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Laird Essay Contest winners announced

Monday, May 04, 2015

LAWRENCE — The Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (CREES) has announced that this year’s Roy D. and Betty Laird Essay Contest winners are Department of Geography doctoral candidate John Biersack, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, for his essay titled “The Politics of Biometric Passports: Ukrainian Bodies and the Borders of Europe,” and Mike Hemphill, a junior from Olathe majoring in linguistics and Slavic languages and literatures, for his essay “Being Light Blue: the Reconciliation of Language and Culture.”

Now in its 20th year, the annual essay contest is named after the late Roy D. Laird, a longtime member of the Russian and East European studies (REES) and political science faculties, and Betty Laird, whose support makes this prize possible. In honor of the awards 20th anniversary, the Laird Essay Competition was split into two categories: undergraduate and graduate.

A committee of three REES faculty read and independently rated the anonymous essays submitted for the contest. According to CREES Acting Director Eve Levin, Biersack’s essay was a “fascinating exploration of Ukraine’s identity in the context of its move towards issuing biometric passports, a requirement for closer ties to Europe.” Hemphill’s essay was “a more personal piece tied to his own identity, his love for the study of the Russian language and his disapproval of Russia’s policies.”

As the graduate recipient of the award, Biersack receives a $500 award and a book budget of $75. Hemphill, the undergraduate recipient, receives a $250 award. Both essays will be published on the CREES website, and Biersack and Hemphill will present at the final CREES Brownbag of the year at noon Tuesday, May 5, 318 Bailey.

Biersack received his master’s degree in Russian, East European and Eurasian studies from KU in 2009 and his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His research is focused on geopolitical narratives of identity in contemporary Ukraine, as well as issues surrounding the European Union–Ukraine border. In December 2014 he published, with KU Geography Professor Shannon O’Lear, an article titled: "The Geopolitics of Russia’s Annexation of Crimea: Narratives, Identity, Silences, and Energy" in Eurasian Geography and Economics. It has become the most widely read article the journal has published to date. In 2011-12, he was awarded an academic year Fulbright to conduct research in Ukraine. While at KU, he has also been awarded Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships in both Russian and Ukrainian to develop his language abilities. He currently works as a research development specialist with the Hall Center Humanities Grant Development Office while finishing his dissertation. His goal is to pursue a career in higher education or the nonprofit sector after completing his doctorate.

Hemphill was recently selected as a Russian Scholar Laureate and will be inducted into the Dobro Slovo Slavic Honor Society. In 2014 he received an award for academic achievement in elementary Russian. This summer he will take part in an intensive Russian program in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He intends to use his Russian skills in pursuit of a governmental career.



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The School of Languages & Cultures serves as a gateway to understanding the diversity of the world, through learning languages, literatures, and cultures, past and present. Through its research and teaching, the SLLC offers students opportunities for deep engagement with a wide range of languages, literatures, and cultures that provide the knowledge and skills to interact with and understand the world. The faculty and students who teach, research, and learn in the SLLC consider issues of diversity fundamental to all of our work. The study of others' languages, literatures, and cultures enables us to develop deep empathy and perspective informs the way that we approach issues before us, whether on a personal, local, regional, national, or global scale. Therefore take it as axiomatic that the SLLC stands for a campus that is committed to the meaningful sharing, contemplation, and discussion of ideas that emerge from multiple cultural perspectives and experiences. We continually rededicate ourselves to the principle of diversity. We strive to create an atmosphere where all students and faculty feel comfortable and welcome to express their views as well as work together to solve conflict. Further, we view our mission as a center of diversity on a flagship campus as requiring us to lead by example.

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