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To Russia With Love

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Assistant Director of Communication, Pennoni Honors College

November 3, 2014

Kailey Kluge

Kailey Kluge dressed up as Natalia Goncharova, the wife of Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin at the Smol'niy Cathedral's Spring Ball.

When Kailey Kluge completed her third and final co-op in Voronezh, a Russian provincial city, the senior international area studies major had a chance to finally meet her Russian-speaking Ukrainian pen pal face to face. For two years, she and Lev had written each other letters - with paper and pen. When the two first met at the train station in Voronezh, he joked, "I have never seen an American before. Are you really real?"

Meeting Lev, Kluge says, was one of the most surreal moments in her life - and rather analogous to her love affair with Russia: a faraway dream that became a reality.

As a young girl growing up in Florham Park, NJ, Kluge developed a fascination with historical novels, especially the stories of the last royal family and the end of Imperial Russia. While girls around her obsessed over Lady Gaga's fashions and High School Musical, Kluge's curiosity turned toward Russian history and culture, basing many papers and art projects on this passion. She felt it only natural that she tried studying Russian when she got to Drexel.

"The language has such a gorgeous, distinct structure and texture," Kluge says. "I couldn't help falling in love with it. I decided to devote myself to learning Russian. Over time, my knowledge of the language truly enriched my understanding of the country's history and culture as I devoured Russian films, music, and literature as much as I could."

Kluge is a poster child for the Pennoni Honors College: The tempestuous yet meticulous 22-year-old Honors Program student, whose other interests include writing, painting and exploring Philadelphia - has taken advantage of the College's Office of Undergraduate Research (working with Dr. Lloyd Ackert researching Russia's political culture), the Center for Cultural Outreach (writing editorials for the Art Attack column in the Daily News) and most poignantly, the Fellowships Office.

As Kluge soaked up Russian news sources, pored over Russian political texts, and became more infatuated with the culture and language, she became more distressed by the deteriorating political relationship between Russia and the U.S. Her career goals surfaced: "It became clear to me that I must dedicate my future career to improving the U.S.-Russian relationship."

Prior to studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Kluge worked with the Fellowships Office to apply for the Boren Scholarship, an award granted to students studying critical languages abroad, and designed to encourage students to acquire skills and experience in areas of the world critical to U.S. national security.

"Kailey is a dynamo," says Rona Buchalter, the director of the Fellowships Office. "She is precise and diligent, with a deep commitment to Russian society, but she is also creative, with a surprisingly sly sense of humor. It's been a total thrill to see her blossoming into the person she wishes to be."

"The application process itself, though stressful, was really rewarding," Kluge says. "It caused me to reflect deeply on my goals and motivations for going to Russia," Kluge said. "It is easy to think about why I want to go to Russia, but it was more challenging to consider why other people—specifically, those who were funding me—would want me to go to Russia."

Kluge sought guidance from the Fellowships Office again recently on an application for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. Her ultimate goal is to eventually work in the Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs in the State Department (or in an educational non-profit organization such as the Institute for International Education) to establish and improve upon educational exchange programs between Russia and the U.S. Such programs, Kluge says, would help improve diplomatic relations between the two countries in the face of current political tensions, as they allow citizens of both countries to experience each other's culture while learning about different approaches in their field of study.

Kluge finds herself at home in Russia. Her introverted personality bodes well in the culture and her features make her Slavic-looking, although she says she has no Russian blood. She has done such a good job blending in that she's been mistaken by native Russians as one of their own.

"Even today, I had three random strangers ask if I was Russian," Kluge says. "I remember telling a Russian man that I was not at all Russian, and he smiled and said, 'No, you're wrong. I think you have a Russian spirit in you.' Perhaps it is this 'Russian spirit' that makes me so passionate about the country."