Curiosity about her family’s lineage is what opened the door to diplomacy for Nicole Grajewski.
The San Marino High School class of 2011 alumna is currently in Bishkek, the capital of mountainous Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, studying for her doctorate in international relations from the England’s University of Oxford. She is doing so as Rotary Club of San Marino’s fourth Global Grant scholar and the first to apply the funding toward a doctorate.
“I was absolutely thrilled to receive the Rotary Global Grant Scholarship,” she said. “It will be incredibly helpful for my research and I am honored to be selected by both my district and Rotary International for the scholarship.”
Grajewski’s doctorate will focus on Russian foreign policy toward Iran in the context of regional military interventions, as seen in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria and Tajikistan. In an email interview, Grajewski — whose mother is from Iran and whose father’s family is Polish — said her interest and passion for the subject matter was an “evolutionary process” over time.
“I grew up in a multicultural household,” she said, “so I think to some degree this influenced my predilection for international relations. I always had an interest in Russia growing up, partly due to my romanticized perception of the Romanov dynasty and imperial Russia, but also because of the arts — Tchaikovsky was my favorite composer as a child.”
She parlayed that interest into a distinguished undergraduate career at George Washington University, where she majored in international relations and Middle East studies and put in time with a U.S. congressman, the State Department, CNN and the Hudson Institute. For her master’s degree at Oxford, she focused on Russian and Eastern European studies with help from two months of work in Moscow interviewing and working with diplomats, politicians and academics, as well as a trove of Russian and Persian texts.
Grajewski said she initially planned to focus on security policy alongside Middle East studies at George Washington, but a course on political Islam opened her eyes to Central Asia — a five-country region south of Russia that has a Muslim majority and was formerly part of czarist Russia and the Soviet Union.
“I remember finding the history of the region from the czarist-era conquest to the Soviet Union’s nationalities policies to the present-day issues of state-building incredibly fascinating,” she said. “It was around this time that I began to understand that my real passion and interest was Central Asia and Russia rather than the Middle East.”
As a junior, Grajewski started learning Russian, much of which she picked up while in Kazakhstan. (Russian remains a prominent language in the region.) She had previously studied Persian before recalibrating her academic focus, which nevertheless comes in handy because Tajik is a Persian dialect. (The other Central Asian languages are Turkic-based.) She also conducted conflict resolution research in Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
For her master’s degree, Grajewski also researched Russian and Iranian foreign policy, penning a 30,000-word dissertation and graduating with distinction (Oxford’s version of “honors”). She will expand the dissertation to 100,000 words for her doctorate and factor in additional research on other military interventions.
“I looked at Russian and Iranian normative positions and worldviews to understand whether this contributed to some sort of basis for their relationship, specifically the desire to have an equitable or consensus-based international system, as opposed to unipolarity,” she explained. “By extension, this concerns the conflict-resolution processes — as we are seeing today in Syria.”
Grajewski said she relished her work opportunities as a student, including her congressional internship, her job coordinating public relations for CNN programming, and her research jobs with think tanks. She also interned with the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs during the tenure of Secretary of State John Kerry, where her work included research on sustainability in Uzbekistan — another Central Asian nation.
“One of the advantages of going to undergrad in Washington, D.C., was the internship and work opportunities that the city offered,” Grajewski said. “It was an honor to learn from U.S. career diplomats and civil servants, who are some of the most intelligent, diligent and dedicated people I have ever worked with.”
Bill Payne, the Global Grants scholar chair for the San Marino club, said Grajewski embodied what the greater organization seeks in its scholars.
“Our club and District 5300 Global Grant scholar interview committees found her coursework in college and at Oxford — and her extracurricular activities and experiences — well suited to Rotary’s Peace and Conflict Resolution area of focus,” Payne said. “In these deeply troubling times, her most timely research into the Russian-Syrian alliance is indeed welcomed. Nicole’s command of not only the Russian, but Farsi [Persian] languages gives her such an advantage when interviewing dignitaries in both countries.”
While in Bishkek, Grajewski said, she’ll spend around five hours per day studying Russian on weekdays and will probably venture into surrounding villages on weekends. Future stops include the city of Osh, home to a large Uzbek diaspora, and the lakeside town Issyk-Kul, a popular Central Asian resort destination.
In her travels, Grajewski said, the personal connections she’s made have helped dispel a multitude of cultural misconceptions and given her hope that people are more amenable to cooperating than is widely believed. Knowledge of Central Asia, in particular, proves elusive for many Americans.
“It is a beautiful region with so much history, awe-inspiring landscapes and hospitable culture,” she said. “There are even more misconceptions about Russia. Obviously, the situation with Russia right now is difficult and increasingly troublesome. But the issues between our governments haven’t affected my interactions with Russians. I have many Russian friends — some of whom hold views that I do not necessarily agree with, but on a person-to-person level we can still get along and learn from each other. I think this is generally true about all cultures.
“I might be an idealist when it comes to human interaction, but I do believe that there is nothing inherently conflictual between individuals from different countries or cultures,” she added.