Elliot Nowacky is REEI's new Student Services Coordinator and Military Relations Coordinator as of the 2017-2018 academic year. REEI M.A. student Robert Breen caught up with Elliott to discuss his military service, new position at REEI/SGIS, and experiences in Russia.
RB: What is your official position in REEI?
EN: I officially have two positions at REEI. The first role is as the Student Services Coordinator for REEI and the second is as Military Relations Coordinator for SGIS (School for Global and International Studies).
RB: Can you go into a bit more detail pertaining to each role?
EN: My role here is slightly different than my predecessor’s. Student Services Coordinators at other universities are generally known as Graduate Advisors, and thus my primary role is to advise our graduate students in the various stages of their Master’s degree program. The second role as the Military Relations Coordinator for SGIS is a new position within the school. As I understand it, this followed a long process of negotiations between REEI and SGIS, with recognition of the need for someone with military expertise or background to facilitate several initiatives that SGIS is pursuing with various components of the US military.
RB: We’re going to shift back to your first role as Student Services Coordinator. This is not the first time that you have had this job, correct?
EN: This is the first time that I have actually served in the role of Student Services Coordinator. If you go back into my military background, I have had experience in mentoring officers, non-commissioned officers, and in some cases, soldiers at various levels, but never in an official advisory capacity. I previously worked at the University of Texas in Austin from 2013 to 2016 as an International Programs Coordinator. I was primarily responsible for two of our study-abroad programs at the time. These included the Fulbright-Hayes GPA (Global Projects Abroad) Program and the Global Officer Program. The former, supported by a four-year grant from the Department of Education, provided funding for up to twenty students from across Texas to study abroad at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, for four consecutive summers. Throughout the lifetime of that grant, which ended in 2016, we brought 87 students (2 at the Higher School of Economics for ten weeks for four consecutive summers) through the program. The Global Officer Program was a special program for ROTC students encouraging the study of Arabic or Russian. If the students progressed to a third-year level in time, they qualified for an 8-week study abroad program in either Meknes, Morocco, for Arabic or various locations in the former Soviet Union for Russian. These locations moved around based on political considerations (e.g. Ukraine, 2014). The locations and numbers increased as the grant period went on. Our first year had students solely in Russia; the second year included a student in Batumi, Georgia. During the third year, I served as a Resident Director and brought a group to Batumi for eight weeks; the group was comprised of ROTC students from across the US and graduate students from UT. The last year of that grant- we had six students go to Kazakh National University in Almaty and five students go to Meknes, Morocco. I was heavily involved in study abroad and only on the periphery with regard to advising and assisting graduate students at UT (helped out with orientation, shared my experiences with graduate students, etc.). I was never in a formal advisory role at UT.
RB: But you have worked in university roles previously.
EN: This is the second university that I have worked at. REEI is similar to the Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas (known as CREES). I had three years of experience there and, at the time of this interview, have been working for REEI for about three months. There are similarities, but also differences, of course. For example, the Slavic department is not a part of REEI; REEI does not have an undergraduate major, but they offer a minor, Master's and a Ph.D. minor (at UT, they offered an undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Russian Studies). Generally, those are the differences.
RB: Can you describe your educational background?
EN: I earned a B.A. in History and German at Montana State University; retired from the Army in 2008; earned an M.A. in Russian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and wrote my thesis on the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from East Germany from 1990-1994. I had no idea how difficult it was for them at the time. In comparison, the American forces had a much easier time of withdrawing from West Germany than the Soviets did. Just imagine this: you’re from Kazakhstan and it’s the summer of 1991. You are now in unified Germany and you’ve been told you’re going back (to the Soviet Union) and your unit will be disbanded. The only three places that the units were sent back to were Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus. Then, in December 1991, the Soviet Union no longer exists and you’re wearing a Soviet Army uniform. Your country, Kazakhstan, is now independent. What are you going to do? And how would you feel? Some of people had the rug pulled out from underneath them and the army was decimated. The infrastructure to accept these returning units was not present.
RB: You mentioned your service in the military. Can you provide more detail on that experience?
EN: One of my professors at Montana State University was a retired Air Force Colonel who had been an attaché in Moscow in the late 1960s. He was one of my mentors and a popular professor on campus because it was an intense period during the Cold War and people were very interested in learning about the Soviet Union. He would tell amazing stories as he was one of the few people at the time who had lived and worked in the region. I entered the ROTC program later in my undergraduate life (my third year, actually) with an interest in Russia. Unfortunately, Montana State did not offer Russian, so my first language was German. I ended up studying abroad in Germany for a year, which ultimately helped me with my responsibilities as a junior officer in Germany at the end of the Cold War. I continued on with my normal assignments as a Field Artillery Officer and then had the opportunity to apply to become a Foreign Area Officer after 6 years of service. I was very fortunate enough to be accepted into the program. In 1998, I spent one year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. There, I took Russian and completed the Russian Basic Course (48 weeks long). Upon my completion there, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In the summer of 1999, I interned at the US embassy in Kiev in the Office of Defense Cooperation. I went back to the Marshall Center and took more classes in the winter of 2000. In mid-February, an e-mail went out saying requesting somebody to go to Kazakhstan immediately. Two weeks later, I was on the ground in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and I was very honored to be selected as the first uniformed Interim Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the old US Embassy at Almaty. One of the highlights of my time there was briefing the Ambassador to Kazakhstan on a potential project to send military equipment to the Kazakh military from Alaska to help drug interdiction operations in the Caspian Sea. Another highlight of my time there was celebrating the first Kazakh to be admitted to attend West Point. I was fortunate enough to represent the Defense Attaché Office at this event and I will always remember how proud the mother was of her son. After that, I went back to the Marshall Center and was then sent back to my basic branch of Field Artillery. I completed my Army career as a Field Artillery Officer, but I was able to keep my foot in the Russian FAO land a little bit. I had the opportunity to escort the senior Georgian Field Artillery Officer and his delegation for two weeks in Germany in the summer of 2002; in 2007, on my last deployment in Kuwait, I was actually working in a Foreign Area Officer position- a Russian Foreign Area Officer position. I spent six months (June 2007 to December 2007) working as a Central Asian analyst. I got to travel back to Kazakhstan to Almaty for the closing ceremonies of a joint military exercise between the Kazakhs, British, and the US (Operation Step Eagle). After that, I went back to Germany and retired from active duty on August 31, 2008.
RB: Given all of your unique experiences, how do you think you can contribute to REEI?
EN: I feel very strongly that I am able to contribute to REEI because of the life experiences that I have had so far. I’ve been very fortunate to do the jobs that some of our graduates may wind up performing in the future. We do have active duty personnel in REEI and I am able to interact with them (and other graduate students as well) and help them with their professional development in their future postings at embassies and other overseas assignments.
Robert Breen is a first year M.A. student with REEI.