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Student Spotlight: Colleen Wood (GSAS)
May 13, 2019

Colleen Wood (GSAS), a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study Central Asian return migration and diasporic identities. The award recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students to conduct research relevant to society-at-large and national security. Wood is one of 10 political science students to receive the award this year, selected from a pool of 12,000 applicants from various disciplines.

Wood keeps a busy schedule. Apart from her duties as teaching assistant for Jack Snyder’s course on Nationalism and Contemporary World Politics, where she delivered a lecture on nationalism in Central Asia (her regional expertise), she contributes two essays a month to The Diplomat, an international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region on everything from a phone app developed to keep migrant workers in Russia in touch with family back home in Central Asia, or the “anti-spitting law”;  and is taking three courses, including Elementary Farsi. In addition, during spring break she traveled to Kyrgyzstan, funded by a Harriman PepsiCo travel fellowship, to follow up on interviews and a focus group she had conducted during an exploratory trip the previous summer to investigate the role public education plays in forging the intersection between ethnic and civic identity. The following month she traveled to Moscow to take part in the conference organized by Harriman and IMEMO (Institute for World Economy and International Relations) on “Political and Social Changes in the United States, Russia and Europe: New Domestic Trends and International Pressures.”

Getting to where she is today is a decade in the making, beginning with her study of Russian in high school and going to Concordia Language Camp in Minnesota, where her Kyrgyz counselor taught her a few words from his native language and where she learned to play the komuz, the Kyrgyz national instrument. She studied Russian and Turkish as an undergraduate at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. After graduating, Wood spent her “gap year” working for Georgetown’s study abroad program in Turkey, where she also freelanced for the online magazine Muftah.Told that the Peace Corps usually dragged its feet when it came to assignments, she sent in her application, expecting to hear after a year. But she was informed only a month later that her application for assignment in Kyrgyzstan (the only country she had chosen) had been approved.

During her two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, after a 7-week training cycle with 5-6 hours of language instruction a day, she lived both in the north and the south. She taught pedagogy, second-language acquisition, andclassroom best practices at the university and later in a secondary school. The experience taught her that she loved teaching, but preferred working with college students. During her tour of duty she won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the World Nomad Games, for a game that she had learned the previous week on her phone. As Corps volunteers, they were not allowed to accept the purse, but instead donated the money to a women’s shelter.

Georgetown’s Charles King, whose large undergraduate lecture course on comparative politics inspired her choice of field, was influential in helping her decide on graduate study. Wood values comparative politics for its “appreciation for domestic systems and the variation in the ways that countries organized their societies.”

Wood had the opportunity to meet and talk with Roza Otunbayeva, former president of Kyrgyzstan at the Harriman’s conference “Chinghiz Aitmatov at 90.” Wood remarked that most people are surprised to learn that she speaks fluent Kyrgyz, but that the former president took it completely in stride.

Asked about her long-term goals, Wood replied, “I want to teach and be grounded in academia, but I’m also passionate about extending that to a larger audience through media and policy advising. Ideally, the things I write and think about can be brought into the real world.”

Ronald Meyer