When Andres Fernandez (MARS-REERS ’18) first visited Hungary through an American Field Service exchange program during the 2010-11 academic year, he fell in love with the country. But he was also shocked by the blatant anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism that he observed from the people around him, including his host father. A few years later, he had a similar experience in Russia—he had loved the country while spending the summer in the multicultural city of Kazan on a State Department Critical Language Fellowship in 2014, but when he returned to teach English as a Fulbright Scholar in the Russian city Oryol the following year, he was astounded by the blatant nationalism and discrimination he experienced. Fernandez is Colombian-American, and the combination of his dark complexion and slightly accented Russian often caused locals to mistake him for a Central Asian or Caucasian migrant. “People would treat me like I was uneducated and inferior to them,” he told me, explaining that their demeanor would change completely once they discovered he was from the U.S. “It made me very uncomfortable.”
Fernandez was born in Bogota, Colombia, but moved with his mother to Indianapolis when he was six, and then to Tampa when he was fourteen. Growing up, he always felt like an “unofficial ambassador” for his home country, which he visited every summer. At the same time, for reasons he can’t quite pinpoint, Fernandez was always interested in Russia. When he found himself with a gap semester between high school and the start of his undergraduate career at the University of Florida, he decided to apply to the American Field Service, which offered foreign exchanges in five countries. His first choice, Brazil, didn’t work out, and he was sent to Hungary, which had been his second choice due to its relative proximity to Russia, and the presumption of a similarity between the two languages. Upon his arrival in a small Hungarian city located three hours outside of Budapest, Fernandez was surprised to discover that the Hungarian language bore little relation to Russian. And that it was very difficult to learn. But languages come naturally to Fernandez—he currently speaks six—and he had no trouble picking it up. He ended up spending a year in Hungary, and it was the first of his many travels to the former Soviet bloc. The experience paved the way for his interest in nationalism and ethnic politics, an interest that would strengthen during his Fulbright in Oryol.
While in the Fulbright program, Fernandez applied to the MARS-REERS program at the Harriman Institute. Not only did the Harriman Institute’s inter-regional and interdisciplinary atmosphere seem like fertile ground for his interest in the study of ethnic politics in the post-Soviet region, but also New York’s vibrancy and multi-culturalism offered the perfect antidote to provincial Oryol. During his first year, Fernandez took Professor Elise Giuliano’s course, “Ethnic Politics across Soviet Eurasia,” and researched nation-building in Kazakhstan. He then spent the summer interning at the Department of Commerce in Almaty, where he researched various sectors of the Kazakh economy and wrote a report on renewable energy. He was surprised to see that Kazakhstan, which he had perceived as a closed country, was much more open to foreigners than Russia. “It certainly helped that I look like I’m from the region,” he said. “But Kazakhstan in general felt like a more open environment."
Fernandez, who wrote his thesis on Russian-Hungarian relations, has continued to develop his newfound interest in Central Asia. Last fall, he took a course on Central Asian culture and politics with Harriman postdoctoral research scholar Edward Lemon. He wrote his final paper on Kazakhstan’s energy security, and then used his research to publish an article in the Diplomat about the future of Kazakh renewable energy. “I’m very proud of it,” he told me. Since then he has also written for Eurasianet on the pre-election scapegoating of corrupt officials in Russia. After graduation, Fernandez plans to stay in New York and work for a nonprofit or intelligence firm. “I never imagined myself here, but I really fell in love with this city,” he told me.
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