by Matt Raab
For second-year graduate student Madina Bizhanova, the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) offers unparalleled opportunities for research on development and democratization in Central Asia. Ironically for Bizhanova, however, she finds herself further away from her area of study than ever before. A graduate of Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, Bizhanova’s own international experience mirrors the multilateral political and economic issues she is studying and researching at Georgetown.
Bizhanova came to SFS to deepen her understanding of the fundamental challenges of development facing Eurasian countries, after studying history, political economy and economics as an undergrad in Kazakhstan.
“Despite my interdisciplinary academic pursuits, I sensed that I lacked a basic understanding of the roots of political and economic challenges faced by Kazakhstan and other Eurasian countries, how they can be best resolved and which ones should be given the main priority,” she says.
To answer those questions, Nazarbayev University professor and Georgetown alumnus Daniel Scarborough (MA’09, PHD’12) recommended SFS and, specifically, CERES. A year into her time here, Bizhanova is enjoying the expertise her program offers. She noted the influence of professors like Anders Aslund, an adviser to Boris Yeltsin on Russia’s economic transition after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kwang Kim, who taught one of Bizhanova’s classes in the Landegger Certificate Program in International Business Diplomacy, and Harley Balzer, whom Bizhanova has worked with on research.
Professor Balzer’s emphasis on local language news and scholarly articles taught me the importance of locally-grounded research in capturing the complexity of the political, economic and social aspects of inter-state relations.
The SFS faculty has been a crucial guide for Bizhanova as she pursues her interest in social impact and economic development.
“In my studies, I mainly look for effective ways to produce a tangible and sustainable social impact in Russia and the Central Asian states,” she says. “In courses taught by professors with many years of work experience at IFC and MIGA, I observed that the increasing engagement with multinational enterprises and multilateral financial institutions tends to pressure the authoritarian states to adopt and adhere to international standards of business operations, such as transparency and social corporate responsibility.”
Bizhanova can pair this academic research with her real world experience in Kazakhstan, including internships in the Kazakh government.
“As an undergrad, I interned at Kazakhstan’s ruling party ‘Nur Otan’ and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Back then, I was considering the option of working for the Government of Kazakhstan as an ambassador or a public policy advisor,” she says. “During my internships, I learned the internal structure of a typical Kazakh bureaucracy and the increasing importance of the knowledge of a Kazakh language in official documents.”
This combination of professional and academic experience has helped guide Bizhanova as she considers career options for the future. While initially attracted to direct public sector service, her study and research at Georgetown impressed her with the impactful potential of work in international economics.
“By focusing on foreign investments in Eurasian economies, I would be able to improve the living standards in Russia and Central Asia within my lifetime and to contribute to the decentralization and greater accountability of their governments in the long-term,” she says. “Since provision of accurate and timely information to foreign investors on doing business in Eurasia is the first step in facilitating the investment inflow to the region, I believe that intelligence consulting is a great way to begin pursuing this objective.”
Her record of engaging academic experience with professional interests comes from a strategy that she advises her fellow students to follow, whatever their interests, in order to get the most out of their studies.
“How can this class help me to achieve this objective? What will be my main obstacle? What tools can help me most to overcome it? Whenever you attend a class or do your readings, if you have these questions in mind, you will better absorb the information and skills taught by your professor,” she says. “It will also help you to make a more effective use of your time outside of the class by attending the kinds of events that are most relevant to your passion.”
That combination of discipline and curiosity has been a helpful support as Bizhanova navigates the complex web of issues facing the region she studies, and approaches the the variety of opportunities available to her in the SFS community she can now also call home.
“I am proud of being a part of Georgetown’s SFS student community.”