The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies is awarding doctorate degrees for the second year since the Ph.D. program was established in 2013. Among this year’s Ph.D. recipients is Indra Ekmanis, whose doctoral research focused on cultural integration in Latvia. Ekmanis received an M.A. in International Studies through the Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies before joining the first Ph.D. cohort at the Jackson School in 2013. She is the first Ellison Center graduate to earn a Ph.D. at the Jackson School.
Ekmanis spent most of the 2016-2017 academic year working on her dissertation research in Latvia with the support of a Fulbright Fellowship. Following the completion of her degree, she will begin research into the role played by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Latvian service in the dissolution of the USSR as a Title VIII Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholarship.
Ekmanis sat down with the Ellison Center to talk about her research, her future plans, and her experience as one of the first doctoral students at the Jackson School.
She spent two quarters in Latvia in 2015-2016, conducting field work in Riga and in a town near Daugavpils, the second largest city in the country. There, she participated in a vocal ensemble and conducted participant-observation research at a school in the area to study how Russian speakers integrate into Latvian society.
“Instead of arguing that there is a lot of conflict, my dissertation argues that there is a lot of peaceful interactions that happen on a daily basis,” Ekmanis said. “I saw a lot of that at the school. There were a lot of kids from different backgrounds. They all switch back and forth between Russian and Latvian, and it’s no big deal. So that’s where a lot of my research comes from.”
Ekmanis returned to Latvia for the 2016-2017 academic year on a Fulbright Fellowship to continue her research into cultural integration. During that time, she also participated in a number of folk dance groups, which helped deepen her cultural understanding of the country.
She said her experience working abroad allowed her to more closely study her topic and to notice aspects of the culture that she might otherwise have missed.
“A lot of my research actually happened in coffee shops.” she said. “I would be sitting there, reading about ethnic tension, and notice that people all around me were speaking in different languages and that there was no problem. So the idea that integration is all around us really came from sitting in coffee shops, which then took me to that part of the research.”
She added that it can be easy to overlook important aspects of a topic in the quest to confirm commonly held views.
“As scholars and researchers, we can’t always go after the things that we can see,” she said. “If we are always looking for these points of contention or hot-button aspects of what we are researching, then we tend to overshadow what is actually happening in people’s daily lives. I think that is an important thing to consider.”
“I came to the topic from a roundabout way,” she continued. “Between the summer after my master’s program and when I started the Ph.D. program, I was kind of in vacation mode. I was performing at a song festival in Latvia. There were thousands of dancers on this field, and everybody was in these heavy folk costumes and it’s 100 degrees out. I remember standing there and being surprised to hear Russian. I looked over, and there was a group of folk dancers in Latvian folk costumes speaking Russian to each other. It didn’t mesh with the narrative I had heard. That wasn’t conflict; it was integration, in a way. So part of the next four years was a struggle to figure out how to write that in an appropriate way and to apply an academic framework. When you talk about integration in Latvia, you usually talk about points of contention — where integration doesn’t happen. We rarely look at the places where it does. They are silent, and you don’t think about them. It’s a little boring.”
Ekmanis has been selected for a five-month research position at the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholarship, where she will focus on the activities of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Latvian service when the Soviet Union began to dissolve and Latvia gained independence.
“It will be a nice gentle push into the real world after my dissertation,” she said. “It will also be a great opportunity to network with people in Washington, DC.”
Looking forward, Ekmanis said she hopes to turn her dissertation into a book, and she hopes that her experience in Washington, DC will open new opportunities for research.
Ekmanis, who was accepted to the first Jackson School Ph.D. cohort in 2013, said the program was a natural fit for her.
“I felt like I had a lot of opportunities that came from being associated with the Ellison Center,” she said. “I think the interdisciplinary nature of the degree allows you a lot of freedom and gives you the ability to become an area expert in whatever field you are working on. I think students should take advantage of that. If you are studying social integration in Latvia, for example, you should also take advantage of courses in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore, or Political Science, or Economics. You can take advantage of all the different disciplines at the university and bring them together to produce something that can showcase your expertise in that area. I think that is a huge advantage of the Jackson School.”
“I also think that the Jackson School is pioneering the idea that if you come into the program with a master’s degree in hand, you can do your Ph.D. work fairly quickly without sacrificing quality. I appreciated that about the Jackson School.”
Speaking about her experience working in Latvia, Ekmanis said she would recommend that graduate students consider spending time abroad while working on their degrees.
Ekmanis said academia was on her radar from an early age. Her father taught as a professor of Latvian and Russian literature at Arizona State University. That exposure, as well as her family’s connection to the country, sparked her interest in pursuing academic work related to Latvia and Latvian culture.
However, she said there were a few aspects of graduate life that surprised her as she progressed through the program.
“One thing that I didn’t realize is how much you have to deal with ‘imposter syndrome,’” she said. “Accepting that you are an expert in the subject you are studying is something that I still struggle with a little bit. Learning to be confident as a scholar — I didn’t realize how hard that would be.”