Katherine Avgerinos is enrolled in the International Relations Program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. She was accepted to this program, at least in part, on the basis of her international experience in Russia and Greece and the professional experience she built while in Russia. She recently sat down to tell us about those experiences.
SRAS: We usually interview folks who have made successful business careers in or involving Russia, or students who have completed our or other interesting educational programs in Russia. However, we wanted to interview you for a slightly different reason: the successful “year abroad” you took to Russia after finishing your undergraduate degree. That year abroad could have launched your professional career in Moscow. Instead, it’s launched a new phase of your academic career back in America.
First, how did you become involved with Russia?
Katherine Avgerinos: Russian was a wild card class I chose to take freshman year at Connecticut College in order to fulfill my language requirement. Before that, I really had no concept of the Russian world other than what I knew from Tchaikovsky’s ballets or that animated movie Anastasia. I had studied French in high school, but I wanted to switch to a language that is less-commonly studied but that still has broad and practical applications in today’s world. With romantic visions in my mind of onion-domed churches, fur coats, and Czars’ palaces, I chose Russian, knowing also that it is a widely-spoken language and could be useful in my future career. I was quickly drawn into the challenge of studying the language, and once I began to learn more about Russia’s fascinating political history and rich literary heritage, I was hooked.
SRAS: Your first experience with studying and working in Russia came in 2005, when you served an internship with the Angel Coalition in Moscow and used that as a base to perform research for your senior thesis on the “sexualization of post-Soviet culture and the rise of the sex industry in Russia.” First, could you tell us how you landed that internship and second, what was involved in your research for that paper?
KA: I completed my undergraduate research and thesis as part of Connecticut College’s international studies certificate program, which helps students design foreign-based independent research projects and provides stipends for them to conduct research-based internships during or after their junior year abroad. I applied to this program my sophomore year, and to be honest, sex-trafficking and prostitution in Russia was a random topic I proposed in my application in order to obtain funding. However, again, the random choice somehow stuck with me and I spent the next three years engrossed in it and related subjects. While studying in Moscow my junior year with a program run by Trinity College, I had an internship at the Angel Coalition, an American-run anti-sex trafficking NGO, which regularly has American interns to help with writing grants proposals and press releases. Through my internship, which was set-up through my college’s certificate program, I had a chance to attend several anti-sex trafficking conferences as well as to interview representatives from various non-governmental and governmental agencies about Russia’s booming sex industry. Once I was back in the US for my senior year, I used this research to write my senior thesis which focused on sex-trafficking and the role that sex has played in post-Soviet culture as a whole, with the flourishing sex trade being just one of the products of Russia’s rocky transition from a closed to an open market.
SRAS: And the resultant study was quite impressive – you submitted if for publication in our Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies. It was published there in fall of 2006. How did you find out about the journal and SRAS?
KA: The head of my Russian department told me about Vestnik’s call for papers and encouraged me to submit my work. I did and it was accepted. After that, I had several other opportunities to contribute my work to the SRAS newsletter, which I learned about after working with Vestnik on my paper.
SRAS: In 2006 you also decided to come back to Russia. Why?
KA: As any college senior, I had to face the question of what I would do with myself after graduation. This question is often doubly hard for humanities majors, who have been passionate about a particular subject for four or five years, then are forced to face the fact that there are not massive amounts of well-publicized jobs specifically looking for applicants with an undergraduate degree in history. As a double major in history and Slavic studies, I felt at the time that my best option was to apply to law school. But by the time I graduated, I knew I needed more chance to figure things out for myself, and so I deferred law school and started looking for a job in the New York area. Somehow, though, I stumbled across a job listing on a Moscow-based expatriate website, Expat.ru, for a legal internship at an American law firm in Moscow. I instantly knew it was where I needed to be – the perfect opportunity to get a better feel for the legal profession, improve my Russian skills, and cut loose a bit before entering the “real world.” All from my laptop, I applied for the job, was accepted, found an apartment, found a roommate, and even planned my moving-in party with all the friends I had made in Moscow the first time I was there. It was a great example of what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman refers to as “the globalization of the individual.” Although my parents protested the idea of me moving in with a stranger and accepting a position with an unknown employer, I felt confident that I had gained enough street skills during my semester abroad and could successfully survive as a “globalized individual” in Moscow.
SRAS: You started off as an intern at White & Associates. We know that that law firm very often invites interns to gain experience with them. Can you say what you did for them and if you would recommend the experience for other potential interns?
KA: White & Associates is a Moscow-based boutique law firm specializing in American immigration law. As a legal intern, I worked directly with the head lawyer on a variety of cases involving US and Russian immigration, tax, real estate and corporate law. Although I did not have any legal background, my boss, an American, gave me tasks appropriate for my skill level, which thus improved over time. Our clients ranged from Armenian Pentecostals who were seeking status as religious refugees in the US to Americans seeking fiancée visas for their future Russian spouses. By the end of my 4-month stay, I was able to effectively conduct legal research, interact with clients, complete visa applications, and write memos presenting my opinions on various cases. I also frequently ran errands to the US Embassy to process clients’ documents, which proved to be a great lesson in dealing with bureaucracy! What’s more, the internship was only 30 hours a week, so I had plenty of time to explore Moscow and take on translating and journalism work on the side (it was an unpaid position). I would recommend this experience to any one who is seeking exposure to the legal profession and an opportunity to learn the ropes around Russia’s bustling capital city.
SRAS: And you did very quickly make personal contacts that led to other employment. Can you describe the employment you found and how exactly you found it?
KA: The foreign, English-speaking community (who call themselves “expats,” which is short for “expatriate,” meaning someone who has gone to live in another country for an extended period), is very closely connected. There are expat bars, websites, newspapers, soccer leagues, blogs, bands, etc. As such, the best way to get a job in Moscow is usually to just make friends in this community and ask them. My “in” to this expat world was a fellow Slavic Studies grad from Connecticut College, who had been living in Moscow for the past two years. When he found out I was looking for some freelance work, he put me in contact with a commercial real estate business journal that had given him translations in the past. The editors gave me a few translations to start with, and although the work was very difficult and time-consuming for me at first, my skills improved with each article. Within two months, I had grown in my position and was not just translating, but also writing and editing for the English portion of the magazine. After that, my name as a translator was out there, and between using my network of contacts and advertising on the expat websites, one project led to another. In fact, this domino effect brought me to my most impressive assignment – the 60-page translation of Aeroflot‘s (the Russian state airline) annual report (the actual document is longer with added info and pictures). I ended up liking life as a freelancer so much that after my internship ended, I decided to extend my stay in Moscow by another six months to see where life might lead me.
SRAS: Not long after that, life lead you to even more exciting employment, this time working in public relations for major companies like Rosneft. How did you land that and what sort of opportunities did it entail?
KA: At some point in the spring, an American friend of mine brought to my attention a job listing that was posted on the expat website. The listing was for a 2-month part-time editing position at a top corporate public relations consulting firm, Mmd. I applied for the job, and with the Aeroflot project beaming on my resume, I was hired. The firm dealt mainly with the oil and gas industry, and our main client was the Russian state oil company Rosneft. Much to my delight, over the next two months, I frequently found myself at the Rosneft headquarters across from the Kremlin, sitting in on meetings between oil industry giants. The pinnacle of my experience with Mmd was when I had the opportunity to accompany a group of delegates from the European Union on a private jet tour of Rosneft’s oil fields and refineries in the Far East of Russia. My main task was to report on the trip and conduct interviews with the delegates in order to write a trip report for Rosneft’s monthly magazine. To this day, I cannot believe I was in places as remote as Sakhalin Island, getting an inside look into Russia’s oil industry, while also being wined and dined alongside members of the EU Parliament!
SRAS: So after all this, you decided to leave Russia and enter an academic program in the States. Why? What are your long-term goals now?
KA: My long-term career goals are still quite vague. I know now that I would like a job that involves international affairs but will base me in the US for the long run so that I can raise my own family closer to my parents and siblings. Although I was very tempted to stay in Russia, there were two main reasons why I decided to leave and enter a Master’s program in International Relations and Public Relations at Syracuse University. First, I knew that my career as a freelance translator and editor could only go so far. In fact, a private jet tour across Russia is probably as good as it gets! If I wanted to build a career that goes above translating and into management, which I do, I felt that I had to increase my qualifications by seeking additional higher education in the US. Competition between foreigners for higher-level positions has intensified, and the good Russian companies are seeking only well-qualified foreign specialists.
The second reason I left is that I knew if I kept on staying, it would get harder and harder to leave. The longer you stay, the more emotionally and professionally attached you become to Moscow, making it more difficult to come back. Although I am fascinated by Russia, I don’t want to settle down there permanently or have my professional credentials be completely Russia-specific. So, I’m pursuing a degree that will give me more leverage to build a career on either side of the Atlantic. In any case, the Russian economy will only continue to grow in the future, so there will be plenty of opportunities for me to return in case I change my mind!
As for long-term plans, once I complete my Masters in International Relations and Public Relations, I could see myself working in the field of development or PR consulting for businesses and organizations that are expanding into the former Soviet bloc. Later on, I might be interested in teaching or becoming involved with a program that enables more American students to study abroad in more areas of the former Soviet Union. In any case, I know that my Russian background will help me stand out during my job search, even if the job is not Russia-specific.
I would like to add that wherever I go, whether it be Syracuse or my father’s home city of Athens, (if you couldn’t tell from my name, I am of Greek heritage), I seem to always be speaking Russian. Since the fall of communism, Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet states have formed communities all over the world. As such, I am confident that no matter what happens in my career, I will always be connected to Russia and have Russian-speaking friends.
SRAS: What advice would you give students coming on study abroad trips for making the most of their opportunity in Russia?
KA: Having studied abroad in both Greece and Russia, I find that for the most part, American students view their semester abroad either one of two ways: some use it as a 4-month vacation, during which they take advantage of the lower legal drinking age, do the minimal studying possible, and spend most of their time with English-speaking friends; some, on the other hand, use their semester abroad as a chance to become fully engrossed in a new culture and a new language. I saw several fellow study abroad students in Moscow fall into the trap of partying all the time with English-speaking foreigners. As such, their language skills barely improved and they never had a chance to build meaningful relationships with non-English speaking Russians. So, my first piece of advice would be to enjoy going out with other Americans when you feel home-sick, but don’t slack off on studying and practicing your Russian. Once you overcome the language barrier enough to express basic thoughts and to speak confidently, even in spite of your mistakes, you can experience Russia from a whole new perspective and make the most of your time there.
My second piece of advice would be to be patient and open-minded. Living abroad in Russia, especially outside the major cities, can be very difficult at times, even for the most seasoned veterans. Most Russians do not speak English, the winters are cold and dark, living conditions are usually not as luxurious as they are in America, and you can easily become frustrated and homesick. However, if you are patient and allow yourself to become immersed in the culture, I am confident that your time in Russia will be extremely rewarding and will forever impact your life. In fact, most of the people I studied abroad with went back to Russia after graduation.
My decision to study Russian and move to Moscow has essentially influenced almost all aspects of my personal, academic, and professional life. For instance, I am confident my Russian background was one of the main reasons I was accepted into a top international relations Masters program. Overall, there are very few Russian specialists in our country these days, as the booming Chinese market and post-9/11 politics has led the more adventurous students who want to move away from the “traditional” romance languages to study Chinese or Arabic. In fact, I know of several colleges, including my alma mater, that have threatened to close their Russian studies departments due to lack of student interest, which seems a bit odd considering Russia’s increasingly central role in today’s global economic and political arena.
Katherine’s Contributions to SRAS Publications:
Languages in Conflict: The Case of Russia and Estonia
Odessa: A City Born Again and Again
Lviv: A Turbulent Time Capsule
From Vixen to Victim: … Prostitution in Post-Soviet Russia