Tuesday Talk… with Nina Jankowicz

Previous Tuesday Talks: Gwen Prowse, Jacob Slichter

Nina Jankowicz is a 2007 graduate of Hillsborough High School who was a student in two of my classes and an award-winning member of HHS Debate. She also was a frequent performer in our Variety Shows and Unplugged. Nina always had an agile mind, a fearlessness for public speaking, and a relentlessly positive outlook. I couldn’t be more pleased for her success nor less surprised. She is becoming a go to for media outlets looking for experts to talk about the impact of Russian propaganda and has been featured on The PBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff, MSNBC’s Live with Ali Velshi, and CNN’s Amanpour, and published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

Tell me about your experience as a high school student.

My time at HHS was defined by my extracurriculars: HHS Debate and performing, whether in plays, musicals, with choir, or on my own. For the most part I really liked school and my classes, and I think the size of HHS and the opportunities within it gave me and others who had been considered “weird” or “nerdy” in middle school a chance to find our tribes.

Has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten more worldly experience and gotten some distance?

As I’m reflecting here I realize that I don’t really remember many of the things that seemed tortuous or disastrous about high school at the time — cliques and drama with friends, or whatever. I can’t describe any of it in detail to you. It all kind of fades away, and that’s a useful perspective to have in adulthood, too.

What did you like — or not like — about your social studies classes?

I loved being challenged in a way that I couldn’t really get anywhere else! I still remember doing the summer reading you assigned for AP Government before senior year (if I’m not mistaken, it included What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank), writing responses to it, and being kind of surprised how engaged I was with the material and that I actually enjoyed that type of work! I also remember writing an impassioned critique of Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta in which I lambasted him for giving up Western influence in Poland in order to get Stalin and the USSR on board with the Allies to end the war. (In retrospect, this couldn’t have been more on brand!) I also really appreciated doing simulations in your classes. All of this work prepared me really well for college and for the real world, of course.

My big critique isn’t of my classes in particular, but of the way we teach social studies in the United States in general. It’s too US-focused and quite repetitive until you’re a junior or senior. How many times can one student learn about the Renaissance and American Revolution?! What shocks me, despite the repetitiveness of our curricula, is that often the Europeans I meet still know U.S. History better than many Americans. And of course, when it comes to the rest of the world, as a nation our knowledge is woefully inadequate. I believe this contributes to the feelings of “othering” that are driving opinions about immigration right now.

How did your extracurricular activities play a role in shaping the person you’ve become?

I think the performative nature of debate, music, and theater has led me to outward-facing work. Having a significant amount of public speaking, debate, and performance experience as a teenager made me better prepared to give speeches, participate in panels, testify before Congress, and go on TV as an adult. It also meant that in my early career I knew that sitting alone at a desk wasn’t really for me; I wanted a job that was going to let me interact with people and have my ideas challenged.

Why Bryn Mawr? What was your major?

Bryn Mawr chose me! My mom had always talked about the Seven Sisters schools (the seven women’s colleges that were “sisters” to the Ivy Leagues back when university education wasn’t co-ed) as I was growing up. She also was also very deliberate in telling me that I should never be afraid to speak up in class when I was a kid, regardless of how aggressive the boys in class were being. I think you’ll agree that wasn’t a problem for me 🙂

Even aside from my mom’s encouragement, the idea of being in a small, supportive environment of other ambitious young women really appealed to me. The campus was beautiful, it wasn’t so far from home that I couldn’t easily get home if I needed or wanted to (I had also been looking at Wellesley, but decided not to apply in the end- it was a blessing in disguise as my dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) my freshman year and I ended up going home pretty frequently), and they had a very generous financial aid package, which I needed.

It was the perfect place for me. I think despite my outward self-assuredness I would have felt lost at a large school, and Bryn Mawr was full of women who all pretty much got me. They were also scheduling out every spare minute of time outside of their classwork to pursue their extracurriculars, no matter how nerdy. My best friends as an adult are women I graduated with at Bryn Mawr. They inspire me to this day. One of them just read and gave me comments on an early draft of my manuscript. And whenever I run into a Bryn Mawr alum, whether they graduated with me or not, I’m always amazed at the things they’re doing. Like they did at school, they’re putting as much of themselves out in the world as they can muster.

How did your focus and career goals evolve as an undergraduate?

I came to Bryn Mawr knowing that I would major in Political Science, probably thanks to debate. But among Bryn Mawr’s requirements for incoming students was a really serious language requirement: everyone needed two years of a foreign language above the 100 level. Naturally, I decided to take a language that would block off hours of my schedule for the next three years, at least: Russian. My family is Polish, I had always been interested in Slavic languages, and Bryn Mawr had a world class Russian department, so my freshman year I found myself in Russian class eight hours per week, not including homework. It was a small class of around ten students, the professors were personable and engaging, and the musty “Russian House” where our classes were held quickly became my favorite place on campus. By that December, I had decided I was going to double major in Russian and Political Science, and as I got farther into the Political Science curriculum, particularly on the comparative politics end of the spectrum, I knew I wanted to really focus on the former communist space. Studying in St. Petersburg, Russia for a semester my junior year really sealed the deal, and I decided to apply to graduate school for Russian and East European Studies.

How many languages do you speak? Do different former Soviet republics have significantly different dialects?

Aside from English, I speak Russian at the “professional” level, meaning I can conduct a meeting or do business in Russian without issue. Having lived in Ukraine for a year on a Fulbright fellowship and returned for two months in 2019 to cover the Ukrainian Presidential Election, I picked up Ukrainian. I also speak Polish, but don’t get to practice very much, so my understanding and reading is much better than my speaking.

All three of these are Slavic languages and share some commonalities in their grammar and lexical structures. Ukrainian can be very tricky for me because it occupies a lexical space somewhere between Russian and Polish, and the pronunciation and words people use as they’re speaking Ukrainian will change depending on where you are in the country; in the East, people speak a more Russianized version of the language, while in the West, closer to Poland, sometimes you’ll hear Polish words thrown in. Ukrainian language is in general experiencing a Renaissance since the 2014 Russian invasion; Russia often uses language as a vector of political influence so it has become a point of patriotism to speak Ukrainian. When I first started going to Ukraine three years ago, you would hear Ukrainian on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, about a quarter of the time. Now you hear it at least half of the time. It’s been fascinating to watch, especially given that the new President, Zelenskyy, is from a Russian-speaking family. (I wrote about this in the spring for PRI.)

As for other Soviet republics, Russian use varies. The Baltics, for instance, all use their local languages which are not intelligible to Russian speakers (Lithuanian and Latvian are in the Baltic language group, Estonian is Finno-Ugric, close to Finnish). By far the most unique language in the Soviet Republics is Georgian, which has its own script and isn’t related to any other language in the world! Some older folks will speak Russian but they prefer Georgian or English. I can’t speak or read any Georgian, but I know how to say hello, thank you, and cheers 🙂

After Bryn Mawr, did you go right to grad school? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do at (and after) Georgetown?

I did! I didn’t really have any idea of what I wanted to do when I got my undergraduate degree, but I knew there was plenty more to learn about Eastern Europe and Eurasia, so I applied to a bunch of programs all around the country. I settled on Georgetown because it was well-regarded and it made sense to be in Washington for international affairs work. I thought maybe I’d get a PhD someday, but I quickly realized in graduate school that I enjoyed the more practical (and outward-facing) courses that involved more speaking and negotiating, and really disliked the ones that forced me to spend hours alone in the library. Do svidaniya, PhD! During graduate school I was also doing internships — more on that below — and those really shaped my early career. A lot of people asked me why I was studying Russia at the time but I feel quite justified in my decision now. The truth is Russia and Eastern Europe will always be fascinating, even if a time comes when some might consider them unimportant. But I think we have a lot to learn from countries that are a bit newer to the democratic experiment.

Can you talk a bit about the early positions you held? What were you biggest triumphs and tribulations?

During graduate school I had two internships: I worked for an NGO that supported educational exchanges, research, and civil society organizations all over the world, and later had an internship at the State Department, where I worked in the Office of the Coordinator of Assistance to Europe and Eurasia. Basically, they’re the people who oversee all of the foreign assistance going to the region. The few months I worked there were incredibly important for me, and I was there at a critical moment: Russia had just asked the U.S. Agency for International Development to leave the country, and that had wide-reaching implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region. It was in many ways the “beginning of the end” of the Obama-era “Reset” with Russia and the beginning of the deterioration of relations we are seeing today. It was pretty much a dream for a Model UN nerd like me to walk the halls of the State Department every day. I made some very close friends and mentors during my time there, and because of the work I did then I knew I wanted to keep working on U.S. policy to the Europe and Eurasia region.

That was easier said than done! Despite graduating from a great Master’s degree program and having had competitive internships, I was unemployed for the summer after graduate school. I kept busy by writing and doing some freelance translation work, and eventually I landed an interview at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an NGO that was founded in 1983 and supports democracy worldwide. I was hired to work on NDI’s Russia and Belarus programs, and for three years I got to really get into the minutiae of both countries. I eventually moved over to NDI’s communications and government relations team before I received a Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellowship in Ukraine in 2016-2017. This special type of Fulbright fellowship placed me in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an advisor to the Spokesperson. I was on the frontlines of the disinformation crisis, and though I expected a different political situation in the United States when I returned home, I was able to turn my experience in Ukraine into work that is not only impactful (in my opinion), but really fulfilling for me as well.

I should also say that programs like Fulbright, which allow Americans to spend significant time abroad and foreigners to do the same here are an incredible return on investment for the United States. The Trump Administration has repeatedly tried to slash them; we should be doing the opposite. This is a time we need more Americans going abroad and building personal connections with people in other countries. Alums of these exchange programs often go on to become heads of state, or I don’t know, write books 😉 I highly encourage any of your students reading this to check out what exchange opportunities are available to them in high school, college, and beyond. They are, quite simply, life changing.

You’ve almost finished your first book! What’s the focus?

Yes! The first draft is submitted. How to Lose the Information War, which will be published in Summer 2020, explains how five countries in Central and Eastern Europe responded to Russian disinformation over the past decade, and makes some suggestions for what the United States can do about its own information crisis. Based on my research and experience, I believe the key to combatting disinformation, whether it comes from domestic or foreign actors, is to equip people with the skills they need to better navigate today’s information environment. It’s not a quick fix but it will make our democracy healthier in the long run!

How impactful do you believe Russian interference was in 2016?

Often people ask “how many votes did Russia change in 2016?” or “did Russia swing the election?” I appreciate the way you’ve phrased this question because it doesn’t buy into either of these tropes, which entirely miss the goal of Russian interference. It’s not necessarily to change votes; it is to create chaos and distrust. When you look at the way President Trump describes the Mueller investigation, or the law enforcement and intelligence agencies that concluded the Russia was agitating on then candidate Trump’s behalf, I think it is clear that Russia succeeded in creating chaos and distrust in the United States. Beyond that, Russia was successful in changing the discourse surrounding the election in the United States. Leaving aside social media manipulation, which changed what millions of Americans saw in their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, even the hack and leak of the DNC had an impact on our election discourse. It changed how the media reported on the election. It changed how the parties and candidates talked about themselves and their opponents. And it certainly changed how voters conceived of the electoral process and those involved in it. Mission accomplished, in my view.

What can the average American citizen do to know that the news they are reading, hearing, or watching is legitimate?

Consume news from a variety of reputable sources. Learn how to do a reverse image search to check the images accompanying articles you’re reading have been sourced from the event they claim to describe (for instance, coverage of every hurricane seems to be accompanied by an image of a shark swimming down a highway. These are fake). Most importantly, read and think before you share. If a news story causes you to react emotionally, ask why? Read beyond the sensational headline. Is it because it’s too ludicrous to be true, or has real injustice been done? See if other sources are reporting it before sharing, or consider not sharing at all.

What steps would you suggest the American government take to reduce the impact of foreign manipulation in future elections?

This is what the last two chapters of my book are about! The most important thing we could do today is acknowledge the threat at the highest level of government and mobilize the resources necessary to address it. Right now, though, because the issue has become so politicized, even simple bills to increase funding to secure election infrastructure can’t get passed. This problem isn’t intractable; we just haven’t decided to address it yet.

Did I see you going to be performing in Into the Woods soon? Have you missed performing?

I got back into theater when I was working at NDI and have performed in a few shows in the DC area over the eight years I’ve lived here. Into the Woods is the latest — we open on Friday! Doing a musical is a huge time commitment but I think it’s really important to have hobbies outside of work. Theater takes me out of my element, means I’m not working all the time, gives me an outlet for my emotions, and has widened my circle of friends in the area. It’s worth the exhaustion!

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