Inga Banshchikova, a Fulbright Scholarship recipient from Russia and a 2020 Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program alumna, completed her placement with the Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program at the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program (WWF). She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations, a Master’s Degree in International Law, and recently completed her master’s program at Oregon State University at the School of Public Policy. Her research interests include international environmental law and policy in the Arctic region. Inga is also a two-time winner of the Russian Geographical Society grant.
After her Muskie internship, WWF offered Inga an exciting opportunity to continue her work as a research assistant. We caught up with Inga on the cusp of her latest adventure in the Arctic to discuss her interest in the Arctic region, her previous experience, and how her Muskie internship brought her to this moment.
What about the Arctic region first piqued your interest?
Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky once said: “Beauty at low temperatures is beauty.” Since I am from Russia, I feel the power of this statement more than anyone. The Arctic region has always impressed me by the combination of its silent beauty and hardness. But more than that, by the ability of all its creatures to survive in these extreme conditions.
I first learned about this region when I was doing my bachelor’s degree at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia. My specialty was international relations. In one of the main classes, the professor devoted several lectures to international relations in the Arctic. He talked about all the tensions between states there, mineral resources, and how climate change would affect it. I remember my thoughts at that time were: How can such a tough and remote place on Earth be so vulnerable?
Seven years later, I still wonder the same thing. In these seven years, I have finished my bachelor’s degree, done my master’s at the same university, studied international law, worked in several law companies, and had an internship at the Russian International Affairs Council. But more so than anything, it was my college lectures that changed my life. All my research interests have been fixed on the Arctic region. I’ve even managed to win the Russian Geographical Society’s grant two times to go to the Arctic’s leading international conference, Arctic Frontiers.
Over the years, my interest has never lessened, but it has changed to include more than just the importance of international relations in the region. I realized that international environmental law and policy in the Arctic was my path. I wondered if it was because I just wanted to help this place to be less vulnerable. And then the Fulbright Program came. I won a scholarship to gain a master’s degree in public policy at Oregon State University. I went to the U.S. to find practical experience in my field of interest. The Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program made my dream true. With their help, I found a summer internship at an organization that suited me perfectly: WWF, the world’s leading conservation organization. I landed on their U.S. Arctic Program team.
What were some of the hands-on tasks of your internship and what did you learn?
My internship at WWF was exactly as I imagined. There are so many stories in which a protagonist gets what she wants, but the reality happens to be more disappointing than the dream. Not in my case. Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not ruin my experience. For the first time, I finally felt that a job could be a pleasure rather than a burden. I met so many people with similar interests, from whom I could learn a lot, even remotely. I feel like I got lucky with my supervisor, who had an eye for seeing and understanding the most vital talents of people and how to develop them in their work.
My main work tasks drastically varied, which allowed me to upgrade my skills in different areas. I communicated a lot with our Russian colleagues, facilitated discussions, and helped the WWF’s U.S. stay aware of what was going on across the Bering Strait (the strait that separates American and Russian parts of the Arctic). For better communication between countries, I was helping to create a forum for transboundary communication in the Bering Strait. I was also responsible for several policy papers that involved information from Russian sources and helped to prepare virtual events held by the company.
The internship helped me to learn so much. I learned to communicate within American work culture, improved my skills in policy analysis, and even learned how to be a graphic designer! (I created all the visuals for my research papers myself.)
What challenges did you face working remotely and how did you overcome them?
Because I communicated so much with my colleagues, I did not even feel like I was working remotely. Moreover, there were so many webinars and learning events I could benefit from that, sometimes, it was even more beneficial to be remote. The hardest part, though, was that tasks sometimes took longer than they would in person. The most important thing was to adapt my house to have a real workspace rather than just working in my pajamas. I asked my roommates to convert part of our shared space into my home office, which helped me establish a differentiation between work and being home. On top of that, I talked a lot with my colleagues by phone or Zoom. Those phone calls helped me not feel alone and saved us all time by writing fewer emails to one another.
Tell us more about your upcoming opportunity as a policy research assistant at WWF and what’s next for you.
My hard work as an intern with WWF did not go unnoticed. After my internship, I got a job offer. Soon, I will be starting my job as a Policy Research Assistant, working with the same team I interned with. But this time, it will be in person. I will move to Alaska in the fall, and I cannot help but smile as I write this down.
As a Policy Research Assistant, I will be collecting information on industry trends in priority sectors that threaten the Arctic and preparing summaries of the Russian media’s discourse on Arctic oil and gas, the Arctic Council, Arctic shipping, and Arctic indigenous peoples. I will also be supporting the governance team with research and assisting in workshop organization and meetings related to policies and practices to improve Arctic governance.
Although my tasks will stay the same for the most part, they will be more profound. I will be applying all the skills and information I learned during my summer as a Muskie Intern in my future work.
It is way easier to do your job effectively when all the networking and other working processes are already set up—so, owing to the Muskie Program, I do not have to start from the very beginning. I already have a well-established work system, a friendly environment with people I know, and a clear understanding of what to expect.
I am excited and cannot wait to start! Hello, new life; I have been waiting for you!