Kyra Gordon: God, Guns, and Russia

Published: August 31, 2012

Kyra Gordon is an International Program Management Specialist, working with US Army contacts to sell weapons systems to US allies. A long-time Russia-enthusiast, her experiences abroad have been long and varied, ranging from missionary and charity work, working professionally in Russia, earning a degree there, and receiving several US-government-sponsored funding opportunities to help her along the way.

SRAS: You now work for the US Army/The University of Alabama in Huntsville as an International Program Management Specialist. First, can you tell us what exactly is it that you do for them and, second, how helpful has your international experience in Russia been in helping you to land that job and perform the duties it requires?

Kyra Gordon: Currently, I work on a US Army project involving contracts and agreements with foreign nations to attain US systems; this involves largely contract work, correspondence, logistics, as well as liaising with government and foreign officials. While my current duties don’t directly deal with Russia, I can’t help but think that my experiences and skills from living and working abroad not only helped me to attain this job, but also shape my abilities in completing my role and tasks. Living/working/studying abroad engenders a self reliance and a confidence that becomes part of your being. International experience has given me flexibility, increased communication skills, and an ability to work cross-culturally. Employers also recognize and admire your determination and sense of adventure to have sought out and completed time abroad. In this market, you need anything to give you “an edge” against other applicants. In every interview, my time abroad has come up and been a point of conversation between myself and a potential employer. In many cases, it has been the one factor that has set me apart from a crowd of qualified applicants.

SRAS: But you’ve long had an interest in Russia. Can you tell us what first got

Kyra’s international experience led her to an international career – and her love of travel hasn’t died down either. Here she is with Cairo behind her.

you hooked on the country?

KG: I’ve been hooked on Russia for about as long as I can remember. As a kid loved watching all the history channel specials on the Romanov family, epic World War II battles, etc. When I was 13, some friends had gone on mission trips with a group that takes teens for short term missions to locations around the globe. Most had gone to South America or Mexico—but I knew where my heart lies—across the Atlantic and on the shores of the Neva! So at 14, I stepped foot on Russian soil for the first time. Since then I have definitely been bitten by the “Russia bug.” It is truly a unique phenomenon, with mysterious and conflicting feelings only known to those who share “the bug.” However, I think many have the love-hate relationship with Russia that I do. I love the language, the people, the history, and just how foreign it was to me, especially at 14. Although it definitely wasn’t easy or comfortable to be there, something resonated inside me, something almost spiritual. I knew that the country and its people would play an integral role in my life, and I wasn’t wrong. Interestingly, I would later find out that my name is actually an ancient Russian name and that one of my direct ancestors was the Scottish Ambassador to Russia for many years, a General to the Czar, military tutor to Peter the Great, and later governor of Kronstadt! So maybe it’s in my blood?

Kyra spreading awareness about the dangers of human trafficking and The A21 Campaign, an anti-human-trafficking organization. The event was held in a shipping container during a citywide political/social art exposition in Thessaloniki, Greece.

SRAS: Perhaps so! I’d like to ask about this mission. You participated in two foreign aid missions to Russia while you were quite young – one to Ryazan and Moscow in 2005 and one to St. Petersburg in 2000. How did you get involved in these? Are these missions still running for other young people to join?

KG: My first mission trip was with Teen Mania Ministries who offer mission trips for youth to attend as individuals or in groups, starting as young as preteen years and for older ages as well. During this trip, we stayed for a month in one of the old pioneer camps outside St. Petersburg and established relationships with all the kids housed there for the summer. We played with them, sang songs and games, sports, ate with them, and generally became part of their lives at the camp. It was a daunting but thrilling experience. My second trip to Russia, at 19 years old, was with Global Aid Network. For around two weeks we traveled in and around the southern city of Ryazan, Russia. We visited hospitals, prisons, schools, orphanages, etc… we distributed medical supplies, school supplies, clothes, and other items. We also socialized with the people we met: generally showing them love and affection and the gospel of Christ to those who wanted to know more. Both organizations are still running global trips for youth and adults!

SRAS: You (double?) majored in Russian and international trade as an undergraduate. What did you plan to do with that education specifically? Why did you choose the combination?

KG: Since my first trip to Russia at 14, I KNEW that I wanted to speak Russian. It was a determination in me that was unquestionable. So in my search for an undergraduate institution, that was my #1 requirement—a Russian program. I wasn’t sure in what capacity I would be using Russian, but I knew it was something I had to do. This definitely limited my choices in schools, but I feel that the sacrifices I made were worth it. I chose to partner my Russian language education with political science and international trade because I was also interested in the modern day role of Russia, its relationships, and especially the US-Russia relationship and its dynamics, which are incredibly interesting. I knew I wanted to work somehow somewhere with something involving Russia in the political field. For a while I thought I wanted to work for the US State Department. Although I haven’t made it there yet, and I’ve been turned down for their internship quite a few times, I still may work my way around to the State Department one of these days. Now, however, I am very interested in the many NGOs that are popping up in Russia and the former Soviet Union to step in where governments have failed or withdrawn and left gaping transnational problems—such as those involving drug, arms, and human trafficking, extreme poverty, racial conflicts, depressed economies, rampant orphanhood, human rights abuses, etc… the list goes on. That is the direction that I am going, I hope to find a position with an NGO or aid organization in Russia or the former Soviet nations to tackle one or more of these problems. I have a particular passion for anti-human trafficking, (which I also wrote my graduate thesis on). I am excited about the current projects starting in Russia to combat human trafficking.

SRAS: We certainly wish you luck on that! I know that in learning Russian, while an undergraduate, you studied abroad at the Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod under a Critical Language Scholarship. First, why did you choose Nizhny Novgorod? Second, how did you find out about the Critical Language Scholarship and what was the application process like (did you find it highly selective/competitive)?

KG: I found out about the State-Department-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship Program online, through a Google search. It was already quite late in the application cycle, but I still applied and it was one of the easiest applications I’ve ever had to do. In exchange for the couple of hours I spent on the application, I received one of the best, most challenging experiences of my life. Up until then, all of my Russian language training had been in very controlled classroom settings with contrived dialogues for which I was always prepared and for which I didn’t have to try terribly hard. Being on the ground in Russia, especially in a Nizhny (which was closed to foreigners until 1991!) was a completely different ballgame. Despite four years of language training, I found out I couldn’t communicate in Russian! It was a blow to my ego, but one of the best experiences because it forced me to overcome shyness, unwillingness to make mistakes, etc. During this program we were constantly surrounded by Russian, with our host families, teachers, administration, even the US students had to take a “Russian pledge” where we promised to speak Russian at (almost) all times. My ability to speak Russian flourished and strengthened more quickly and vibrantly during that time than any other. Being in Nizhny, (which was one of 4 locations offered by CLS and where beginner and intermediate students were assigned by CLS) a smaller city was a unique, inspiring, and also trying experience that I value very much. So apply!

Kyra speaking with youth at a women’s prison just outside Ryazan, Russia.

SRAS: Your resume lists that you completed an International Masters in Russian and Eurasian Studies from February 2010 to March 2011 at The European University at St. Petersburg. How did find out about the European University and why did you chose to do your MA abroad?

KG: I found out about EUSP (The European University at St. Petersburg) while I was in St. Petersburg doing some independent volunteer work. One day, I was visiting a friend who was studying at Smolny, which is also in St. Petersburg, and she said “Oh you have to meet this guy; he’s from Alabama too!” Not many people from Alabama end up in Russia at the same time, so it was a surreal experience to meet someone else!

So I met him and when I asked what he was doing after his senior year of study abroad, he told me he was doing the IMARES (International Masters in Russian and Eurasian Studies) program at EUSP. My initial reaction was that I would not be interested in doing my masters in Russia. But the more I thought about it, the unique chance of learning from Russian instructors about political and social happenings within their own country, as opposed to a foreigner’s outlook, as well as the ability to live in St. Pete, and take advantage of the Russian language courses offered, it quickly became something I was very excited to do. The possibility of completing a masters within a year at a significantly lower cost than most US institutions was also appealing. EUSP programs have expanded significantly since I was there; they now offer an MA in literature and culture as well as summer and semester abroad programs. It was a great experience!

SRAS: This is really something that we stress as well – the value in learning from Russians about Russia. Even learning about the Russian view of the history of WWII is fascinating and eye-opening, a completely different view on something you thought you knew so well!

I also wanted to ask about your Fulbright Scholarship in 2009. Can you tell us about the application for that (how difficult/selective was the process?) and what did you do with the funding?

KG: I applied for the Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistantship) program. Teaching English is a great way to get to know the people in another country and to really establish relationships with them. It is also a thrill to explore and learn the interesting quirks and intricacies of each other’s languages! The application process for Fulbright is indeed intense (I’ve never been more nervous in my life than before and during the in-Russian telephone interview for Fulbright!). The process takes several months and many different steps, but if you are organized, patient, and persistent, it is definitely possible! It is a very competitive award, but one that you should definitely try for if you think it is something you would enjoy! I recommend it!

SRAS: And if you want to succeed in Russia, being organized, patient, and persistent are definite requirements!

Before beginning your MA, you worked for Communication Language Services in St. Petersburg as an English teacher while persuing your passion of volunteering with underprivileged youth. How did you find out about these opportunities and would you advise other students to also work/volunteer of these organizations?

KG: After graduating from college, I basically decided that I wanted to be in Russia, mainly to explore volunteer opportunities and possibilities for future employment. So I flew to Russia, not really knowing anyone but just determined to explore. Working as an English teacher is something that I was experienced in but is also a great way to get introduced and integrated into life in another country! It was a good fit for me and allowed me to pursue volunteering while making a little bit of money.

Most cities, especially big ones, have a host of English schools. The best way to get involved is to just contact them. Nowadays, however, it helps if you have some sort of certificate and if you know a current employee…

I love volunteering while abroad, especially in Russia. There is need all around, but it can be particularly difficult in Russia’s case to get involved. To find opportunities, I literally researched organizations on the Internet, called them up and asked if they could use volunteers, but I also connected and networked with as many people as I could, asking questions as to the need and the opportunities. I volunteered in a few orphanages in the St. Pete area, but this can be tricky if you do not know someone who has an established relationship with an orphanage (which I didn’t).

The Salvation Army is also an organization that I volunteered with. They are open to volunteers, have weekly and even daily opportunities to reach the homeless and underprivileged. The Harbor is another great organization in St. Pete. They work with teenage orphans to help transition them with life skills and learning and find valuable future opportunities for them. I loved my experience with The Harbor and the relationships I formed. Also, look out for opportunities on school bulletin boards and even connecting with local churches can point you in the right direction for opportunities. That is what I did: I joined a new, more western style church in St. Petersburg called Hope Church. The Russians and expats at that church became like a family to me and a valuable support and encouragement system while abroad.

A young Kyra volunteering at an orphanage in Russia.

SRAS: What is one of your favorite stories from your experiences abroad?

KG: I can’t seem to think of just one, so maybe one of these will be close?

Cat show: Nizhny also seemed quite obsessed with cats. Seemingly hundreds of wild cats roamed the city and almost every apartment had at least one cat! We were constantly surrounded by cats. Then, when we thought we couldn’t get more cats, the CAT CIRCUS came to town! The posters advertising this event were all over town! You would have thought Bon Jovi was coming or something; it was a huge event! Shown off by some colorful clowns, the cats performed various tricks and entertainments for a mesmerized crowd of Novgorodans and the small contingent of Americans there for the summer! It was such a bizarre and surreal experience…the cat/clown circus. It was certainly an “Only in Russia” moment…

Icicles: I love how icicles became a very integral part of our everyday life as a grad student! In no other place would this have happened. Every day when we would arrive at school, each of us would have had a perilous journey of trekking through the snow and ice, but also avoiding the monstrous icicles that were preparing to fall at any moment. Each day was a recap of the biggest ones we had seen, where one had fallen, “oh did you see the size of that one on the corner of Liteyny?” or “You should see the one under my window,” and “did you hear that two people died over the weekend from the icicles?!” It was a real and serious danger at the time, but now seems comical in retrospect that it was such a topic of conversation!

Learning to live/shop in Russia: I love the transformation that takes place as one learns to live in Russia: No longer being yelled out for standing at the cashier waiting for the cashier to pack up your bags for you because you don’t know any better; learning to always have exact change in order to avoid a tongue lashing by the cashier, and overcoming the initial terror you always feel when approaching the kassa; seeing the fear on the faces of new students as they arrive and are afraid to walk under the streets because of the huge falling icicles; the paranoia–turned-to-anger you feel at being followed around by a store employee while shopping, and then how you get used to it!; Everything is so difficult at first, living in Russia, getting used to new things. But over time, what was so hard becomes not so hard, and then you are living in a foreign country with a confidence and an ease that are exhilarating. You belong, it is your city. You are home.

SRAS: Love them all! Unfortunatly, the icicles issue is still one that is at alive an well in Russia – so are the cat circuses. Moscow has a permanent cat circus on Old Arbat! I think your last story, though, really encapsulates what makes Russia so addicting – the fact that any “victory” in daily life feels so much more like a real accomplishment. Being able to say that you can get around in a city is a great accomplishment and being able to show people that you can act like a local is akin to being able to recite Shakespearian monologues on stage. It’s not something everyone can do, but something that most people can definitely respect!

Any other advice you would offer to students contemplating study abroad to Russia or thinking about Russia-related careers?

KG: Be adventurous, don’t be afraid, it is true that you will regret the things you didn’t do as opposed to the things you did… Don’t be afraid to spend money for the experience. Some things are more valuable than money! In regards to scholarships/grants: Keep a binder of grants/scholarships/fellowships you find out about, even if you are not currently eligible, save them for later! Take a look at your binder and plan ahead at least a year in advance for applying for scholarships… don’t do like me and forget a program and apply the last week or two of the program! Keeping them in the binder and organized according to due date etc, will keep you from forgetting about some possibly great opportunities. Finally… APPLY APPLY APPLY!!! I feel like I’m almost always applying for something. Yes it is tiresome, and I’ve actually been turned down for more opportunities than I’ve received, but when you finally get one, it pays off!

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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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