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Student Spotlight: Lucia Savchick (SIPA, MIA ‘16)
December 10, 2015
Lucia Savchick (SIPA ’16) has always been fascinated with the post-Soviet region. She attributes the fascination to her family history: her grandmother was born to Russian-speaking parents in Tehran and spent part of her childhood in Tbilisi. Savchick seldom got to hear stories about her grandmother’s past, but one detail always stood out from the stories she did hear: Her grandmother, who worked as an interpreter, met her grandfather during the Tehran War Conference; the first meeting of the so-called “Big Three”— Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. It was this detail, says Savchick, which ignited her interest in international relations and the geopolitics of Russia.

Growing up, Savchick read countless books on the post-Soviet region, taught herself the Russian language by using old textbooks that belonged to her father, and listened to Russian music. It was only as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University in Halifax that Savchick got to study Russian in a classroom. She was the first in her college to combine political science and Russian studies. “I had this really unique opportunity to tailor my undergraduate degree to my interest: Russia’s role on the world stage,” says Savchick.

After graduating from college in 2011, Savchick worked as a field organizer on President Obama’s reelection campaign. Afterward, she moved to Washington with hopes of finding a job in the State Department or the Department of Defense. “Typically, people who work on an election campaign have the opportunity to work for the administration afterward,” she says. Unfortunately, the economy was in poor shape and few positions opened up.

In late 2013, Savchick, who wanted to improve her Russian, moved to Bishkek. “I’d never been there, I didn’t have any friends or contacts,” she says. But, within a week of checking into a hostel, she found a consultancy position with a peacebuilding organization called Search for Common Ground. Savchick stayed with the organization for five months, during which time she wrote grant proposals for projects offering supplemental education to girls and women, and assisted with monitoring and translating for Kabar Ordo, a journalist training program in Osh. “I learned a lot about the country field offices of international NGOs and the unique challenges they face in regard to funding and program support,” she says.

Leaving Bishkek in the spring, Savchick travelled around Tajikistan. While riding along the Afghan border on the Pamir Highway, she was struck by the disparity between the two countries—Tajikistan was much more developed. “There was a stark development and infrastructure divide,” says Savchick. The experience made such an impression that it caused her to hone her research interests; from then on, she would focus on transnationalism and migration and the effect of borders.

A couple of months later, during a stint in Tbilisi, Savchick became friends with Angela Wheeler (’16), a Harriman Institute certificate student travelling on a Pepsico grant. Wheeler’s stories piqued her interest. “I was really intrigued by what the Harriman Institute has to offer in conjunction with a SIPA degree,” she says, explaining that SIPA could provide her with a practical foundation in quantitative analysis, while Harriman could enhance her background in regional studies. At the time, Savchik was teaching English to Ukrainian children in the Carpathians and writing political columns for  “I researched Columbia and applied to SIPA using a very spotty internet connection in the Carpathians.” She was accepted two weeks later. “I was thrilled,” she says. “I never dreamed of being accepted to an Ivy League school.”

Savchick started her first semester at SIPA in January 2015. Right away, the Harriman Institute became her home base. “It really feels like a family here,” she says. “Professors are always around and very accessible—if you need to bounce your ideas off of somebody, they’re right there.” She was particularly impressed by Peter Clement’s course on contemporary Russian security policy. Clement spent decades working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and brought in CIA experts to talk to the class.

Last summer, Savchick travelled to Kyiv on a Pepsico summer grant to conduct independent research on human trafficking in the Donbas region. She partnered with an organization called Crimea SOS, helping them write donor reports in exchange for access to their database of internally displaced persons. “It was disheartening to see how impossible it is to verify trafficking allegations in Donetsk and Luhansk,” says Savchick.

Back at Columbia for the academic year, Savchick is working as the Harriman Institute’s Department Research Assistant for Eastern and Central Europe. When she graduates next fall, she hopes to work for an international organization or NGO on human rights in the former Soviet Union and migration-related issues. “Seeing the opportunities here, I really learned to reach higher,” she says.

—Masha Udensiva-Brenner

To read more about our students visit Student Spotlights.