❍ Year of graduation: 1990
❍ Field of current or former occupation: Social Work
Question: What is your current occupation and where do you live? Please briefly describe your duties and responsibilities. How long have you been at this position?
Stephanie Calson: I am employed by the State of Minnesota 6th Judicial District as a guardian ad litem. My work involves conducting an independent investigation as to the circumstances and best interests of the children I am appointed to and then advocating for their best interests in juvenile or family court. I visit children in their homes, foster homes, or treatment settings on a regular basis as long as their case is in court. I also stay in regular contact with parents, foster parents, social workers, school staff, therapists, treatment center staff, or other caregivers and service providers. I write court reports for each hearing in order to provide information to the court and make recommendations about what may be in a child’s best interests. I also attend all the court hearings in order to advocate for the child’s best interests, and, if a case goes to trial, I provide testimony regarding my investigation and recommendations. The cases I am appointed to are in a single courthouse (Duluth, Minnesota), but I travel regionally in order to visit children and families who may be located elsewhere in the state, depending on the circumstances of the case. I have been working as a guardian ad litem for 8 years. Prior to that, I was at home with our young children for a number of years. Prior to that, in the late 1990s, I worked as a caseworker at a refugee resettlement agency in Trenton, New Jersey, assisting families throughout the state who had arrived with refugee immigration status. During the years I worked there, the largest communities in my caseload were from Bosnia and Liberia. My work primarily involved helping families find housing, jobs, health care, education, and other needed services as they arrived into the country and worked to become established in New Jersey.
Question: Did studying Russian language and culture at Williams help you in your professional and personal development? If yes, then how were Russian Studies were useful to you? What opportunities and challenges did the Russian major open up for you both specific to your current occupation and more generally?
Stephanie Calson: Yes, studying Russian has helped and benefitted me greatly, although it might not look like it at first glance! When I was a Russian major at Williams, I thought I wanted to become a Russian language and literature professor. After graduation, I completed a Ph.D. in Russian Literature at the University of Michigan. By the time I was finishing my graduate work, however, I was no longer sure that academia was the right fit for me. I did enjoy teaching Russian as a TA, but I was not as drawn to research as I had expected, and I maybe didn’t have quite the level of passion needed for that particular job market, at least at that time. By then I was also married, my husband was still in school, and I wasn’t very interested in looking for jobs that would have required my husband and me to live apart, even temporarily. I had no degree or experience in the field of social work, but I found working in the refugee resettlement agency very interesting and rewarding. That experience eventually led me also to my current job, which I find to be most closely related to social work, though it also intersects with the field of law. Since my days as a Russian major, though, I have always felt a deep and abiding interest in and love for Russian language and culture. We moved to Minnesota in 2000, and it turned out that our Lutheran Church synod (the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has a companion synod relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, a historic Lutheran church body in Russia that traces its roots to congregations around St. Petersburg and in Karelia that date back 400 years. In general terms, one can think of it as the historic Finnish-Russian Lutheran church. After a period of repression during the Soviet era, old congregations were re-opened, some church buildings that were still standing were returned to the church, and some new congregations have also started. My husband Dave is a Lutheran pastor, and in 2004 our bishop and the Russian bishop invited our family to spend a summer in an Ingrian Lutheran congregation in Russia, in the city of Yoshkar-Ola, Republic Mari-El, about 500 miles east of Moscow. Dave served as pastor, with me as his interpreter and our daughters, then ages 3 and 1, as chief ambassadors. Since then, we have returned to Russia on shorter trips, usually bringing groups of people from Lutheran congregations in Minnesota with us, in 2005, 2007, 2011, with another trip planned in 2016, when I will be part of a small delegation from our synod that will include our bishop. As a part of that trip, I will help facilitate our bishop’s meeting with the Russian bishop, and we will visit and renew or strengthen our synod’s relationships with congregations in various towns and villages in Karelia, in northwest Russia. The city where we live, Duluth, Minnesota, also has a sister city relationship dating back to the late 1980s with the capitol of Karelia, Petrozavodsk. I have served on that sister city committee for a number of years, and thanks to that relationship, we have had the opportunity to host a number of visitors from Petrozavodsk in our home over the years. These hosting experiences have greatly enriched and broadened our lives even without traveling anywhere. Now that the political relationship between our two countries has grown cooler again, the sister city program, which fosters peace through citizen diplomacy, seems even more important. I also still enjoy reading Russian and find that it really helps me maintain my language skills at least at a certain level during the long periods of time between traveling to Russia or hosting a Russian guest. Of course, finding the time can be difficult, but anything is better than nothing. For my own Russian reading, I do return to classics, but I now particularly enjoy contemporary authors. When I was at Williams in the late 1980s, I was introduced to Tatyana Tolstaya and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, both of whom I really appreciated. A couple of years ago I happened to read a short story in English by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, an author I was not previously familiar with, and I knew I had to read her work in the original. Since then contacts from Petrozavodsk have brought me several of her books in Russian, and I absolutely love them. My favorite Russian books I tend to read and reread, even multiple times, and I recommend that practice. If I ever don’t know what to read, I just read “Anna Karenina” again! I plan to increase my Ulitskaya collection, and now my new project is to find some works by the new Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich in Russian, as well.
Question: Please share your advice or recommendation about the Russian department at Williams to a prospective student who is considering taking courses or majoring in our program.
Stephanie Calson: My advice would be to do and study what you love but also to think along inter-disciplinary lines if you can. I was quite focused on Russian language and literature at Williams and did not anticipate that my career path might take all kinds of turns. I probably would have found sociology very interesting, but I never took a course in it. If I were in school now, maybe I would try to combine my interests in Russian and social work in some way. Of course, you have to devote time to a language in order to reach a certain level of proficiency, and I believe that is 100% worth doing. I also studied German for a number of years, and I have never for a single moment regretted the time and work spent on studying languages. My German and Russian are by no means perfect, but they are very usable, and in many situations, that is what counts most. While at Williams, I spent my junior year in Moscow (1988-89). I initially signed up for one semester abroad, but toward the end of the semester I felt it really wasn’t long enough to get where I was hoping with my Russian language, so I returned for a second semester in the spring. I found that time spent studying abroad to be very important, even though it meant less time on campus at Williams.
If you would like to write to Stephanie Calson, please contact Baktygul Aliev.