Malavika Jagannathan and Medill School of Journalism senior Janette Neuwahl at Robben Island prison in Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.

From Russia to South Africa

Malavika Jagannathan's international experience began with an exploration of Russian culture in St. Petersburg and continued in the newsroom of the Star in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Jagannathan, a senior from College Station, Texas, who is double majoring in journalism and Slavic studies, says the political history of both countries attracted her. "They're both relatively new democracies," she explains. "And I wanted to push myself to the limit and go to places that most people don't normally go to."

Jagannathan spent her 2003 fall quarter in Russia. While in St. Petersburg she applied for the Medill School of Journalism's international Teaching Media opportunity in Johannesburg.

Jagannathan's adventures began with her home-stay in Russia, where she lived with a mother and daughter. Through a Northwestern-affiliated program Jagannathan attended Herzen State Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg.

Jagannathan's temporary little sister, Karina, offered valuable conversation practice. "It really helps to live with kids," Jagannathan says. "They just see you as you, and I realized that my level of speaking was pretty much that of a child at first." She became part of the family, taking Karina, 5, to ballet lesson, and, she admits, "I must have watched Finding Nemo in Russian more than 45 times!"

At the university she joined students from Germany, Korea and Poland in one of her courses. (Jagannathan, who was born in India and moved to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1989 before settling in Texas in 1996, brings her own global perspective.) Paired with 22-year-old music graduate student tutor Olga Kuplina, Jagannathan says her language skills improved and she made a lasting friendship.

"Russians are always seen as very stoic, but they're really not," she says. "Olga introduced me to a lot of music, which was an interesting way to understand Russian culture. I learned that jazz is huge in Russia — something I had no idea about before I met her."

Jagannathan's international experience gave her a new sense of self-confidence. "I was totally independent," she says. "In Russia I was speaking a language I'd only known for two years." When her passport and green card were stolen on the subway, Jagannathan managed to convince the police to help, and together they recovered her documents. "Then I knew I could survive," she says.

In South Africa she joined nine other Medill students working for English-language media outlets in Cape Town and Johannesburg. She did her reporting in English — only one of South Africa's 11 official languages — and left the country with more than 40 published articles in the Star.

Jaganathan's favorite articles allowed her to spend time with South Africans. She wrote a story about a program that helped women start small businesses by selling their own baked goods. "I met a woman who got up every day at four in the morning to bake and sell enough food so that she could send her blind son to school," she says.

Jagannathan spent hours in the woman's tiny kitchen as she made scones and muffins and shared her optimism. "She was so cheerful and happy that she had this opportunity to improve her life," Jagannathan explains.

After her time in Russia and South Africa, Jagannathan is committed to exploring a career as a foreign correspondent. She says the experiences abroad shaped her career path. — H.K.

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