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Department: Slavic Languages and Literatures

Russ Slavic Languages and Literatures

Will Russ ’99

Attorney, Vinson & Elkins

Convincing an unsure undergrad

After falling hard for the big Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in high school, I knew I wanted to study Russian at Princeton. But concentrating in the Slavic department didn’t seem practical at first. It felt limiting, or eccentric, or (frankly) irresponsible. Sure, I loved learning a challenging and beautiful language and engaging critically with literary giants, but I was also interested in politics and economics and (frankly) securing a good job upon graduation. Who hires Slavic concentrators, anyway? It seemed a fair question at the time, so when I skeptically posed it to various professors in the Slavic department, I was surprised to discover that Princeton-trained slavophiles had gone on to become doctors, teachers, bankers, academics, and even actors. (None, apparently, had starved for lack of a paying gig.) At the time, I’m not sure I realized what an amazing thing it was to have world-class scholars trying to convince a teenager to study what he loved, instead of what he thought would land him the “right” job. Looking back, however, it was just that kind of personal attention and wise counsel that made my time at Princeton—and especially my time in the Slavic department—so transformative and fulfilling.

A unique perspective

Even before I graduated, I discovered that employers valued my degree. Let’s be clear: a Princeton student could concentrate in mud, and interesting (and lucrative) doors would probably still open up before her. But even among employers who receive numerous Princeton résumés, Slavic languages and literatures stands out. Indeed, my first employer—a technology consulting firm—wrote in its offer letter that my choice of concentration was the reason why they wanted to hire me. They had computer scientists and engineers; what they needed was people who could think beyond the numbers and communicate their ideas effectively. I believe my concentration was also instrumental in helping me gain admission to Harvard Law School. The ability to read critically, adapt to the language of the law, and engage effectively with difficult and complex issues are all crucial tools in law school, and the Slavic department was where I honed them to a fine point. Moreover, as a beginning lawyer, I know that the analytical skills, attention to detail, and discipline I learned in the Slavic department are at least as valuable as the more specialized legal skills I acquired in law school.

Benefits of a rigorous education

Harder to quantify, but no less important, are the ways in which my decision a decade ago to concentrate in Slavic languages and literatures has made my career more rewarding and my life more well-balanced. Once you’ve defended your analysis of The Brothers Karamazov to Professor Ellen Chances, debated the meaning of Anna Karenina with Professor Caryl Emerson, or successfully articulated—in Russian, no less—your reading of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri for Professor Michael Wachtel, you’re not easily intimidated by imperious law professors or aggressive opposing counsel. Still more importantly, once that same group of warm, smart, and accomplished teachers has made you feel welcome, sharpened the precocious ideas of a youthful intellect, and treated you with respect, good humor, and genuine affection, you will never lack for the self-confidence or personal resources needed to overcome the challenges you find and the challenges that find you.