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Happy Grad Students: Part One in a One Part Series


bond In which Bwog Staffer Brendan Ballou tries desperately to find something to talk about with Kira Kalina von Ostenfeld — a German countess who graduated from Georgetown at age 19 to work for the FBI, grew up in Peru, learned six languages, and started her own art company. She’s also a fifth-year grad student in the history department focusing on middle-ages Spain.

Why are grad students sad?

It’s part of the culture of graduate school. And this is something that’s happened for a very, very long time – it’s nothing new. It’s part of the intensity of the intellectual process we go through – it’s suffering. We’re supposed to be doing this for some higher call and we will enlighten the world. I mean we have a pretty sweet deal – the lucky ones of us get paid to be here. I think you’re being unrealistic if you come to graduate school and think it’s going to be cushy. It’s difficult, so the lucky few of us who are allowed to be part of this should appreciate it for what it’s for.

So you went to college at 16

Yeah.

So how did that happen?

Well, my parents are a little bit older, so when I came along my mother had already had kids, and so she considered me a little adult. I don’t think it was a negative thing at all – I very much appreciated it actually. I was never treated as a child – I was always treated as an adult and pushed accordingly when it came to academics. And so my parents were very lenient in terms of everything else that they did, so their one requirement was that, ‘if get A’s and keep A’s in everything you do you have free rein – you can go out with your friends, you can party, you can go to concerts, whatever, you can have a boyfriend.’

And so you had a social life in high school?

 

Absolutely. So that was how and why I kept this incredibly high average, and that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. Part of the reason why I excelled so fast was that I spent my formative years in Peru. I was born and raised in Peru, my mom’s American and my dad is German. They both went to Harvard together – very romantic story. They did not date at Harvard, my mom was already married at the time, they were both doctors, and many years later my mother was a doctor for the American embassy in Peru and my father was down there investing in some companies and they went to an embassy party and there they met up. So I was born there, but my mother was frustrated at what she saw going on at the American embassy and she saw that all of the kids of diplomats didn’t know a word of Spanish and never interacted with the local children. She was determined that I wouldn’t do that, so I learned multiple languages along the way because I spoke German with my mother, English with my father, Spanish in school, and French was my second language in school. And I think that allowed me to develop intellectually at a slightly faster pace.

I went to boarding school – I ended up going to Deerfield in Massachusetts. And when I went because of the time when I changed they ended up pushing me one year ahead, so I skipped a year then. And then because of my birthday I never really did kindergarten, so I had already skipped one year before, and when I went to Deerfield they were all like, ‘How can this girl speak English and yet can’t read or write?’ and I was kind of the class dunce for six or seven months until I could read and write. It took me a little timeto adjust but by the end I had already covered the majority of the material in sciences and math, so I skipped another year. So I skipped three years along thee way, and that’s how I kind of ended up just turning sixteen when I went to University.

Just turning 16? How are you not the most emotionally stunted person on the planet?

Because I ran for student president. So I was there at Georgetown and I ran for student president. I always looked a little bit older and because I always had a social life and got along with people in my class I was never sort of the younger person. And so I decided to run for class president, and I won, and after I won I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, so, by the way, I’m only 16.’ And it was this wonderful reverse psychology because everyone had already accepted me.

How did you end up at the FBI?

Well, I got recruited by the FBI out of Georgetown. Most students there take the foreign service exams and they take the government service exams, and I was still 18, about to turn 19 and it seemed very exciting to me. It was a different climate then, it wasn’t the climate we have now. I probably would have reconsidered going into some kind of government office if the atmosphere was similar to what it is now, but it wasn’t then. So it was a way to rebel against my parents. I never told my parents until I had kind of signed on the dotted line.

So what did you do?

I was – I was – let’s see, how to do this. The FBI does quite a bit more than just domestic affairs. And they particularly get themselves involved – because of the nature of what they do domestically – at looking at international crime, or organized crime beyond the domestic sphere. And so with my ability with languages I played a part in understanding some of the transactions that went on.

Why did you quit?

I had had enough – I had shown my rebellion. I think where I was going was that I would have had to do more field operations and that wasn’t my thing. My mom called me up one day and we had a conversation, and I had been field trained, but she was like ‘could you kill someone?’ and I hadn’t really thought about it until she actually asked me. And that isn’t in my nature I always get very scared because I took the exams and they said that that was in my nature. They choose you based on what your aptitudes are, and when they choose you for field work you have to show that you’re able to do certain things or that you have the capability inside you to do certain things. I always joke about that – that somewhere in my I have the ability to kill someone – but I wouldn’t want to.

So how did you make the transition from being able to kill someone to art history.

Well, my father is a collector, and one day I was sitting in his living room and he was sitting surrounded by all these polaroids, and he was like, ‘it’s so frustrating – the insurance companies want pictures of all of my things, and they want polaroids’ – the reason they want polaroids is because they’re harder to fudge – and I said, ‘why don’t I just create a CD for you?’

How long ago was this?

Gosh, about 10 or 11 years ago. I had a boyfriend at the time who was very techno-savvy — and he was a computer scientist – and he developed a piece of software for me so that I could provide not only pictures but also do some of the research for it. And my father loved it and my father started telling people who were also collectors, and so I decided that I was going to do that for a while. So I started my own business, and it was fantastic because when you do stuff like that you get to travel on expenses and they pay for you to come to them and my father’s friends live in very interesting places.

So why did you become an academic?

Well at that point I was much more interested in doing the research for all that than doing the traveling, and I loved the art. So I applied to go to Cambridge and got in and got my masters in art history and once I was there realized that what I really loved about art was the history behind it and kind of the political social economic contexts that created it, and so I was like, ‘what I really love is history.’ So I applied to come back to the States, because I was given the opportunity to pursue my PhD at Cambridge and I love Cambridge but it’s a very closed environment. So I decided to come back to the states. I love doing research, I love the past, and I’m of the school  that still believes that we have much to learn from our past.

It seems like so many people go to grad school out of inertia, but for you it was a conscious choice.

Perhaps that’s why I’m happy. If you come here out of that inertia then you fall prey to that while you’re here too. And that’s unfortunate because it will affect their ability to teach because they won’t be as passionate about it as they probably should be. In order to makea success in academia you have to understand that teaching and interacting and imparting what you learned to others is part of that process, and that’s something that’s been lost in academia globally, because as it becomes more rarified territory the professor becomes more removed. I find it to be frustrating.

Don’t you miss traveling around the world for art or for the FBI? When you’re teaching your CC class, don’t you ever think to yourself ‘I could be killing someone right now?’

No, what a terrible thing to say! No – that never enters my mind. No, no, no. Perhaps all of that glamour and excitement has its limitations because everything in itself becomes rather predictive and tedious. It sounds so exotic to go to fabulous places and go to exotic parties and to be surrounded by beautiful things, but in reality that in itself is rather hollow.

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18 Comments

  • ugh says:

    @ugh need a picture of this crazy intelligent girl please.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Great interview, bwog – keep it up.

  • shira says:

    @shira brendan, was this your cc prof?

  • shira says:

    @shira okay, just kidding. after actually reading the whole article, I know that a) yes, she is, and b) oh my god, soooo cool.

  • wow says:

    @wow this person is my idol. I look like shredded wheat compared to her.

  • wondering says:

    @wondering what does her accent sound like, assuming she has one?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I agree with post#1, part b of post#4, “I look like a shredded wheat” of post#5 and I wonder just like post#6.
    How old is this person? If she’s not even 35 years old, I wonder what she’s going to be up to in like 10 years.
    God Bless Her!

  • amazing says:

    @amazing a brilliant interview. ballou should be commended for finding such extraordinary people.

  • umm says:

    @umm so her dad is german and her mom is american, but she was raised speaking german with her mom and english with her dad?

    she must have funny accents.

  • umm says:

    @umm why the change from the FBI image to the 007 one? there’s actually an FBI reference here, but nothing about bond.

  • This says:

    @This should be a more part series. Or is there only one happy grad student?

  • Answer Granted says:

    @Answer Granted I accessed her account in the Deerfield Alumni directory, and it turns out she graduated in 1992 (this is why the name was unfamiliar to me). 16 at graduation, thus currently 30 or thereabouts.

  • she's also says:

    @she's also slightly evil. just fyi.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I disagree, she was my TA and she was awesome! Really helpful with reading rough drafts of papers, and a fair grader.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I thought she was a great CC prof.

  • she is... says:

    @she is... mean. very very mean. and she has an agenda, and really doesn’t like undergrads.

  • wtf says:

    @wtf mate? she can kill you – of course she can be mean

  • Your Great Aunt Ida says:

    @Your Great Aunt Ida I know it’s an attempt to be funny, but can you really have a “series” of just one part. i do not think so. Also, another good reason to go to a state school: not feeling vastly inferior to people of impossible circumstances and intelligence.

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