Five Questions With … Jacob Hensh

Note:  2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions For …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students. In this second installment, Havighurst Center faculty associate Zara Torlone checks in with Jacob (Jake) Hensh, who was a Center undergraduate fellow and who maintained close ties to the Center as he earned his M.A. in Political Science. 

  1. Zara Torlone: Jake, this year Havighurst Center is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We are very excited to contact our former students, fellows, associates, everyone who made a difference for the Center with their work and various intellectual contributions. Your name also came up and it is my privilege to interview you within our framework of FIVE QUESTIONS WITH… So here is my first question.

Can you recall some of the most important memories and people during your time–both as an undergraduate and graduate student–at the Havighurst Center and how being associated with it made a difference for you?

Jake Hensh: I won’t lie, this is such a difficult question, so I will do my best; Thank you, Dr. Venelin Ganev, for being my mentor while writing my MA Thesis Paper; Thank you, Dr. Stephen Norris for constantly giving me support while I was a Fellow; Thank you Lynn Stevens, I don’t believe you will ever understand what you did for me on the constant days when I would come in to the Center exasperated, and you would (not literally) smack me back into reality; Thank you Dr. Zara Torlone, for being an amazing mentor, professor, and friend, who was always willing to lend a helping hand when I needed it most. You have been there for me from the start, and you’ve been there for me ever since, and maintaining a close friendship with you to this day is one of best gifts of my life.

Most of all, though, thank you to the late Dr. Karen Dawisha. I will never forget when I walked into your office, during my 3rd year, and explained that I could not do both the study abroad trips to Estonia (Winter) and Russia (Summer) for financial reasons (and I believe that this is verbatim when I write her response); a response that was delivered with such tact and friendliness that only someone like Karen Dawisha could do, “Well, Jake, how about I figure out a way for you to do both, because I believe in you, and the Center will support you. Make us proud.”

 I love you all, thank you. You have given me the confidence to pursue my dreams and have shaped the path of my life.

  • 2. Zara Torlone: Do you think that what you learned while being at the Havighurst Center shaped your career and also your understanding of Russia?

Jake Hensh: Absolutely; my experience with the Center shaped my career and my understanding of Russia more than anything.

            While I was on my study abroad trip in St. Petersburg, I met people from many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. Were it not for the Havighurst Center, I never would have been able to have been there, nor would I have met such wonderful friends.

            Moreover, the variety of courses that I had the opportunity to complete within the Center has truly given me an outstanding understanding of Russian history, and respect for Russian history, culture, and its people.

            Finally, (at your suggestion, Dr. Torlone) I decided to pursue a career in Immigration Law after I completed my MA; I had been interested in Law since I was a young kid, but it was only when I began learning the Russian language and starting to understand the culture that I fell in love with all of it, could not get enough, and totally immersed myself; this was all thanks to the Havighurst Center.

  • 3. Zara Torlone: I remember in the Havighurst Colloquium with me you wrote a long exegesis about the so-called concept of the “Russian soul” on which you based the argument of your paper and for which you received from me what one might call harsh criticism. Do you still think today that this elusive idea of the “Russian soul” exists and if so how would you articulate it?

Jake Hensh: Well Dr. Torlone, first and foremost let me thank you for reminding me of the single harshest criticism that I have ever received on one individual paper … however I will say that it has led to one of our favorite running jokes that has persisted for over 5 years (and to be clear, my classmates still make fun of me for it as well). So, this is a very fun question for me to go back and think on.

            As I reflect on it, I think the way that I would describe it would be mainly literature focused (Gogol’s Dead Souls was it if I remember correctly?).

            I was intrigued by the idea of the Russian Soul because of the lofty, sort of beautiful idea that a certain culture / people could be tied on such a spiritual level to that culture that it has become specifically their own. But as we continued to discuss it (and after how I would describe it as being “torn apart” on my paper) I realized that I think it is was more of just a literary device as the search for a true Russian national identity went on. Because when you think about it, it earnestly describes nothing really about Russian national identity, which had become one of the key concepts of the course.

            So, I guess to specifically answer the question, no, I do not believe in the concept of the “Russian Soul”, and I definitely learned my lesson on trying to write about it thanks to you, Dr. Torlone.

  • 4. Zara Torlone: Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing today and what are your plans for the future? Does your interest in the region you studied with us continue?

Jake Hensh: I would love to. After finishing my MA at Miami, and sadly having to leave such an amazing place and such amazing people, I decided to work for a year as a paralegal in Pittsburgh, PA, at an immigration law firm, while I studied for the LSAT.

            After surviving all of the studying, I enrolled in law school at Penn State Law, in State College, PA, and am currently in my 3L year (3rd year).

            While here, I have managed to find friends who also speak Russian, and we have tried to converse as often as possible (when not being drowned in hundreds of pages of reading) and moreover, I intend on using my language skills when I begin to practice as an immigration attorney.

            Russia will always have a special place in my heart, and I truly hope to find a way to integrate my work more closely with the country and its people, so yes, I would say my interest absolutely continues, and I never see that interest ending.

  • 5. Zara Torlone: And here is my last question. Is there anything you would like to say to the future generations of our students interested in studying Russia?

Jake Hensh: Go there (once the Covid pandemic ends, please). Go see the people, see the culture, and experience it; there is this thought about the Russian people that maybe they would not be accepting of American visitors, or that it is unsafe, and I tell you that these stigmas could not be further from the truth. My time in Russia was incredible, and I truthfully felt safer in the heart of Moscow than I would in Manhattan. There is absolutely no way of learning both a language, and about that culture, better than being there.

            But my best piece of advice that I would like to offer is to go to Miami and get acquainted with the professors at the Havighurst Center; you will be taken care of, make amazing friends, and be educated deftly on every aspect of Russia imaginable. As the saying goes, “To think that in such a place, I led such a life,” and the Havighurst Center was the crux of my experience with giving me a passion for such an amazing country; happy 20th anniversary everyone, I love and miss you all.  

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