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Turning a Degree into a Career in Central Asia: An Interview with Alfa Fellowship Recipient, Margaret Sullivan

Here at the IAUNRC, we are very pleased to share the news that our own graduate assistant, Margaret Sullivan, a master’s student in the joint-degree program at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) and the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS), has been awarded an Alfa Fellowship to develop her career in social welfare and policy issues in Russia.

The Alfa Fellowship is a highly competitive professional development program that places accomplished young professionals in leading organizations in Russia with the aim to expand networks and develop greater intercultural understanding between the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia.

Ms. Sullivan completed an undergraduate degree in Russian Studies at Boston College and had the opportunity to spend some time in Central Asia. She became interested in social policy in Central Asia in the former Soviet Union, particularly in the transitions from large institutional approaches to social problems, such as orphanages and institutions for disabled people, to community-based care systems. This interest led her to the program at IU, which allowed her to combine her interests in social policy with Central Asia by pursuing a joint master’s degree program at SPEA and CEUS.

The IAUNRC sat down with Ms. Sullivan to learn more about her exciting fellowship and her plans for the future.

IAUNRC: Can you tell me a little bit about your language training background and professional experience?

When I was at Boston College, I majored in Russian, which gave me an opportunity to study abroad in Russia and study Russian language. At IU, my primary language has been Uzbek because I realized after working in Central Asia that Uzbek is a useful language. I came to IU with some Tajik as well, and I took an opportunity mid-way through my degree to go back to Tajikistan to continue studying Tajik.

In terms of professional experience, after my first year here at IU, I did an internship with an organization in Kazakhstan that works with deinstitutionalization of children’s homes—orphanages. While I was there, I worked on developing a life-skills curriculum: assisting older students who had spent the majority of their lives in residential care with basic independent living skills as well as more substantive issues like self-esteem and dealing with serious mental and physical health challenges.

Up to that point I had been considering a variety of career possibilities within Central Asia, in terms of the specific policy issues I hoped to engage with. My experiences in Kazakhstan cemented my interest in building a career within the social work and social policy realm.

Last year when I was in Tajikistan, I worked with an organization that advocated for disability rights and the rights of children. This center supports mothers of severely disabled children to prevent placement of these children in residential facilities. The center provides families that are dealing with very serious disability-related concerns with moral support as well as medical, psychological and therapy services. There are many development programs that have noble aims but for a variety of reasons aren't able to accomplish much, so I was very pleased and excited to work with a program that is small but that actually has a measurable impact and leads to tangible improvements in its clients' lives.

IAUNRC: Russia is a long way to go, and even within the Russian-speaking or Russian political realm, Central Asia is a far way to go. So how did you get from here to there?

My original interest in Russian arose from my love of Russian literature. I was a big reader in high school and discovered Russian and Eastern European literature and gradually began to engage more with the history and politics of that part of the world. I had an opportunity through one of my professors to spend part of a summer in Kyrgyzstan and really enjoyed my time there. I was interested to meet individuals working in Kyrgyzstan that had relatively little background in the region, and it seemed like an interesting part of the world to explore academically before looking at possibilities for working in international development within Central Asia.

IAUNRC: So what made you apply for the Alfa Fellowship?

The program hosted an information session at IU; before that, I had never heard of the Alfa Fellowship Program. It seemed like a unique and incredibly worthwhile opportunity, as well as a chance to return to Russia after five years. At first, I was somewhat hesitant because I had the impression that it was mostly geared at professionals in business and economics. But I gave it a try and heard back positively from them.

I think one chance of fate that worked in my favor was the Russian adoption ban that came into effect shortly before the selection process. Given my interest in child protection and issues surrounding child rights, I wrote a lot about my work on this issue in the application.

IAUNRC: What was the process of the application like for this fellowship?

There was a fairly intensive online application, focusing more on professional experience as opposed to purely academic background. I was invited to an interview weekend in New York in January, and I met some very interesting people with a very diverse range of professional and policy interests--everything from business and microfinance to journalism. It went well because there was a great deal of discussion about social issues in Russia and specifically of the Russian adoption ban, which is a topic I like to talk a lot about.

IAUNRC: Is Central Asia via Russia one of the areas of interest for this fellowship?

That was actually another draw of this program. Several of the administrators I spoke with were very supportive of somehow incorporating my interest in Central Asia into my work as an Alfa Fellow. I think that, regardless of the policy area, Central Asia remains important for Russia these days and Russia is very involved in Central Asia.

One of the things that several of the committee members discussed with me during my interview was the possibility of working with Central Asian migrants in Russia and policy dealing with labor migration, which particularly for Tajikistan is a very big question. I have worked with some of the programs on the Tajikistan side that help the families of labor migrants or support migrants before they leave for Russia. I think it will be very interesting to see the reverse side of that—of what type of work is being done within Russia.

IAUNRC: What does the fellowship entail?

One of the requirements of the program is to have completed your Master’s degree when you begin. So this is for people who have completed their education and who are launching their professional careers.

Another very helpful component of the program is self-directed language study. Right now, I am working with a tutor to practice interviews, put together a professional Russian CV, and become comfortable with using Russian in a professional work environment. In June, I will head to Russia and will continue for a couple more months of intensive language study before starting my professional placement.

After the summer language summer training, we will be working with the Alfa program's office in Moscow to set up job interviews and reach out to potential placement sites. Then we’ll begin our placements in September or October and, depending on when we start, we’ll work for about 6 or 7 months with either companies or organizations based in Moscow. I’m not sure what my placement will be at this point, but I’m developing my short list and throughout the coming months I will reach out to organizations to determine which program is the best fit.

IAUNRC: What types of organizations are on your short list for placement?

One of the interesting things about the Alfa Fellowship Program is that it has been running for about 10 years now, and so they have a very rich network of contacts in Moscow at organizations where previous fellows have worked. It runs the gamut from very small Russian organizations to larger international organizations like Human Rights Watch or Oxfam, which have bureaus in Russia but are part of a larger network of organizations.

Another option that I’m really interested in, and something I worked a little bit with in Kazakhstan, is corporate social responsibility—working with for-profit companies to develop social welfare programs or community outreach programs and managing those so that both the partner organizations and the company benefit from that partnership.

I think this is interesting because unlike in Central Asia, Russia has less of a foreign or international donor-driven social welfare sector, because it's obviously in a different political and economic situation than a country like Tajikistan. So creating those connections between private companies and organizations is crucial, and I think it would be very interesting to see what is happening in that sector in Russia at the moment.

IAUNRC: How has the joint degree program at IU helped your training to work in Central Asia?

I have done some research papers and projects, both on the SPEA side and on the CEUS side, that touch on demographic policy, social policy, family welfare, issues like that. Because of the joint-degree program, I’ve been able to explore those topics both through a very quantitative, policy-oriented lens and through a more historical, political, social sciences approach. That duality has been very helpful because it has encouraged me to examine these issues in several different lights.

I also took two years of Uzbek in CEUS. We have an incredible Uzbek teacher here who has just won a very prestigious award at the University for his teaching, so that was a great experience. IU is such a hub for Central Asian studies, it has been incredible to be surrounded by other people who are familiar with Central Asia, who are studying the region in a variety of disciplines, and who have very diverse professional and personal networks within Central Asia was very helpful.

IAUNRC: So what are your larger goals for the future?

Considering my academic interests in child welfare and child policy and the career development opportunities that I saw when I was working as a full-fledged employee at a development organization in Central Asia, I hope after I finish the Alfa Fellowship to continue to develop my career in the direction of social work, as opposed to broader international development administration. I think that that focus opens up opportunities not only in Russia or Central Asia but domestically within the United States. I think deepening this subject-area expertise will also make me more mobile to take advantage of other opportunities at home and globally.

The IAUNRC congratulates Margaret Sullivan for this recognition of her achievement and potential. We wish her the best of luck on the road ahead!