the information they had. At the same time, keep in mind that you’re not in Kansas anymore. The media operates a bit differently from country to country, and Russia is no exception. While in pursuit of that breaking story, don’t forget to show respect for the Russian people and culture.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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View all posts by: Josh Wilson