Genrietta Churbanova

A “brave, caring and brilliant scholar” who is “beyond compare.” 

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Those are just a few of the words used to describe Little Rock native Genrietta Churbanova by the faculty at Princeton University, where she’s been named the Class of 2024 valedictorian.

Hearing Churbanova speak about her senior thesis — which involved spending a summer abroad doing ethnographic research, or, in her words, “the journalism equivalent of academia,” about Russian people living in Taiwan — gave us an idea of what her professors are on about. 

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“Initially, I was interested in going to the Sino-Russian border, but there are some logistical complications with that, so I decided to go to Taiwan, which has a relatively small Russian community, but a Russian community nonetheless,” Churbanova, 23, said in an interview with the Arkansas Times

“I learned a lot about how ethnic Russians are perceived in Taiwan. … In my thesis, I address racialization and the construction of racialized identities as a process that can also obscure other parts of people’s identities. In being white, Russians there are assumed to be English-speaking and often American, which makes their Russianness less visible and also a little bit dismissed. But a positive consequence is that Taiwanese people seem to have a lot fewer notions about Russians or stereotypes. Being Russian in the States, there’s a lot of assumptions for historical reasons about Russia or Russians which seems to be less the case in Taiwan.”

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How, you might ask, was she able to conduct all of that research on her own? 

ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH: A capsule from Churbanova’s summer abroad in Taiwan.

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She’s fluent in Russian and proficient in Chinese, of course. An anthropology major who minored in both Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies as well as Chinese language and culture (she was also the president of Princeton’s Society of Russian Language and Culture), Churbanova got her start with both languages much earlier than college. 

Though she was born in Little Rock, Churbanova and her parents moved to Russia — her father’s homeland — when she was still a baby, and she spoke Russian throughout her childhood. A few years later, the family returned to Arkansas and Churbanova enrolled at Pulaski Academy, where, in 8th grade, she started studying Chinese.  

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Churbanova also attributes her introduction to the social sciences to her time at Pulaski Academy. The wisdom imparted by Social Science Department Chair Bill Topich was particularly impactful. 

“I don’t think I would have gone to Princeton without his mentorship or guidance,” she said. “He structured his classroom in a college-esque way. We had a lot of longer form readings that we would then discuss together. A lot of our assignments were longer papers or essays. … He taught a class called Honors International where every year he changes the curriculum to discuss topics that are timely and broadly related to political occurrences on the global stage.”

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Churbanova was accepted to Princeton before graduating from Pulaski Academy in 2019, but she deferred for a year in order to intensively study Mandarin in Beijing through the U.S. State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth.

On Tuesday, Churbanova will be one of two students to speak on behalf of the Class of 2024 at Princeton’s commencement ceremony. 

“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “We’re a smaller school where there’s only just over 5,000 undergrads, so my graduating class isn’t that large compared to some universities. But it’s still made up of people who wanted really diverse experiences in undergrad, so I tried to find a topic that would be at least somewhat meaningful to everyone.”

Her speech will focus on the importance of learning and gratitude.

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“Being at Princeton, there’s so much privilege associated with it,” she said. “We think about that a lot as Princeton students. But we sometimes forget about the fact that we’re able to receive an education at all is already an enormous privilege.” 

In August, Churbanova is headed to Beijing again, this time as a Schwarzman Scholar. “One of the world’s most prestigious graduate fellowships,” as Forbes calls it, the program revolves around a fully-funded one-year Master’s degree in global affairs at Tsinghua University. Of the over 4,000 applicants, only 150 students were selected. In addition to her coursework, she hopes to continue research on a similar topic to her senior thesis by working with the Russian Cultural Center in Beijing.

As for what will follow graduate school, Churbanova isn’t yet sure, but she’s got some ideas. 

“I’m thinking that maybe doing a Ph.D. in anthropology and going into academia is an option. Or maybe law school,” she said. “Or if a different opportunity presents itself, then I’m also open to something totally unexpected.”

Churbanova was one of our Arkansas Times All-Stars finalists in 2019. Perplexingly, she didn’t make the cut for the team, and we sorely regret it. Congratulations, Genrietta!

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