UMSL student veteran named 2016 Tillman Scholar, heads to Ukraine for research

Ryan Barrett

Earlier this month, the Pat Tillman Foundation named U.S. Air Force veteran Ryan Barrett, a PhD candidate in political science at UMSL, among this year’s class of Tillman Scholars. The highly competitive scholarship is awarded annually to a total of 60 students across the nation. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Marie Tillman, president and co-founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation, announced the names of 60 scholars selected to receive scholarship funding from the organization this year, she described the students as collectively tackling “some of the toughest challenges that our communities face in education, healthcare, civil rights, and foreign policy.”

One of those scholarship recipients is Ryan Barrett, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. A U.S. Air Force veteran whose five years of service included deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Barrett has spent the last year learning the Russian language in Minsk, Belarus. And soon, with the help of the prestigious Tillman scholarship, he’ll apply that knowledge in Ukraine as he conducts research related to Russian foreign policy.

“Ryan is a great representative of UMSL and of UMSL student veterans,” said retired Army Lt. Col. James Craig, chair of the Department of Military and Veterans Studies. “He is smart, worldly, engaged, dedicated and humble. He has been at the forefront of our campus’s veteran success initiatives, and without his leadership, the UMSL Veterans Center probably would not exist today. Also, I can confidently state that there are scores of student veterans who probably would not have graduated without his direct intervention, support or referral. I am so proud of him and of his selection as a Tillman Scholar. Ryan Barrett is one of our best.”

Established in honor of Pat Tillman, who put his NFL career on hold to serve in the military and died in Afghanistan in 2004, the foundation aims to build a diverse community of leaders committed to serving others. Highly competitive, its annual scholarships typically cover tuition and fees, books and living expenses for active-duty service members, veterans and military spouses pursuing higher education.

College of Arts & Sciences lecturer Ryan Krull recently reached out to Barrett, who is still wrapping up his time in Belarus at present, to discuss the scholarship news and how it will impact his upcoming research.

Can you describe, in what I’m sure will be an over-simplified nutshell, your research?

My research will examine the influence and motivations of Russian foreign policy concerning Ukraine.

I understand you wanted to be in Ukraine all along but were barred from going there. What’s the story with that?

When I applied for a Boren Fellowship, I originally listed Ukraine as the desired country for my research. However, due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the security concerns, the Institute of International Education, which administers the Boren program, prohibited scholars from using their grants in Ukraine at the time. They were still supportive of me pursing Russian, so they allowed me to select a different country – hence I chose Belarus. Therefore, my main goal the past nine months has been to learn Russian.

In terms of access, will it be better to be in Ukraine than Belarus?

Doing research in Ukraine versus Belarus is better for two main reasons: The current situation in Ukraine makes it a better case study for understanding U.S.-Russian relations, and the political system is more transparent, allowing for a better environment to do research.

Will you get to come home between Belarus and Ukraine?

I will be in the U.S. for the months of July and August before leaving. I will spend the month of July in New York, finishing my formal Russian studies at Columbia, and then I will be in St. Louis for the month of August visiting family and preparing for my fieldwork in Ukraine.

Any homesickness?

I have to say not really. Of course, I am eager to come back home, but I think because of living for many years in Washington D.C. and having two deployments abroad, adjusting to life in Belarus has not been difficult.

What is the day-to-day nuts and bolts of your research like? Are you digging through archives? Conducting interviews?

My research in Kiev will entail both analyzing government documents and conducting interviews with policymakers.

What was your reaction on learning you’d gotten the scholarship?

I was extremely happy. This award will allow me to conduct research in Ukraine and connect me to a large group of other Americans devoted to public service. I am grateful for the opportunity to use this grant to further my education and level of experience. Programs like the Tillman Scholars are a great investment – not only in military veterans and their families but in the next generation of civic leaders.

Have you been able to have some fun while abroad? What have you been up to outside of research/school? 

Though I knew little about Belarus before arriving, I have been pleasantly surprised by the people and certain aspects of life in Minsk. Outside of class I generally spend my time engaging with locals, occasionally giving guest lectures to Belarusians learning English, socializing with other international students studying in Belarus, visiting notable sites and enjoying the many parks in Minsk.

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