As an international student from Ukraine, Svitlana Kobzar, a 2004 Alma College graduate, never dreamed of the possibilities that Alma College would open for her.
Her professors at Alma — especially Model United Nations advisor Derick Hulme — helped her a lot.
“Going from being really, really not confident and not knowing English that well, to thinking, ‘Oh, I can pursue all these opportunities,’ that change happened at Alma,” she says.
Her participation in Model United Nations had a huge impact on her. Alma’s MUN team has won 37 “outstanding delegation” awards at the national conference held in New York — the most of any college in the 94-year history of the conference.
“Going to New York and experiencing diplomacy in real time was an amazing experience,” she says. “Professor Hulme was the one who really instilled the belief that by working hard and dreaming big, it’s possible to pursue ambitious goals.”
Hulme encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to do summer research at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute — and she got it. He also introduced her to Lee Posey ’56 and Sally Sounders Posey ’56, whose foundation allowed her to attend the University of Cambridge to pursue her master’s degree in contemporary European studies. Hulme also told her about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and worked with her to prepare for interviews and the competitive application process.
She applied — and became one of only 100 students annually worldwide to receive it. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship enabled her to continue her studies at Cambridge to achieve her Ph.D. in international studies.
She and other Alma students, including Shabnam Miraeedi ’05, Jessica Karbowski ’04 and Lora Ross ’04, founded a non-profit student organization at Alma to raise money for orphanages in Ukraine. Her role in founding Forgotten Children of Eastern Europe helped her stand out on her application for the Gates Scholarship.
“It allowed us as undergraduate students to experience what it’s like to have a non-profit,” she says.
At Cambridge, she started working as a lecturer and doing research for RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank for global policy. The corporation does research in defense, security, health, education, migration and demography issues for the benefit of the public. Often, the U.S., European governments, European Union institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or charities request that the research be done to help guide their policy decisions.
“Being at Alma and having so much support, and thinking about all of these opportunities in my life, really changed the course of where I was going,” she says. “I wanted to give back.”
Her work with the RAND Corporation brought her to Brussels to do work for the E.U., which is headquartered there. That’s when her husband saw an advertisement for a part-time teaching position at Vesalius College.
“I remember thinking, ‘This sounds so much like Alma College,’” she says. “It’s a small, liberal arts-type of college, with a lot of small classrooms and dedicated professors.”
Two years later, she became the head of the Department of International Affairs at Vesalius College. She also is the academic director of European Peace and Security Studies.
Vesalius College is a private, American-style college with about 300 students, and all classes are taught in English. It’s affiliated with a larger university, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
She teaches, does research, connects with students and faculty, and serves as a link to the administration. Her favorite part about her work is interacting with students and advising policymakers.
“We have a lot of discussions about problems in the world with my students, but also solutions to those problems,” she says. “It’s a really nice feeling to have people who can actually maybe end up changing the world for the better, to work with them and teach and interact with them at these early stages of their careers.”
It’s a difficult time for Ukraine, but there are also many opportunities to address corruption issues and improve its governance, she says. Being in Brussels — the de facto seat of the E.U., which is working to build ties with Ukraine — has been enormously helpful to her policy research.
“A lot of policy debates linked to Ukraine happen in Brussels,” she says. “Being originally from Ukraine also allows me then to contribute to the debate on Ukraine and go to Ukraine and see for myself what’s happening there and then feed back into the debates here in Brussels.”
— Erica Shekell