While I had lived abroad previously and traveled extensively, my Alfa Fellowship Program year was the first-time that I had ever stepped foot in Russia. Not only that, but I only had a very basic knowledge of Russian language at the time of the start of the program. However, I knew that for an aerospace engineer working in the space industry, an experience living and working in Russia would be invaluable in order to better understand the nuances of the long-standing space relationship between the U.S. and Russia, nuances that have included both competition and cooperation over the last few decades.
My goal for the Alfa Fellowship Program was to achieve a greater international perspective of my field, look into the healthy competition that exists among countries to spur innovation from the non-U.S. point-of-view, and gain a better understanding of international science and technology policies, specifically space policies. Going into the Alfa Fellowship Program, I already had an understanding of U.S. science and technology policy and initiatives, but I wanted to see how Russian science and technology policies and technological motivations are shaped by comparison.
So, I took a leave of absence from my engineering job, I arrived in Moscow, and as promised, a taxi driver holding a sign with my name on it met me outside of the baggage claim area at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. He immediately started asking me questions about American politics, to which I responded as best as I could in my very limited Russian. This was just the beginning of a long series of conversations I would have with my Uber and Yandex drivers throughout the year. It turned out to be the best language practice I could have. Thus, began my journey as an Alfa Fellow, and I have never looked back.
From the language classes to the professional business seminars, from my work placement to our Alfa-organized trips – to say that my year in Moscow was the best year of my life is honestly an understatement. I made so many lasting memories, created lifelong friends, and discovered new things about myself. Not only that, but my year in Moscow also greatly helped with my career advancement. It is one of the main reasons that I was able to move to my company’s headquarters in Los Angeles to work on international space systems analysis, and subsequently, in our global space cooperation partnerships department, an area that is the perfect marriage between international affairs and space technology, the exact path I dreamed my career would take.
During my Alfa year, I completed my work placement at Sputnix, a private satellite manufacturing company that is a part of the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a high technology business and entrepreneurship cluster that has been dubbed “Russia’s Silicon Valley.” This placement helped me to combine my technical background with my interest in international science and technology policies and relations, specifically within the space industry. I focused my research on U.S.-Russian and European-Russian relations in space, what the future holds for the Russian space industry, and whether cooperation is likely to continue, while simultaneously gaining insights into space industry start-up culture, learning about satellite testing techniques, and assisting the company with their space education outreach efforts. My international work experience through the Alfa Fellowship Program made me stand out among my peers with a similar educational background and helped to propel my career forward drastically. I can confidently say that taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live and work in Russia increased my competitiveness and enabled me to get to the position that I am in today.
As you can see, the Alfa Fellowship Program had such a positive impact on my life, both personally and professionally. My year in Russia helped me to see my life goals more clearly than ever before and it really gave me the perspective and experience to understand what I need to do to achieve those goals. Not only did this experience help me to gain a deeper international perspective of the global space, engineering, and technologies industries, but my time living and working in Russia as a representative of my native country also taught me a great deal about communication, diplomacy, and professionalism. I carry these characteristics with me in all aspects of my life. I am extremely proud and honored to have been an Alfa Fellow.
Ashley Kowalski was an Alfa Fellow in 2017-2018 and is currently a Project Engineer in the Global Partnerships Department at The Aerospace Corporation.