Irina Olegovna Rodina makes a striking entrance.
She's tall, in chic high-heeled boots, sparkly-swirly jeans ("from Vegas," she laughs) and wearing huge black and gold earrings. The impression is amplified when she speaks with a wonderful Russian accent.
Rodina is from Moscow and, fresh out of the Russian equivalent of high school in 2006, selected Columbia College to pursue dual degrees in business administration and political science.
Why Columbia College? Rodina is candid: the application deadline for many other colleges had passed, and Columbia College offered more than 20 scholarships for international students. Rodina applied for and was granted a full-tuition Capstone Presidential Scholarship.
"I always wanted to study abroad," she says. She had previously studied in Paris. "Columbia College also is a small school, and I knew I’d get more interaction with my professors. That was important to me."
From Moscow, population around 15 million, to Columbia, population barely 100,000 – wasn't that a big transition?
"Oh yes. Columbia is such a small place." But she says she has come to appreciate the ease and friendliness of Columbia. "In Moscow, to get to school would take an hour and a half by subway. If you drove, it would take all day because you'd be stuck in traffic."
Last year, Rodina won another prestigious scholarship, the Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to just 12 women each year across the globe by Zonta International, a women's advocacy group. She is the sole Russian recipient.
In her essay, Rodina wrote that she had witnessed first-hand the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of Russia from a planned economy to a capitalist free-for-all. “Without government assistance, income inequality increased rapidly and many found themselves on the edge of poverty. I remember seeing this transition and being desperate to make a change one day that would make people’s lives better. That is how I became interested in politics and business administration.”
To hone her skills, Rodina has thrown herself into a dizzying array of organizations in her four years at Columbia College: the Mock Trial Team, Model UN, International Student Club, Pi Sigma Alpha National Political Science Honor Society, Alpha Chi National College Honor Society and Sigma Beta Delta Business Honor Society. She's also currently an accounting assistant at a local CPA and at The Mustard Seed, a fair trade import craft shop on Ninth Street in downtown Columbia.
Rodina graduates in May and says she plans to earn two more degrees simultaneously, an MBA and a JD (law) degree. She then hopes to work in international business or international relations, perhaps as a diplomat. That she can speak three languages – Russian, French and English – doesn't hurt her chances of success in these extremely competitive fields.
But first, she says, she needs some time off to rest and travel. She loves road trips (four trips to Key West to visit her father last year alone): "Travel is so easy in the U.S.!" she says. "You can go anywhere you want." That's not the case in Russia, she says: distances are vast and the roads often woefully inadequate.
"Vegas was fun," she smiles.