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Alumna Abroad

Q&A with Valerie Hopkins '09

Valerie Hopkins '09 (Courtesy photo)Where were you born? What do you consider your hometown?

I was born at Sibley Hospital, in Washington, D.C., and have always felt a strong pride in being from the capital, even if my family moved to northern Virginia when I was in middle school. My mom worked near the U.S. Capitol and I spent a lot of time roaming the area. Maybe that’s why, even though I have wanted to make a career abroad for as long as I remember, I have always felt a strong sense of connection to and ownership of our institutions.

Where is home for you now?

That’s a complicated question for me right now. Before February 24, 2022, it was Moscow (for the six months prior). But since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve spent four months in Ukraine, a bit more than that in Russia, and months in other cities in Europe, mostly Berlin. I guess home is where my suitcase and laptop are.

Anderson Cooper interviews Valerie Hopkins live on CNN.What are you currently doing professionally?

I cover Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union for The New York Times. When our paper made the decision to leave Russia in early March 2022 because of draconian censorship laws, I was in Ukraine, and I realized I might not be back there until someone new was in power. But after carefully considering the risks, I decided to go back in August, and I [was] the only journalist from my paper working there. It is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. So much of the world is angry at Russia and horrified at what the Kremlin is doing every day to its neighbor and the way it has upended the global order. I think it is important for us to understand what’s happening in Russia right now, and how Russians see the war, their country, and the world.

Did you have a favorite course or professor while you were at W&M?

I took Professor Pickering’s freshman seminar about the Balkans, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular, and it deepened my interest in south-eastern Europe. I was so lucky that I could match the academic learning with eventually spending some time in the region after my junior year as part of W&Ms ABC Program. I capped off my senior year with Simon Stowe’s “Politics of Death and Mourning,” and it provided an important foundation for helping me understand the way countries mourn; how they choose historical events and contemporary tragedies to highlight or sweep under the carpet in the pursuit of a political or national agenda.

How did you choose your study abroad experience? Was it something you knew you wanted? Something someone else—peer or family member of advisor—suggested? Something you read about?

I was in Student Government from my second semester sophomore year, so I never got to spend a semester abroad. I felt bad about it at the time, but after more than twelve years living abroad, I think I’ve more than made up for it. :-) I did, however, do summer programs abroad each year that widened my horizons. After Freshman year I went to Cambridge for W&M’s program there, taking classes on Shakespeare and the Bloomsbury Group. As someone who hadn’t been abroad very much, it was great to be able to travel with students and faculty who made the trip run smoothly but still encouraged us to experience the local culture. After sophomore year, I volunteered with a W&M group at an orphanage in Romania before heading to Moscow to intern at the U.S. Embassy there. After junior year I was finally accepted into what is now known as the ABC Project, the American-Bosnian Collaboration, and spent the summer in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It became a life-changing experience because the following summer, I got a grant from the Reves Center to help set up a new partnership for the ABC project that would ensure W&M students could keep going there. And while I was there, I found an internship that would let me deepen my regional knowledge.

Do you have any memories of your internship at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that you’d like to share?

I was always sure I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and I wanted to do the internship to understand how foreign policy is made on the inside. I learned a lot about how our embassies interact with the State Department in D.C. In hindsight, I also feel lucky to have been able to experience Russia in 2007, which was a very different country than the Russia I moved to in August 2021. I think the most exciting thing was celebrating July 4 at the historic Ambassador’s Residence, Spaso House. The Ambassador then was Bill Burns, the current C.I.A. director, and the party included hundreds of Russian politicians, businessmen, diplomats and more. It’s the type of event we probably won’t see in Russia for a very long time, I think.

You describe your participation in the American-Bosnian Collaboration as life-changing. What aspects/experiences affected you most?

For one, I realized how hard it is to be a teacher! More seriously, I read plenty of books and watched many documentaries, but nothing compares to talking to ordinary people about their lives and experiences and seeing the places that you study. In many ways, the program opened a door to the rest of my life, by giving me a chance to learn the language and the place just enough to get an internship which led to a job that later became a stepping-stone to my career as a journalist. It is both humbling and extremely rewarding to learn a new language and culture. But it was also incredibly important for me to understand and confront America’s role in the world. If I had my way, all young Americans would spend time in small countries that are not major foreign policy players, nuclear powers, or wealthy petro-states to understand what it is like for most of the world’s countries. It is important to see that decisions made by our government have broad and far-reaching consequences in a region like the Balkans, both in wartime and peacetime.

When you began your career in journalism did you expect to cover international affairs, or was that an opportunity that arose because of your experience abroad?

I always planned to be a foreign correspondent, but the experiences I had at W&M brought me closer to that goal.

Do you have any current projects/passions you would like to tell us about?

My main project is trying to understand how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed Russian society, and covering how Russia reacts to this war. Russia’s military is killing and destroying people and entire towns in Ukraine, but it will also damage Russian society for generations to come. Most Russians I know went from living a relatively stable, if unfree life, to living in a dictatorship with complete uncertainty about what the future holds. It is my job to report about this.

Do you know your next professional “step” or project?

I have really been enjoying exploring audio reporting with our podcast The Daily. I met one of theTalking to a survivor of a missile strike on a central Kyiv apartment building (Courtesy photo) hosts, Sabrina Tavernise, on the eve of the outbreak of the war. I never did much audio reporting and I’ve learned a lot working with her and her team. I think it is incredible the way some of my reporting that that might yield a few paragraphs in one of my stories can be dissected in a 25 minute episode that serves as an exposition of where Russian society is going.

Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?

Learning a new language gives you a new way to think. And learning a new culture gives you insight into your own society and yourself. It is important on a personal level because it is enriching to see the place you come from through a perspective that isn’t yours. And I think having a unique experience abroad can only help you stand out as a job seeker or employee.

Do you have any advice for current students?

Every piece of advice that I think of seems cheesy and cliché. But one thing that has helped me a lot in my journalism career, where we have this widely-held believe that “you’re only as good as your last story,” is something someone shared with me at William and Mary, also a cliché from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, and failure is not fatal.” I keep it in my mind when I am having a bad day or hitting a wall with my reporting, but it also keeps me on my toes and helps me not be complacent when I do feel proud of something that I’ve done.