Elana Jakel loves much about the Russian, east European, and Eurasian region, particularly the “warmth and generosity of the people, their appreciation for the arts, the region’s mix of cultures and traditions, and its often tragic but interesting history.” Although, it is only by chance that Jakel began studying this “tragic yet interesting” history of Russia. As an undergraduate, she enrolled in a two-semester Russian history course after all the other classes that interested her were closed, and only at the suggestion of her advisor who admitted her to the class above the enrollment limit. While studying Russian and Soviet history was not her original plan, according to Jakel, “by the time we hit the late imperial period, I was hooked. The following year, I started studying Russian.” Jakel went on to pursue a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois focusing on Soviet Ukraine, where she says she followed the traditional graduate career path: “coursework, summer language schools, research, writing, teaching, Netflix binge-watching, etc.”
For her dissertation research, Jakel, who is now Program Manager of the Initiative for the Study of the Ukrainian Jewry at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), wrote on the experiences of Ukrainian Jews immediately after the Holocaust. The choice to focus on Ukraine proved to be an asset when she applied for her current position. After spending time at the Mandel Center as a Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow, she felt a career at the Holocaust Memorial Museum might be a good alternative to academia for her, so she closely monitored the Museum’s job listings, and ended up applying for her current position shortly after defending her dissertation.
At the Mandel Center, Jakel is part of a three-person team who work to promote the study of the Holocaust as it occurred in the former Soviet Union. They organize programs for students and scholars here and in Europe, give outreach lectures at universities, and create instructional resources. She has recently been supervising a five-year project to produce a history of Jews in Ukraine before, during, and after the Holocaust. The publication as well as an accompanying digital tool will be available in both English and Ukrainian, and is designed for use in undergraduate and M.A. classrooms in both Ukraine and North America.
Having recently participated in the online informational interviews conducted as part of the Illinois Global Institute Career Day, and as someone who has pursued an alternative career to academia herself, Jakel believes that all graduate students should be preparing themselves for alternative career paths, especially with the current state of higher education and the academic job market. She recommends students take advantage of tuition waivers and pursue a minor field or graduate certificate outside of their home department in fields such as Public History, Museum Studies, or an interdisciplinary specialty. Pursuing other assistantships for different skills sets can also give graduates an advantage on the job market. Jakel actually spent a year working as a graduate assistant at REEEC: “[Working at REEEC] was a bit unusual for a doctoral student, but that gave me the program planning and administrative experience that set me apart from other applicants and helped me secure my position at the Museum.” She also recommends students spend time achieving fluency in their foreign languages beyond reading proficiency. As a graduate student, Jakel studied Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. She says that while foreign languages are an asset outside of academia, this is only the case if you are able to converse on subjects beyond your research interests.
Jakel completed her Ph.D. in 2014, and says despite the challenges that pursuing a doctorate can present, there are things she misses about being a graduate student: “Although grad school is often very stressful, it’s also a unique opportunity for intellectual growth, and personal and academic freedom that I sometimes miss. I also enjoyed the larger Urbana-Champaign community, which was the perfect size for me.”
Although she pursued a career outside of academia, Jakel appreciates that her work for her Ph.D. directly assists her in her current career: “I feel very fortunate to be able to apply the skills I worked so hard developing for my doctorate directly to my career. I have travelled to Ukraine several times for work, building partnerships, giving lectures, and attending conferences.” Together with her colleagues, she has also developed and led introductory seminars on the Holocaust in the USSR, as well as a Dissertation Development Workshop for international doctoral students to conduct research in USHMM’s library and archives. For Jakel, these projects allow her to use her degree in a manner she enjoys: “Programs like these allowed me to step into the ideal classroom where I can discuss the subjects I love, on my own terms, with interested and motivated participants—and no assignments to grade.”
Portions of this profile previously appeared as a part of the ASEEES member spotlight series. That complete interview can be found here.