Lauren Bisio (MARS-REERS ’15) admits that returning to an academic setting after eight years as a modern dancer was not easy. “Dancing and going to rehearsals and working a lot of different part-time jobs to pay the rent, I was used to constantly multi-tasking,” she says. “Going from that to spending eight hours reading one book in the library was definitely monotonous.” But she is ultimately happy with her decision. “I wanted my career to reflect my interests and passion and curiosity in a way I didn’t feel dance was doing anymore,” she says.
Bisio, who hails from Massachusetts, attended Ohio State University for its dance program, but took on political science as a second major at the insistence of her parents who wanted her to “do something practical.” She was first exposed to the post-Soviet region in a Cold War foreign policy course. After graduating university in 2005, she went on a State Department dance tour to Poland, which eventually landed her a job as a guest artist with an experimental Polish dance company in Kraków, where she lived from 2007 to 2008. She loved Poland and found Kraków to be “one of the most beautiful cities.” In 2011, while living and working in Chicago, she had the opportunity to go on a two-week State Department dance tour to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. She was fascinated by the confluence of Soviet, Asian and Persian influences there. “It was absolutely magical to me at the time and really sparked by curiosity to learn more.”
After suffering from a dance-related injury, she started to reconsider her career. “I wondered whether dance was practical in the long term, and also felt like I was missing an intellectual challenge,” she says. That’s when she decided to pursue an interdisciplinary master’s degree in regional studies. “One of the benefits of being a creative person, an artist, is that interdisciplinarity is so important,” she says. “It’s how I see the world, how I approach problem-solving.” The Harriman Institute’s New York location appealed to her for the opportunities it presented beyond the classroom. Another draw was the Institute’s mandatory thesis writing seminar.
“Having been out of school for eight years I was a little apprehensive about writing a thesis, and the seminar was a major factor in my decision,” she says. She is in the midst of writing her thesis about post-Soviet national identity in Central Asia through the resurgence of handicraft traditions in the region, and the course has helped her tremendously with everything “from formulating a topic to coming up with a proposal to finding appropriate advisers and readers for my topic and the actual writing process,” she says. “The structure makes the process really unintimidating, and that’s a huge plus in my book!” Another plus is the workshop’s instructor, Professor Elise Giuliano. “She’s so generous with her time and her ideas and really goes above and beyond,” Bisio says. “She’s also helped to shape my thinking in terms of national identity and how countries and conflicts have emerged in the post-Soviet space.”
Last summer Bisio traveled to Kyrgyzstan on a foreign language fellowship and a Harriman Pepsico research grant, where she interned with an organization called the Union of Artistic Crafts. On campus she is an active member of OASIES (Organization for the Study of Inner Eurasian Societies), running their Central Asian film series and helping to organize the annual OASIES graduate student conference. “It’s so great to be around a group of dedicated, passionate students,” she says. “You can screen some obscure Uzbek film from 1960 and forty people will show up on a snowy, winter night.” She has been able to attend a wide variety of events at the Institute. “I really appreciate being able to go to a brownbag lunch and get exposure to so many different ideas and people, whether it’s an event related to media in Ukraine or the Black Sea slave trade in the 1400s.”
To read more about our students visit Student Spotlights.