Professor Profile: Yelena Biberman-Ocakli

By Janine Kritschgau, Staff WriterKashmir Photo_Yelena Biberman (1) Professor Yelena Biberman-Ocakli has had a journalistic instinct since she was nine years old. Reporting came naturally for this Belorussian native, who by this young age she was already making observations about mafia members in her neighborhood, assuming that some day Soviet Officials would come knocking for information. “If I hadn’t left, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now,” she explains, reflecting on various close encounters with kidnapping and child predators.

The former Soviet world of respect and equality had disintegrated into an unsafe community rampant with alcoholism and violence. It had come time for her family to leave.

They traveled from Moscow to Albany, New York, where Biberman-Ocakli began the fifth grade. Biberman-Ocakli hurled herself into her academics. “School became my refuge,” she says as she reflects on her transition to American culture.

Considering her extensive résumé, her commitment to scholarship is not at all that surprising. Biberman-Ocakli’s early endeavors were mostly centered around journalism. After graduating from Wellesley College and Harvard University, she spent a year as a Fulbright research scholar in Russia, and then stayed on as a journalist for a Russian publication.

“I had such a nostalgia for Russian culture,” she explains, noting a curiosity for the region where she spent her childhood. Although she had the opportunity to continue working in Moscow, she declined the offer due to her accurate prediction that her work might eventually be censored in the Russian media. Instead, she returned to America to complete a Doctoral Program at Brown University, while simultaneously being a Teaching Assistant.

Currently, her research focuses on unorthodox militant groups used by governments in South Asia. She has begun crafting her first book, after years of fieldwork, explaining when and why governments make the unusual decisions to hire groups of rebels or civilians to fight. She is simultaneously teaching three courses at Skidmore; States, Rebels, and Warlords, Politics of Modern South Asia, and Intro to International and Comparative Politics.

Despite being immersed in both research and teaching, she emphasizes that working with students is her priority. Teaching makes her feel “energetic and happy,” she explains, because for her, teaching is an experience one “gets addicted to.” Although she is relatively new to the Skidmore College community, her enthusiasm for teaching has already garnered positive feedback from students, who note how valuable her energy is in the classroom.

As I interviewed Biberman-Ocakli, it dawned on me that not only is she an accomplished researcher and professor, but also something akin to a life coach. She urges students to use their undergraduate years to develop fundamental skills such as writing and quantitative reasoning. She also encourages students to step outside of their comfort zones, a skill she was forced to acquire while traveling for research as this research often required interviewing dangerous people.

The hallmark skill that she attributes a great deal of her own success to is the ability to adapt and be self-sufficient. One must learn new skills quickly, and “become [one’s] own best teacher” while tackling weaknesses. Only through this uncomfortable process, she believes, will students grow past their barriers and be successful in an unpredictable world.

Biberman-Ocakli will be teaching a 200 level International Politics course centered around the rise of the BRICS, as well as a 300 level Modern Warfare course next semester.

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