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Student Spotlight: Jennifer Helinek (MARS-REERS ’24)
February 27, 2024

Helinek is a recipient of the 2023-2024 Harriman Junior Fellowship and a Summer Language Fellowship. 

What region/topics are you focusing on at the Harriman Institute?

I mainly study the literature, history, and contemporary politics of East Central Europe. In practice, that means that I tend to focus on modern-day Czechia, Poland, and Hungary. But when describing my studies more broadly, it’s probably most accurate to say I examine the lands that were formerly part of the Austrian Empire and/or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (Sometimes I wish I had a more straightforward answer, but when it comes to our region, it’s impossible for the past not to overlay the present!)

What is your thesis about?

I’m using the Magnesia Litera, one of Czechia’s most prestigious literary prizes, as a case study of the changing roles and perceptions of contemporary Eastern European writers. Having previously worked as an international literary agent, I appreciate having this academic opportunity to explore the intersection of business and culture that artistic prizes represent.

What are some of your favorite things about studying here?

I came to Harriman because for me, it exemplifies the truly multicultural, wide-ranging character of Eastern European and Eurasian Studies. Honestly, there aren’t many places in the world where you can study Czech, Polish, and Hungarian at the same time! I really feel that at Harriman, no part of our region is treated like an afterthought. I also appreciate that the academic curriculum here encourages specialization without the restriction of over-specialization. My peers are a key part of this as well—because their academic emphases range from Ukraine to the Balkans to indigenous communities in Russia, they keep inspiring me to move beyond my own regional comfort zone.

What’s your most memorable experience here so far?

Having Georgi Gospodinov as a professor last fall was an incredibly memorable experience. In general, the Writer in Residence program at Harriman gives students the opportunity to interact with some of the region’s (and the world’s) most significant, brilliant writers, and the fact that Gospodinov’s novel Time Shelter went on to win the International Booker only months after his residence really highlights that!

Where in the region have you traveled?

I had previously worked in Czechia, and with Harriman’s help I was able to return to Prague and Brno for the first time in seven years to continue my studies of Czech language and literature. Years ago, I was also lucky enough to travel in Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Russia.

Fun fact about you:

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and another person who’s from that same small town is Taylor Swift. Not that I ever had aspirations of this kind, but it’s safe to say that there’s nothing I could ever do that would make me a “significant” former resident by comparison.