Casey Michel(MARS-REERS ’15) never intended to go to graduate school. So much so, that when he accumulated a series of parking tickets as an undergraduate at Rice University, where he majored in English and Sports Management, he did not plan to pay them even after the university administration threatened to withhold his transcript. “I didn’t think I’d ever need it again,” he says.
As an undergrad, Michel had limited knowledge about the post-Soviet space, and dreamed of pursuing a career in sports journalism. Then, a summer internship with Sports Illustrated changed his mind. “There was a certain glibness to it that didn’t necessarily resonate with me,” he says. In search of a new direction, Michel applied to the Peace Corps. He requested to be placed in the South Pacific. But, instead of sending him to Fiji or Tahiti, the Peace Corps administration assigned him to northern Kazakhstan. He was puzzled, but never considered backing out. “As time went on, I grew more excited,” he says.
In 2011, Michel spent three months living with a large Turkish family in Almaty, where he received vocational training and learned Russian, then traveled to a 6,000 person village in northern Kazakhstan to serve the remaining two years. The village was in southern Siberia, and the climate, with its humid, mosquito-laden summers and long, bitter winters, was brutal. Michel’s job was to teach English to grades five through ten at a local school. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he says. “I was the first Westerner, first American that many of them had ever met.” Then, six months later, just as he was adjusting to the shock of being there, the Peace Corps administration announced that they were closing the Kazakhstan program. “The official reasons were budgetary,” says Michel, “Kazakhstan has a very high standard of living for a Peace Corps country.” Unofficially, the situation was more complicated. Not only did Kazakhstan have the highest rate of assaults on Peace Corps volunteers, but the Kazakh authorities were also eager to rid the country of Western organizations. “The Peace Corps administration told us: in three days you need to be in Almaty, so buy your tickets, pack your things, and say your goodbyes,” Michel recalls. “The second we flew out of Kazakhstan, I was ready to continue studying the region.”
After his truncated Peace Corps experience, Michel worked in journalism for nearly two years, then, in 2013, enrolled in MARS-REERS (after begrudgingly paying off his outstanding parking tickets). “My experience at Harriman has been beyond anything I could have hoped for and expected,” he says. He is particularly grateful for the opportunity to work with Professor Alexander Cooley, whom he is helping with research for his book on Central Asia’s offshore ties, and the fellowship opportunities he has received. Last winter Michel traveled to Prague for ten days as a Pepsico Fellow for a course on crime and corruption reporting, and last summer, he was able to return to Central Asia for the first time as an inaugural recipient of the Harriman Institute Civil Society Fellowship, which provides travel and living expenses for unpaid practical summer internships at any international or non-governmental organization benefiting civil society in Russia, Eurasia, or East-Central Europe. Michel spent three months working in Bishkek for the International Crisis Group, conducting research on local water infrastructure and regional security threats. Alongside his studies, Michel continues to pursue journalism, publishing articles on the region in outlets such as The Moscow Times, Slate, Global Times, and The Diplomat, where he co-authors the “Crossroads Asia Blog.” “If there’s an opportunity to pursue journalism full time after I graduate, I’ll take it,” he says.