Originally intending to major in chemistry at Duke University, Matt Rosenstein ended up as a Russian major through a familiar route for those in Slavic Studies: on a whim, he took a Russian language course during his first semester of college. Thanks to an enterprising history teacher at his high school in Evanston, IL, Rosenstein had been able to travel to then-Soviet Moscow and Leningrad for a short group study tour, and that experience also played a part in his initial decision to enroll in Russian. As he found himself increasingly bored in the chemistry lab at Duke, and more and more enthralled with his Russian literature courses, he decided to switch majors, and eventually landed as a Ph.D. student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois.
Having always been drawn to darker works such as those by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Rosentsein says what he loves most about the Russian, east European, and Eurasian region is the “intensity of thought, emotion, passion, and pathos that seems to underpin the great works of Russian literature, art, and philosophy.” Although he admits he is unsure what it says about him that he is captivated by works with such “pervasive suffering,” he realizes he is not alone in that, and many other people have likewise “been enticed by the complexities of the âme slave.”
Now the Director of Global Education and Training (GET) at the University of Illinois and a recent participant in the Illinois Global Institute Career Day, Rosenstein is familiar with the challenges of pursuing alternative career paths, but also the ways in which a degree in a field such as Slavic Languages and Literatures can open up other opportunities outside of academia. Rosenstein credits his time spent as a graduate assistant at REEEC with connecting him to the interdisciplinary studies community. Although he says he did not realize it at the time, his work helping with outreach events, newsletters and other communications, Title VI grant proposals and reports, and the Summer Research Lab helped him develop skills and interests working in higher education administration, campus internationalization, and interdisciplinary global and area studies centers that would later define his career path. His Ph.D. program in Slavic Languages and Literatures likewise gave him the opportunity to teach language and literature courses, to work as a graduate editorial assistant at the Slavic Review, and to work in the Slavic Library (now part of the International and Area Studies Library), “These jobs gave me a window into different aspects of academia, and the ways that one can make an impact through service to scholarship and public engagement.”
As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Rosenstein most valued his faculty and student colleagues who often shared common interests despite researching disparate topics. In addition to studying Russia, east Europe, and Eurasia, Rosenstein also joined and performed with the university’s Russian folk orchestra, although, as he says, he was not particularly talented musically. One memory in particular from his early days at the University of Illinois stands out for him, though: he was able to meet Polish dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and eventual President Lech Walesa during Walesa’s campus visit.
Rosenstein, who completed his Ph.D. in 2002, explored jobs in academia before deciding on his current career trajectory. However, he entered the academic job market during an especially competitive time for someone with a degree in Slavic Studies, “The Cold War was over, Putin’s ascendancy was still in its early stages, and the perception of Russia as a threat that warranted a strong national commitment to Kremlinology and Slavic studies had ebbed…so enrollments in Russian language and literature courses had fallen off pretty dramatically.” Wanting to stay in Champaign-Urbana, he ended up applying for and was hired by the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois. He also previously served as the Associate Director of the European Union Center.
Rosenstein admits he rarely speaks Russian in his current position at GET; however, there are times when using Russian is necessary, such as when he was asked to deliver workshops during a trip to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the Ministry of Education. Although his knowledge of Pushkin’s poetry, Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, and postmodernism are not used in his current position, Rosenstein still sees the value in his graduate work for his current position: “I do think the skills I developed during my program—the ability to negotiate different global cultures thoughtfully and with sensitivity, the capacity to engage in close analysis of texts, researching a problem, producing written reports, among other things—are ones that I use in various forms as GET Director. And the broader skills of thinking critically, advocating for a particular position on an issue while also listening to others’ perspectives, which were honed during my Ph.D. program, all come into play.”
While the transition to an alternative career path is admittedly not always easy, Rosenstein fully believes that the skills students develop during their graduate programs are transferable to other fields. He recommends that students who are unsure if they want to pursue a career in academia as a professor try to gain experience in other areas during their graduate studies, which could include through RA and GA positions, as well as internships or part-time positions outside the university: “Don’t be shy in tapping the networks of support and advice that are available to you at UIUC, and carry the conviction that you will find your path if you pursue what interests you.”