Looking back, mental images make up a mosaic of senior Valerie Brukhis' summer research in Ukraine, then fully in the throes of the Euromaidan, a years-long revolution sparked by the government's further alignment with Russia over the European Union.
She remembers a girl her age, scrolling through images on her iPad and narrating where she was when her friends were killed or when police arrested her.
She recalls a professor across the table in a coffee shop, pulling bomb-defusing tools out of her purse as she described her impromptu role as the leader of a battalion of men fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
She can still see the orphanage of internal refugees’ children, clinging to visitors and reveling in the sweets they brought.
“These people I will never forget,” Brukhis said. “[During] all these kinds of experiences, I thought, ‘How am I actually here and why do I get to experience this?’”
Her summer 2014 work was part of building a resume of scholarship that already has her identified as a developing expert on post-Soviet states.
“She has a better resume now than when I graduated from grad school with a master’s in international relations,” said Brian Cullen ’05, her alumni mentor. “She’s amazing. It was so evident immediately that she doesn’t just have this love of things international, but the drive to go find them. That’s special. She’s very clearly someone who is going somewhere.”
Brukhis, a Ukrainian native who speaks Russian and Ukrainian, has turned her college years into an endless stream of experiences: researching money laundering in Russia, helping children on a subsequent trip to Ukraine, presenting at a conference in Lithuania about post-Soviet states and monitoring Russian disinformation campaigns while working at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C.
‘I want to be a diplomat’
When Brukhis was 6, her parents moved to Minnesota to escape anti-Semitism and provide more opportunities for Brukhis and her older brother. After selling everything they owned, they were robbed of the profits shortly before they left. They arrived in the United States with little money, no English language skills and the inability to transfer the qualifications that made her father an architect and mother a teacher in Ukraine.
“We were living in my grandmother’s living room at first and eventually [my parents] got some random jobs, were going to school at night, and put my brother and [me] through school,” Brukhis said. “My mom, who spoke no English, was reading an English medical textbook to get her medical degree [and become a nurse], and I watched that happen as a 6-, 7- and 8-year-old. I’ve been really inspired by [my parents].”
During Brukhis’ first year at St. Thomas, that inspiration spurred her to walk up to Theology Professor Paul Gavrilyuk after a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Club. She extended her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Valerie Brukhis, and I want to be a diplomat.”
Gavrilyuk – himself a Ukraine native – invited her on the 2014 trip to Ukraine. Brukhis had secured a Young Scholars Grant from St. Thomas to spend the summer speaking with college students about their experiences as part of the Euromaidan.
“The experience of reliving the revolution [in Ukraine] through the individuals she interviewed … was very valuable to her,” said Gavrilyuk, relating it to his own experience as a college student in Moscow in 1991 as the USSR collapsed.
Back at St. Thomas, Brukhis sought another faculty member to work with collaboratively. Professor Renee Buhr came to St. Thomas after several years as a non-proliferation analyst at the World Bank and CIA, where she helped contain the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
“[Brukhis] sought me out and said, ‘I heard you and [the late] Dr. [Steve] Hoffman do things related to Eastern Europe; I’d love to do anything you’re doing, especially if it’s related to Ukraine.’ Dr. Hoffman and I were looking for partners in Ukraine and were having no luck whatsoever,” Buhr said.
That changed with the arrival of Brukhis, who quickly stood out to Buhr with both her background and hunger to learn.
“There was an aircraft shot down over Ukraine in 2014, and Valerie had been watching both Russian and Ukrainian language news and was fascinated by how different the stories were about how that plane came down,” Buhr said. “She asked to speak and give a presentation about how different the Ukrainian media’s story was from the Russian media’s story. Everyone was just fascinated. Most St. Thomas students can’t read Ukrainian and Russian and compare them, so that alone was special.
“I’ve never met someone who’s so much of a selfstarter,” Buhr said. “I can help her develop her skills, but that enthusiasm, drive, work ethic, that’s all her. … Every opportunity she finds, she pursues.”
Home and back again
Brukhis spent the spring of her sophomore year studying abroad in Switzerland at the School for International Training, researching money laundering in Russia. Partway through her semester, she decided she wanted to intern with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), but was informed positions for undergraduates were not available.
“I spent two or three months there just calling [Switzerland UNICEF] like a maniac and they finally answered the phone. ‘I’m gonna come to your office if that’s OK,’ and they let me,” she said.
Detractors were right: They did not have a position for Brukhis. But Ukraine’s UNICEF did, so Brukhis was back in her home country for the second straight summer, this time helping children.
Brukhis also connected with Buhr at a conference in Lithuania to present their research on how citizens in the post-Soviet states of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine identified themselves, as well as their relationship with the U.S. and Russia. More research followed in her junior year, which led her to secure a summer internship in Geneva; however, her necessary security clearance continued to hang in limbo in May, leaving her without any prospects for summer.
The two had connected through the St. Thomas Alumni-Mentoring program earlier in the year and had struck up a fast friendship – Brukhis picked his brain about working in the intelligence community and Cullen marveled at her enthusiasm and experience. Cullen’s former boss had moved to the German Marshall Fund (GMF), a well-reputed think tank in Washington, D.C., where master’s students and graduates almost exclusively filled the internship pool. Brukhis secured a spot within the week.
“She had put together such an impressive resume as an undergrad, and she speaks Ukrainian and Russian; I know they looked at her and couldn’t say no,” Cullen said.
Brukhis began working with the GMF’s new information dashboard, which monitored Russian disinformation campaigns in real time around the globe. In the heart of the U.S. campaign season, Brukhis and her colleagues watched everything unfold.
“It was cool to identify the patterns in cyberattacks because I know Ukraine very well, and Russia often attacks Ukraine first. So using Ukraine as a case study, you can often see what they’re going to do in a more sophisticated security state. That was really interesting for me to pursue research I’ve already done and develop it further,” she said. “I was basically geeking out all summer. It was so ideal, it was almost scary.”
The launching point
As her senior year has progressed, Brukhis still is capturing every opportunity. She recently joined Minnesota’s Committee on Foreign Relations, presented with Buhr at a conference in St. Louis and continues her research on post-Soviet states.
She has many future possibilities. She’s applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study cybersecurity in Tel Aviv, Israel. She could put her Russian and Ukrainian language skills and expertise to immediate use in Washington, D.C. Those same skills could promote humanitarian efforts in her native region, which remains in crisis. Or, a master’s degree could await, which would help her build on her scholarship and knowledge.
Approaching the end of her undergraduate career, though, also has given her the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the support she’s received.
“It’s been monumental. I would not be where I am or where I’m going without them, at all. Paul [Gavrilyuk] is absolutely amazing; he planted so many seeds for me and helped me not just knock on doors, but push down doors. He’s so important and amazing,” Brukhis said. “Renee [Buhr] is easily the woman I look up to the most who’s not a family member.
“All of these people will be sitting at a special table at my wedding,” she added. “The entire Political Science and International Studies departments. I always call it the magic of the fourth floor [of the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts]. There really is something special about this small community of experts and like-minded people who really believe in each other and push their students.”
For those faculty members, the admiration and appreciation are mutual.
“As educators we don’t always see the seeds we sow, what kind of harvest it produces down the line. In this case we can speak of a hundred-fold harvest,” Gavrilyuk said. “I know her heroine was the previous U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. Who knows? We might very well have a new Samantha Power in our midst.”