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From Russia to Aggieland: One History Professor’s Journey

A polyglot, scholar, and mother who found her way from Russia to Texas A&M University.

By Kira Schwarz ‘22

Olga Dror always wanted to lead an interesting life. At her primary school in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia, she was already studying English as a second-grader. She wanted to be a pilot but it was not feasible back then for a young woman. So, she found out that the School of Oriental Studies at Leningrad State University gave preference to prospective male students over females. Dror decided to take it up as a challenge and, in 1982, became a student of Vietnam there. 

“The main attraction was that their first language was Vietnamese, the second was Chinese, and the third was French, so I thought that it might be interesting, challenging, and engaging,” Dror explained. “Moreover, the relationship between the Soviet Union and Vietnam was quite good because they were both socialist countries.”

However, Dror had trouble finding work in her field because of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

“I was very tired of the system,” Dror recalled. “Maybe if I’m not good, then it’s a competition – I lose. But if I am excluded by definition, it just doesn’t work.” 

Thus, when the rise of the Iron Curtain in 1989 made the emigration from the Soviet Union possible, Dror left in May 1990 for Israel. She arrived in Jerusalem with big plans to continue her studies of Vietnam at the Hebrew University there. But she was informed that her M.A. degree from Leningrad State University in Vietnamese Studies was the highest degree in this field in Israel and, if she wanted to continue her studies of Vietnam, she would need to go to the United States, France, Canada, or Australia.  

“At that time, anyone emigrating from the Soviet Union was stripped of their citizenship and had to surrender their passport,” Dror said. “Instead, one would be given a piece of paper that said that one was a stateless person allowed to leave the Soviet Union. We were allowed to take $300 with us. So, when I was advised to go to study elsewhere, I simply did not have any financial means to do so. Moreover, I, like all of us in the Soviet Union, did not have any idea about the Western system of education and how to enter a graduate school there — to find a program, to write there, to take tests, et cetera. So, I said, ‘No. I’ve just arrived. I am not going to study Vietnam elsewhere.’” 

The university suggested Dror study international relations instead, which she eagerly accepted just in time for a huge shift in the world’s stage. The subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that there were now 15 new states to be negotiated with, as well as possible future relations with Arab countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was recruiting people to work for new embassies. Dror became the Consul of Israel to the Baltic States, and could now explore other universities to continue her education. 

“I was accepted at Cornell, which is the best school in my field,” Dror said. “I arrived in the United States in 1997. It was very difficult for me. I arrived with my son, who was four and a half years old at the time, but probably the most difficult thing was trying to understand what people were saying because what I studied at school were British accents. I came to New York City and they had completely different accents.” 

After getting a M.A. in history in 2000 and a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian and East Asian history in 2003, Dror accepted an endowed chair for the most prominent young historian as a visiting assistant professor in the Clements Department of History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In 2004, she became an assistant professor at Texas A&M. 

“I arrived in College Station as soon as I could,” says Dror. “I love the university. I love the students. I think this is the best part of my job, working with young people. It keeps us young. Sometimes there are definitely challenges, but it’s always very gratifying to work with students.”  

Since settling down in Aggieland, Dror continues traveling and has held a number of fellowships at institutions around the world, such as Institut d’études avancées de Nantes in France and the National Humanities Center. In the coming academic year, she will be a fellow of Collegium de Lyon at the French Institute for Advanced Studies System and then, a senior fellow at the Kyoto Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Japan. Currently, Dror is working on a book about Ho Chi Minh, a historical character whose mystifying personality fascinates her.