Q and A: Mary Grigsby, 2014 Global Scholar

August 21, 2014

Mary Grigsby is one of the 14 undergraduate students who participated in the 2014 Global Scholars Program: Contemporary Cities of Eurasia—Berlin, Moscow, Ulan Bator, and Beijing. The program is a summer research workshop run by Columbia faculty and designed to introduce undergraduates to field work methods overseas using both sociological and anthropological approaches. The program is a collaboration with the Harriman Institute, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Office of Global Programs, and Columbia Global Centers | East Asia.

What prompted you to seek the GSP program?
I love to travel and was interested in this idea of combining travel and study. It also seemed like a great opportunity to produce a significant piece of research. At first the topic (Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities of Eurasia), seemed a bit out of the scope of my study, but in the end it proved a fascinating lens of analysis. The already inter-disciplinary nature of the subject was enhanced by the diversity of the students participating in the class, which included students from CC, GS, SEAS, and Barnard, representing a range of backgrounds, languages, and fields of study. 

What was the major attraction for you?
I’m pretty sure they had me at “Trans-Siberian Railroad”. Also Global Scholars Program just sounds cool… who doesn’t want to be a Global Scholar? Honestly though, I was especially intrigued by this format of class: immersive, hands-on, with constant movement and interaction. Coming from a “non-traditional” background, this is how most of my education has been, and I think there is much value in this type of learning. A lot of things can’t be taught in a classroom, yet even better would be this combination of both.

How did your experience meet or exceed your expectations?
One aspect that exceeded my expectations was how much I learned from my classmates. We would all view the same building or movie or lecture, and come away with such varying impressions. There is so much more going on than in a typical classroom; you have the building that you’re in which might be Soviet Constructivism, or maybe you’re in a yurt, or an Olympic stadium, or on a boat on the Spree. Then you have the person speaking and possibly they’re a diplomat that you had to pass through multiple layers of security to access, or you don’t speak the same language and have to wear headphones to hear the translator, or you can’t hear them at all because you’re in an old Berliner restaurant while Germany destroys Portugal in a World Cup match. And that’s just the beginning. So clearly the Russian Lit major is going to process all this differently than the Civil Engineering student. And the result was, in my opinion, some really fascinating dialogue. Along the same lines of this “asymmetrical” learning, you can add the element of censorship we faced in certain regions, and the ambiguity that is often consistent with government or institutional representatives. Whereas in a familiar classroom, you accept information with a relatively low level of skepticism, here the truth could be lost in a nuance. Again I was challenged by my classmates’ perceptions and responses. 

What were the one or two highlights for you from the program?
Yekaterinburg was a great day. We’d been on the train only one night (a super fun long night- we’re on a train!), and arrived at the capital of the Urals, situated on the border of Europe and Asia. Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) was a closed city until 1991 and is rich with early Soviet Constructivist architecture, with a visible Bauhaus influence. I fell in love with constructivist architecture here. You’re looking at something so intriguingly beautiful yet unassuming and it leaves this incredibly powerful lingering mental impression. It was a beautiful sunny summer day, full of art studios and museums, walks along the river, climbing the White Tower, and exploring the Church of All Saints. After a big dinner and at a point of near exhaustion, we retired to our own private Russian Bath. A few birch branch beatings later we were revived and ready to catch our 4am train into the wilds of Siberia.

Biking through Berlin, crashing an oligarch’s party in Moscow, stealing horses in Mongolia, and climbing The Great Wall were some other highlights, as well as most group meals.

What tips do you suggest to students embarking on this program in the future?
I would challenge any future students to take this opportunity to evaluate and weigh their ethnocentrism. Make an effort to act with as much respect and cultural sensitivity and awareness as possible to everyone around you, including your classmates. This is something especially difficult when exhausted from non-stop travel and interaction. Take notes because so much of what is learnt is in the details; take photos, record conversations, keep handouts, ticket stubs, maps, etc.

What is your career goal?
I graduate this May, and hope to attend grad school pursuing a dual MIA/MPH. My specific interests are displaced populations, conflict resolution, and U.S. foreign policy, with a focus on the Middle East and Africa.

How did this experience have an impact on that goal, if at all?
This experience taught me a lot about inter-personal communications and functioning in a group setting. I also found the connections we made throughout the trip with our professors, speakers, classmates, and the Global Center, very valuable. In addition, I also think some of the lenses of analysis we utilized will be useful in future research; such as a closer look at appropriation/re-appropriation of meaning (usually in reference to monuments and architecture), the shifting tides of ethno-nationalism vs. civic-nationalism, and the interplay of urbanization and devolution.

What do you think it means to be a truly global scholar in the context of globalization?
First, I don’t think it’s possible to consider what a global scholar is outside the context of globalization. And consequentially, the meaning of what a global scholar is will continue to evolve with the implications of globalization, a term fluid in itself.  In a broad sense, I think a global scholar means being aware of, and prepared to engage in, a state of globality, and the most pressing issues thereof; namely, global governance, trade and economy, and global health. In a more literal sense, this may be the ability to navigate cultures, and essentially transcend mindsets and borders.

Related Links

Mary Childs Grigsby
Age: 31
Hometown: Applegate, Oregon
Major: Middle Eastern South Asian and African Studies
Degree and completion date: 2015

"In a broad sense, I think a global scholar means being aware of, and prepared to engage in, a state of globality, and the most pressing issues thereof; namely, global governance, trade and economy, and global health. In a more literal sense, this may be the ability to navigate cultures, and essentially transcend mindsets and borders."