David L. Boren Awards for International Study

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Boren Scholar Profile: Understanding Modern Russia

Published in January 2011 Newsletter

Jonas Vaicikonis, Boren Scholar, Russia

Jonas Vaicikonis
Russian, Russia
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Major: International Studies       

I grew up in a Lithuanian-American family that remains very connected to Lithuanian culture.  All of my grandparents were forced to leave Lithuania during World War II, and my childhood was full of involvement in Lithuanian-American cultural organizations.  Therefore, I was very interested in learning more about Eastern Europe and Russia's modern-day place in it.  In 2006, I visited Lithuania for the first time.  The experience felt comfortable and foreign all at once.  I spoke the native language, but the modern Russian-laced slang the locals used was lost on me.  I visited ancient castles and historical sites, which were often located next to Soviet-style housing blocs.  This brief visit gave me a taste of how complicated the relationships between Russia and its smaller neighbors have become since the fall of the Soviet Union.  I became deeply interested in trying to understand the significance of these relationships to U.S. national security. 

As a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I majored in international studies, with a focus on international security in Eastern Europe, and I also studied Russian.  One of my favorite professors helped to convince me to apply for the Boren Scholarship.  To be competitive, I had to sincerely think through the reasons I decided to major in international studies and how a Boren Scholarship could help me to reach my goal of a career in the national security field.  With the constant help and encouragement of my university's scholarships office, I worked very hard to put together an application that I was proud of, and that helped me to define my own life goals and motivations more clearly than I ever had before.  

I received a Boren Scholarship to participate in the American Council’s Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (ACTR) for the spring and summer semesters in 2009.  My Russian improved dramatically, not only through class work, but also through the interesting ways I was able to experience daily life.  I was fortunate enough to be able to intern at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival, play ultimate frisbee with a Russian team, and to travel through western Russia.  Most significantly, I lived with a Russian host-mother in her apartment, and some of my fondest memories are of eating dinner and talking with her about her life in a Russia that is very different from the one she grew up in.  

My Boren experience will stay with me well into the future. Through my experiences in Russia, I have developed a keen interest in seeing what choices its leaders will make about its role on the world stage in the future, and how those choices will affect people like the ones I met during my time in Russia.  I am currently seeking a career within the national security community.