Student Spotlight: Mariam Topeshashvili (College '19)

December 17, 2018
Mariam Topeshashvili

By Andrew Wilcox

You were born in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and moved with your parents to Rio de Janeiro as a child. What was it like growing up as an refugee in Brazil?

Growing up as a refugee in Brazil was tough, but looking back, much of who I am comes from that experience, and so I wouldn't have had it any other way. My parents emigrated to Brazil in 2001 when I was only four years old. They thought they would start anew in a bright and promising country, but little did they know that their diplomas would not be accepted in Brazil, and that their resilience would be tested day after day.

My parents spoke neither Portuguese nor English, and soon the money my father had brought with him ran out. We were left to rely on a 100 Brazilian Reais allowance per person, given to us by the local Caritas, in partnership with the UNHCR branch in Rio. My parents were desperate to find a source of income, and so my dad--who had once been a political scientist and economist in the USSR--began selling sodas and beer on the Copacabana beach sidewalk. My mother, who had worked for more than twenty years as a pediatric nurse before coming to Brazil, found work as a babysitter for a local Russian Orthodox family.

From ages 4 to age 9 I grew up living in a favela called Tabajaras and attended public kindergarten and elementary school. Everyday, my father would drop me off at school and go to Copacabana with his styrofoam cooler, while my mother would spend nights away, sleeping where she worked. This is how they made ends meet, and I admire them deeply for not having been paralyzed by fear or sadness. They always persevered, and from early on that taught me that the key to life is not being book smart; rather, it's persevering and never ever giving up in the face of challenges. My parents became my biggest source of inspiration early on, and they are still my biggest sources of inspiration to this day.

I remember clearly that every day, after coming home exhausted from working under the sun all day, my father would sit down, eat his soup and then read a book. I could not for the life of me figure out what was so important and so entertaining in those pages that he would rather read than play with me. Which is why, at the age of six, I went to the Public Library near our house and took out Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." That's when my world changed: I realized books had the capacity to transport me to another world and to keep me company when I felt alone. I immediately understood my father in that moment, and to this day I always carry a book with me wherever I go.

In a broader sense, though, growing up as a Georgian refugee in a very liberal country taught me the value of comparing ideas, negotiating, and simply put, coexisting. My parents have always had very conservative values, but while growing up, I had the opportunity to contrast what I learned at home with what I heard at school and in the streets. This gave me the chance to really consider ideas from a multiple perspectives, and made me question them as I matured.

By 2007, I already spoke four languages and had helped my mother successfully complete a Tour Guide training course sponsored with a grant from the UNHCR, so the prospects for moving away from Tabajaras seemed promising. As she began to work, we decided to move to a building that was just below the mountain that led to Tabajaras, and that's where we live to this day. That very same year, I got into Colégio Pedro II, where I would be starting the 5th grade. Unfortunately, our story had an unexpected turn of events: my father was diagnosed with lung cancer that very same year, passing away just eight months later.

My mother was left alone to take care of me, make ends meet, and grieve for my father. Suffice to say, this took a toll on her, and so I saw myself growing up faster than the other kids. While my mother was depressed, I went to school alone, did the groceries, paid the bills and washed the dishes. By the age of 14 I was already interning at Petrobras and PUC-Rio and working as a translator for EducationUSA fairs. I didn't want to be an extra source of worry to my mother, and I wanted to help her in any way I could. This is where education comes in.

Early on, I realized that education was the way to change our economic standing and to give my mother everything my father had wanted to achieve when he decided to go to Brazil. I had always liked to study, because it allowed me to get distracted from everything that surrounded me. When there were shootings going on in the favela, I would stay glued to the ground trying to find the value to X for an algebra problem. Soon, I would be trying to find the value for X in National Math Olympiads, and later I would go to international events representing Brazil. My effort was recognized, and this drove me to dream bigger and bigger, until I was selected as a Brazil Youth Ambassador to the U.S. and later applied to American Universities with the help of Education USA and Fundação Estudar, two institutions that have had a great impact in my formation.

To be completely honest, I never fully believed I would ever get the chance to study at a place like Harvard, but I knew that, in the words of Machiavelli, "when the target seems too distant, [archers] know the capabilities of their bow and aim a good deal higher than their objective, not in order to shoot so high but so that by aiming high they can reach the target." I decided to try my best, and fortunately, it so happened to be enough. I probably was never the smartest person in the room, but I was the one who put in the most effort and never gave up.

How has your personal history informed your academic pursuits or your life at Harvard outside of the classroom?

Since I was very little, my parents would discuss history, politics and economics in front of me so when I began studying history and geopolitics in school I immediately knew that was my calling, in a way. I loved listening to stories about the Cold War, about Brazil's economy, its natural resources and so forth. I also loved learning new languages, because they opened up the possibility to access other cultures, and it also didn't hurt that speaking Georgian and Russian outside meant that no one would know what my parents and I were talking about. As a child, I liked that feeling of privacy.

Still, in high school I enjoyed nearly every single subject I studied, from the sciences to the humanities. For example, I became so enamored with Chemistry that I eventually took part in National Olympiads and later got an internship at Petrobras, where I worked in their Ecotoxicology and Inorganic Chemistry lab. At the same time, however, I was also conducting research at PUC-Rio with a Professor from the Department of Philosophy of Law. I was torn between many different subjects, and as the time to decide what I wanted to study in College was approaching, I got even more and more confused.

This is partially why I also decided to invest time and effort into my applications to American universities. I knew that in the U.S. I would be able to study different and disconnected subjects in the first couple of years of college, before I had to finally declare my concentration. After I came to Harvard, then, I did exactly what I had wanted to do. In my freshmen year, I took classes both in the sciences and the humanities.

By the end of my Sophomore year, I finally declared my concentration in Government with a secondary in Economics. By this time, I had concluded that while I liked Inorganic Chemistry a lot, I liked connecting with people more, and living in a lab was not as attractive to me as discussing capitalism with my classmates.

Nowadays, I'm a senior at Harvard writing a thesis about the 2008 War between Georgia and Russia and its implications for autonomous regions within the Post-Soviet space. I decided to write about this topic because Georgia is understudied in the U.S., probably partially due to how hard the Georgian language is to master, given that it has its own alphabet and is completely different from Slavic languages. I want to be able to share my knowledge with the rest of the Harvard community, and I also wanted to understand Georgia's culture and history more in depth. The first time I traveled to Georgia I was 18 years-old, so suffice to say that I also went through somewhat of a cultural shock due to my upbringing in Brazil.

Outside the classroom, I am very involved with HACIA, a model United Nations Conference geared towards Latin American high school students. As I mentioned earlier, debating, negotiating and sharing ideas has been an integral part of my life since I can remember, so I want students in Latin America, who may not be as used to debating in classrooms as students in the U.S. are, to have access to a space where they can see themselves as change-makers in the world. I am currently the English Committees Chair for this organization, which means that I get to oversee every topic that the 500+ students that attend our conference will be debating in the course of three days in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. I am very excited to see what amazing solutions these students will bring to the table, for topics such as a potential Nicaraguan Canal, and State-Sponsored Espionage.

Moreover, I'm also involved in Woodbridge, the international association on campus. Since my freshman year, I found a warm and welcoming community in the international students on campus and I wanted to somehow give it back to this group of people. As an international student myself, I often felt out of my element in the first few months at Harvard, and by interacting with other students in the same position I knew I was not alone. Nowadays, in my role as the Alumni Chair, I try to connect international alumni to current international students as well as plan events for graduating international seniors.

All in all, my time at Harvard has had its ups and downs, but I am extremely grateful for all the friends, advisors and Professors I met here and while I'm looking forward to my graduation, I have a bittersweet feeling about leaving this place that I have been calling home for the last four years.

You've recently received a prize from the Department of Government. Can you tell us about this prize and more about your interest in political science?

Yes! I was awarded the Charles Joseph Bonaparte Scholarship in June of 2018, and to be honest, it was one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. This prize is awarded “at the end of the junior year to that member of the class concentrating in government who, without regard to financial need, has the highest academic distinction in that subject.”

I absolutely love political science as a field of study, and after my freshman year this became very clear to me, and so I decided to take more classes in the Government Department to explore this passion of mine. This led me to take classes ranging from Political Theory to American Law, and I found myself growing ever more curious about the many potential ways in which one could engage with the study of politics as a science at Harvard. As my passion for academics grew, so did my grades: at the end of my sophomore year, I was selected as a John Harvard Scholar -- a distinction given to students in the top 5% of their respective classes.

This encouraged me to take a step that would prove to be essential in my Harvard career. Before coming to Harvard, I had heard of Professor Timothy J. Colton who focused on the study of the Post-Soviet Space at Harvard, and I was very much looking forward to taking a class with him. Unfortunately, during my freshman year, he was taking a sabbatical, but by the end of my sophomore year he was back to campus.

While looking at potential classes for my junior fall in the summer, I realized he would be teaching a class for graduate students on the Politics of the Post-Soviet Space, and I decided to take my chances and email him: I wanted to learn from him, and if he allowed me into his class, I would do my best to catch up with the graduate students. Fortunately, he was happy to allow me to take the class, and I tried to make good on my promise. For my final paper, I wrote on the Color Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and it had gotten praise from my academic idol! Later, Professor Colton referred this paper to a Colloquium on Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Davis Center here at Harvard and after this experience, I knew I wanted to have him advise my senior thesis, so I finally gathered strength and asked him if he could advise me, to which he fortunately agreed.

At the end of my junior year I realized all my effort and occasional sleepless nights had paid off: I had the best academic track record within the department and honestly, I had never felt so good in my life. As I pondered on how I got to be so lucky, I realized that a combination of passion and hard-work can take you anywhere you want to go. Had I been majoring in a field I didn't like to study, I would probably not have gotten a recognition such as this one; however, because I was so interested in what I was studying, I had the drive to excel and to go further than what was expected of me. I truly wanted to learn more and become the best political scientist I could be, and this naturally led me to get the good grades.

What are you thinking about doing after graduating in May? Do you have any longer-term ambitions?

This is truly a very hard question! While I love to study political science and political economy, I'm not still quite sure whether I want to pursue a career in academia in the future. I like doing research and reading and writing, but I also have the urge to use my skills for something that can have more immediate results. I also love coming up with questions and ideas, presenting, debating and negotiating, and I find that there are many fields in which I can use all the skills I learned from studying politics and engaging with qualitative and quantitative methods of research.

For example, after my sophomore summer, in which I interned in the marketing department of Kraft-Heinz Co., I came back to campus and decided to do an Independent Study about Millennial consumer habits. During my internship at Anheuser-Busch after freshman year, and now once more again after my internship at Kraft-Heinz, I had come across the challenge of understanding Millennials and the way they saw the world. I came back to Harvard had to the opportunity to conduct independent research on Millennial consumption habits, supervised by a professor in the Sociology department. This experience, along with my internships, has led me to realize that I really enjoy marketing and advertising! This field, just like political science, involves asking questions, trying to come up with answers and then testing your hypothesis and then presenting your findings and conclusions. The difference is that I see the impact my ideas have almost immediately, and I'm also interacting with creative people all the time. While I don't particularly see myself as a very creative person, I like the idea of being surrounded by creatives and I like bringing people together to work on different challenges, and from my experience so far, academia often feels like a lonely endeavor.

After all of these reflections, I decided I want to work in marketing with a touch of consulting to it, and I'm currently exploring my options. I want to work in a fast-paced environment, where communication and ambition make projects come to life. I have not yet completely dismissed the possibility of going into academia in the future, but after four years of academic work, I think I'm ready to experience the real world some more. I also want to spend some time with my mother, while helping her such as she has helped me.

My long-term ambitions are very broad: I want to make a change in the world, and I think this can be done in a myriad of ways. One thing I learned from my research on Millennials is that we are seldom satisfied, so I don't know where my career will take me but twenty-years from now I want to be in either a corporate or a governmental role that will allow me to give back to refugees and to students who are struggling to overcome the societal and economic barriers that have been imposed on them. I was very lucky to have people believe in my potential and help me along my journey, but I recognize that many don't have the same luck and give up along the way.

I want to be a role-model to students who are disenchanted with their prospects of achieving their dreams whichever those may be. A combination of hard-work, passion and endurance, coupled with support from people who are willing to share your dream with you is what I have found essential to get to where I am in my life. In the future, I hope to be in a position in which I will be able to make stories like mine be a constant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.