Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

How I Accidentally Became a Russian Major

Phillip Gray Clark
April 21, 2017

If you had asked me almost four years ago if I would be a history and Russian area studies double major, I would have replied with a bold “Hell, no!” When choosing a school, I knew I wanted a small liberal arts college - a place where I could expand my academic horizons across the board, but also focus on what I thought to be my interests: political science and economics. Truth be told, I had never taken courses in those fields, but I thought that these were my academic passions. I had been fortunate enough to take an incredible government course at my preparatory school that had sparked my passion for government. And I was mainly interested in economics because I had some preconceived notion that if I ever wanted to be successful, I needed to study economics. Now, as a senior with a job offer in the consulting world, I realize this isn’t the case.

I came into Kenyon hot, boldly proclaiming to my Upperclass Counselor and faculty advisor that I was going to take “Principles of Microeconomics,” “Quest for Justice” (the quintessential Kenyon poli sci intro course), Arabic and a fourth class to be determined. As my older sister was an Arabic major, I felt that the language would be a breeze for me. Course registration went about as well as it could for any hot-headed, bold first-year. I got into my economics course, Quest, and a history course but, due to my own error, I found myself enrolled in “Intensive Intro Russian.” I had typed the wrong number when entering the course code for Arabic. My plan was to attend the first class, so as not to insult the professor, but then promptly drop the course and rectify the error.

My first day of classes was a rude awakening. I realized just 50 minutes into my economics course that the subject was not for me. I dropped the class, effectively ending my career in Kenyon’s economics department.

As 12:10 p.m. rolled around, it was time for Russian. Enter Professor Natalia Olshanskaya. I have never met a woman, apart from my mother, who has impacted me more than her. Kenyon students, especially tour guides, love to talk about the professors who changed their lives. Professor Olshanskaya, who sadly passed away last year, was that person for me. From the moment she walked into the room, I was captivated by her and by the Russian language. She instantly proclaimed that we would learn the Russian alphabet within four days, and she would not let us fail. Sure enough, after countless times reciting the strange foreign sounds in her office, I had the Russian alphabet memorized backward and forward. The rest of my experience with Professor Olshanskaya was comparable, if not even more engaging, to that first interaction. Every single second I studied under her, I strove to do well, not only to earn her elusive, but always well-deserved, approval, but also because she inspired within me a passion for the Russian language.

Four years later, and Russia has become a cornerstone of my academic life here at Kenyon. It is where I studied abroad, what I focused my history research on and what I wish to pursue after graduation. Because of a simple mistake, I discovered my true passion.

With fewer than four weeks left in my final semester, I am legitimately upset. I can’t imagine not being able to have conversations in Russian, not walking into a seminar with Professor Kilic-Schubel, not freaking out (while also having a great time) in Olin Library, working on a paper. I came to Kenyon for the rigorous academics, but I never imagined being as committed, enthralled and curious about my studies as I turned out to be. And now, with such little time left, I can’t imagine not being part of a community that strives for academic excellence.