Russian Adventure Sparks Career Plans for College Senior

Katherine Kerns '98 spent her junior year at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, an institution comparable to the United States' Department of State Foreign Service Academy. The only native English-speaking person there, she was also one of the first women and one of the first Americans to take part in the program, which has just begun to invite visiting students from outside the countries of the Former Soviet Union. Surprisingly, when Kerns arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1994, she had never studied Russian and had not yet developed an interest in the subject.

Her turn toward things Russian happened when she "took a basic Russian course as a first-year student and got very involved with the Russian department and related activities. Now my future will definitely be involved with Russia." Kerns says a major reason for attending the academy was to make connections and become comfortable with the Russian economic and political climate. She plans to attend law school after taking a year off to work on plans for an import-export business involving Russia. "I came to Russia with the idea of finding something to pursue for the future--and found it," Kerns explains.

During her stay, which lasted from September through June, Kerns studied Russian one-on-one with a non-English-speaking professor for six hours a day, six days a week.

"I can debate extensively on NATO expansion in Russian, but I still mix up spoon and fork!" Kerns laughs, providing some insights into the rigor of her year abroad. To earn money she also tutored "a bored, nouveau-riche Russian housewife" in English.

In addition, Kerns interned briefly at the Moscow office of the Toronto Star, where she met dignitaries including the UN secretary general, attended press conferences, used their archives, and "got the inside scoop" on various events. There Kerns frequently found herself the only woman and American present, as well as the youngest person by many years. Kerns lived in an apartment provided by the academy for its students, among Eastern Europeans who "wondered at first who I was. They weren't used to women in the professional program and there was some animosity. And I was constantly asked for my perspective on the changes in Russia and the former Soviet states."

Kerns, who went to Russia with substantial assistance from a College grant, says, "I feel if it weren't for Mount Holyoke College I wouldn't be doing something I love. I tell the financial aid folks all the time, 'I will not forget you!' "