Katy Swartz (SIPA ’19) is Harriman Institute Junior Fellow and a SIPA program assistant for regional specializations at our East Central European Center. She studies economic and political development with a regional specialization in East Central Europe, particularly the Balkans.
I met with Katy at the Harriman Institute on Monday, April 8, 2019. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your background.
As an undergrad at Smith College I was a Jewish Studies major, and there was a lot of overlap with Eastern Europe. After graduating in 2013, I did a Fulbright in Bulgaria, where I taught English at a high school.
Bulgaria seemed like the best choice for a Fulbright because I was interested its history as a Soviet satellite state and its time under Ottoman rule. I was also curious to learn more about its history in the Holocaust, as Bulgaria was one of the few countries in Europe that saved its Jewish population. Interestingly enough, I was placed in a Jewish school, but only 30 percent of the kids were actually Jewish.
While living in Bulgaria I realized that what we know, learn and understand about Eastern Europe is both limited and often times flawed. The region is much more complicated than I could come to understand in one year. When I left Bulgaria, I knew that I’d continue studying the Balkans. That’s what eventually led me to SIPA. It was the only grad school I applied to, because of the Harriman Institute and its offerings related to the Balkans as well as the opportunity to take Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, which very few institutions offer.
What most surprised you about the Harriman Institute when you started here?
The variety of interests represented by the students and the wonderful community I found.
What is your favorite aspect of the program?
The close relationship with professors, such as my Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian teacher Aleksandar Bošković, and that everyone at Harriman knows me and the few others who are Balkan hands. It’s cool to have both a small group of people who study the region, and also to be one of the few Balkans-focused people.
What professors have inspired you and why?
Some of the best classes I’ve taken have been Harriman specialization classes. I really enjoyed Alexander Cooley’s “Legacies of the Empire and Soviet Union,” Elise Giuliano’s “Ethnic Politics across Post-Soviet Eurasia,” and Aleksandar Bošković’s language class.
What’s the most egregious misconception you’ve heard about the Balkans?
That the region is still at war. Also there is a lack of nuance in conversations about the postwar development of Balkan countries.
What field work have you done during your time at SIPA?
Last summer I did an internship at the economic section of the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.
What’s your advice to people considering to focus their graduate studies on the region?
I would say do it. Sometimes it feels like we’re focusing more on thematic issues than regional studies issues at SIPA, and that regional studies are going out of vogue. I firmly disagree with that. There’s a need for regional expertise and you will stand out as a student and a job applicant if you have regional expertise.
What will you do after graduation?
I’m going to do a summer language program in Belgrade through American Councils, funded by a State Department Title VIII grant.
Also, I recently completed all the exams to join the U.S. State Department as a foreign service officer. Pending receipt of my security clearance I will start working there in early 2020. As I wait for the paperwork I will be living in the Balkans, first in Serbia and then in destinations unknown.
How did you decide to apply to the Foreign Service?
During my time in Bulgaria I was a U.S. cultural ambassador to my students, and I found out that not only did I have misconceptions about Eastern Europe, but they also had a lot of misconceptions about the U.S.
I was able to gain a deeper respect for my own country when seeing it through the eyes of others. After getting to know some foreign service officers in Bulgaria, and then this last summer in Bosnia, I realized that it was a career I wanted to pursue.
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