Take Five with Sasha de Vogel ’09, GSAS’13



Sasha de Vogel ’09, GSAS’13 is a political scientist and novelist currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. Her research considers the conditions under which authoritarian governments, particularly in the former Soviet Union, make concessions to protest movements, and has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Prior to moving to Michigan, de Vogel earned an M.A. in Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian regional studies. Writing as Sasha Laurens, her debut novel, A Wicked Magic, is a young-adult contemporary fantasy that will be published by Penguin Random House in July.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

This won’t shock anyone who knows me, but I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a bias against New York because of some family who lived there, and I’d wanted to go to a college with no distribution requirements — I had A LOT of ideas about the direction of my education — so I was deeply unexcited about the Core. But my older sister advised me that during the first month of school I should try to hang out with people I thought were cooler than I was, and that advice saved me. It helped that there were a lot of cool people to choose from. Within the first two weeks of school, I had secured an abjectly terrible fake ID, had a panic attack at a concert while using it, been kicked in the head during a capoeira demonstration at a meeting of Students for Economic and Environmental Justice, broken onto the roof of at least one campus building, gotten Kanye West to sign my copy of The College Dropout and had a guy hit on me by name-dropping my favorite Situationist philosopher. I decided I would give Columbia the benefit of the doubt.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in the smallest room on the sixth floor of Carman, but the housing gods blessed me with a roommate who was my near-twin. We both wanted to study creative writing and human rights, had the same color sheets, liked the same kind of cereal and each had one sibling two years older. We are both extremely short, and even our first names sound similar! It has been 15 years and I’ve been best friends with Ashraya Gupta ’09 since she cracked her front tooth on a poppy seed from a Nussbaum and Wu bagel our first morning as roomies. A Wicked Magic is dedicated to her.

Also, one time I really did get locked out of my room wearing nothing but a towel. But because the L.A. kids on my floor had a weekly tradition of watching The O.C. in the lounge wearing luxurious bathrobes and underwear, it was less disruptive than it could have been.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

Some of the best teaching I encountered at Columbia was in my Lit Hum and CC classes, and I think anyone who was a student of Brenna Mead GSAS’04 and Bob Neer LAW’91, GSAS’11 would say the same. They made the texts feel accessible and contemporary and actually kind of fun. I recently found a paper I wrote for CC that took the form of a transcript of a fictional episode of Dr. Phil, where a bunch of philosophers debated whether a wild and crazy teenage daughter should be allowed to be so wild and crazy. I can’t believe I came up with that idea and was allowed to write it. Now that I have been in the position of instructing students, I can barely imagine how difficult it is to run a course like that, for such intense students, and to do it so well. The Core would absolutely collapse without graduate students.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

As a Slavic studies major, I spent a lot of time on the top floor of Hamilton — a building with a single, barely functional, postage stamp-sized elevator. Unless you left 20 minutes early for class to wait for the elevator, it was seven flights of stairs for you. But the Slavic department was worth it. It’s not a stretch to say that those classes and the incredible faculty changed the course of my life. I discovered a passion for Russia that led me to move to Saint Petersburg after graduation, and set me on the path to my current work.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

The practical part of me wishes I’d taken statistics, or even one single political science course, but then a less practical part of me wishes I’d taken one of those anthropology courses on the history of light or pirates or the future. I’ve also been really fortunate that my circle of Columbia friends has grown in many ways since graduation, so there are some people I’m close with now whom I wish I’d known better then, if only so I’d have a stash of embarrassing stories and pictures.