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Student Spotlight: Sarah Calderone (SIPA ’18)
February 8, 2018

Sarah Calderone (SIPA ’18) has been interested in the treatment of migrants in Russia since 2012. That year, as a junior at Drew University, she received a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. State Department to study Russian in Vladimir—a small city about 120 miles outside of Moscow. Calderone spent two months there, and was struck by the negative attitude toward migrants that she encountered. “People I interacted with would say things like, ‘I don’t like seeing them on the street, what are they doing here?” she recalls. Calderone, who had an interest in human rights, wanted to understand the root cause of these attitudes and the official policies that may have shaped them. Two years after completing the CLS, she returned to Russia—this time to the Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg—as a Fulbright scholar researching integration efforts for migrants coming from Central Asia.

Calderone began her research at an opportune time—in 2015 the Russian government passed a reform package on migration law, and she was able to study its effects firsthand. She paid particular attention to a new requirement to test migrants on their knowledge of the Russian language, history, and legal system within thirty days of arrival. “It was kind of contradictory,” says Calderone, “because it was meant to help migrants adapt but also to gauge the adaptability of migrants.” If a migrant failed the test, he or she was denied the right to stay.

Calderone interviewed Russian-language experts assigned to evaluate the exam. Some of her respondents were skeptical of the requirement. They saw it as an effort to curb migration, rather than as a way to integrate migrants. Not only was the 30-day period insufficient in order to learn the amount of Russian necessary to pass the test, but also the legal and historical questions were quite difficult, even for native Russian speakers. Other evaluators, however, saw it differently. “They said things like, ‘the least migrants could do to stay in our country is to learn to speak the language,’” says Calderone.


Calderone spent ten months in Ekaterinburg, building her body of research, meeting scholars with similar interests, and presenting her research at Russian-language conferences. After her return to the U.S., she continued working on and presenting her research, and published an article on Eurasianet. Currently, she is writing a paper about the language exams with Professor Caress Schenk at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.

In 2016 Calderone enrolled in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she is pursuing a Harriman Institute certificate and working as a Harriman departmental research assistant. Migration issues continue to be the focal point of her studies, but she has widened the scope of her research—last summer Calderone received a Harriman Pepsico grant to do research in Kazakhstan, this time focusing on migration trends and policies there.

While at Columbia, Calderone has worked extensively with Harriman Director Alexander Cooley. Last year she assisted him in his research on corporate transparency and foreign investor visas in transnational financial networks, and is currently working on a paper on Russia’s use of migration as a foreign policy tool with Central Asian states. It was Cooley who suggested that Calderone organize a conference on migration at the Harriman Institute, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Working with Professors Lara Nettelfield and Jack Snyder, Calderone conceptualized the goals of the conference and brought together a group of international scholars. The two-day conference, titled, “Regional Perspectives on Migration and Refugees,” took place in January 2018. It was a success, but the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the United States made it quite difficult to bring over Russian scholars. “The wait time for visas is up to three months,” says Calderone.

Calderone has learned a lot from her experience at Columbia. “It is such a stimulating environment,” she says. After she graduates in May, she would like to continue her work on the region and transnational issues, including migration. “I’m not ruling out staying in academia.”

—Masha Udensiva-Brenner

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