Student Spotlight: Mariya Chukhnova (MARS-REERS '20)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Mariya Chukhnova is a BA/MA student at the Harriman Institute. This year she received the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Fellowship from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The Fellowship recognizes outstanding students born in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

I spoke with Mariya at the Harriman Institute on Wednesday, Febraury 19, 2020. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. 

—Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Tell me about your background.

I was born in and raised in Ukraine. After my third year of college, I immigrated to the U.S. I lived in Chicago, did odd jobs working as a nanny and a house cleaner. As I started spending more time with Americans, I realized that I had to get an education in order to fit into U.S. society. I enrolled in a community college in Chicago to see how the U.S. system worked and whether I could keep up with the other students. By the second year, I started applying to four-year colleges. My teacher suggested Columbia, because of the special program for adults working on their undergraduate degrees—the School of General Studies. I was accepted and my husband and I moved to New York. 

How did you end up enrolling in MARS-REERS?

I started taking Harriman courses before I became a Harriman student. I was curious about the history of Russian and Ukrainian politics. One of the classes I took was the history of Ukrainians in New York City with Professor Alexander Motyl. That was an amazing class. Professor Motyl is a wonderful tour guide and he explained the significance of various buildings as we explored the city. I learned so much about migration and immigration, and not just about the Ukrainian community, but other ethnic groups who came here during World War I and World War II.

Then, a professor of mine convinced me to apply to the BA/MA program at the Harriman Institute and suggested fellowships I could apply for. I ended up receiving a generous fellowship from the U.S.-Russia Foundation that covered my tuition costs. I also received the Bazarko Fellowship.

What’s your thesis about?

I’m researching the role of women in Ukrainian society in relation to labor migration. I argue that in addition to economic reasons, there’s also a social reason for migration. Women decide to migrate in order to avoid the double burden they face at home. They have to do the house chores, take care of the children, and hold down a job, while their husbands, who are considered the main contributors, have nearly identical salaries and do not do anything around the house. I interviewed 17 women and was astonished to discover that nearly all of them realized while living abroad that they could no longer tolerate the lives they’d been living at home and ended up divorcing their husbands. Many had suffered domestic abuse. Society does not want to discuss domestic abuse; it’s common to expect that the wife will  stay in the relationship for the sake of the family, regardless of how her husband treats her. Labor migration is changing a lot of this. 

I was able to conduct this research in Ukraine thanks to a PepsiCo Fellowship I received from the Harriman Institute.

What are some classes you have taken while at the Harriman?

In addition to my work on Ukraine, I’m focusing a lot on Russia, because you cannot study Ukraine without understanding Russia. 

Currently I’m taking Politics in Russia with Professor Elise Giuliano. Last semester I took a history class called Russian History on Trial with Professor Rhiannon Dowling on the history of Russia’s judicial system. This semester I’m taking another course with her about monuments and memory in Eastern Europe.

I’m also learning about Russia’s energy politics with Professor Natasha Udensiva. We’re examining the oil and gas industry in Russia and other business relations with countries who have energy resources. I’m also taking Russian literature with Professor Irina Reyfman.

What do you hope to do after graduation?

Last semester I took a course with Professor Matthew Murray on corruption in post-Soviet countries and he invited to class a former FBI agent who worked for the FBI’s anticorruption division. I was really interested to hear about his work and am planning to apply to the anti-corruption division at the FBI, or to the international crimes division. 

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