Nazarbayev University Political Science Review proudly presents its “Women in Academia” interview series dedicated to the celebration of women’s achievements in the scientific field on this special occasion – International Women’s Day!
Dr. Barbara Junisbai, Assistant Professor of political science and International Relations at Nazarbayev University:
Please tell our readers about yourself – where are you from, your specialization, how long have you been involved in science/academia and how?
I am originally from a small town near Memphis, Tennessee, but during my childhood we moved around a lot. I consider it my good fortune and my mother’s unexpected foresight that we ended up in Southern California, where the seeds of my academic and personal interests in multiculturalism, inequality, and democracy were planted. Mine is an immigrant family (my mother is from China), and though we moved every couple of years, the neighborhoods where we lived were similar: urban, poor, predominantly minority and multilingual. Looking back, I see that this background was what made me interested in political science–how policies affect who gets what, when, how, and how much. I was also very curious about my friends’ families’ countries of origin–Mexico, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia–and my own Chinese heritage, and so in college I took history, political science, anthropology, religion, economics, and geography classes to learn as much as I could about the world.
Many years later, I met my future husband (from Kazakhstan), moved to Almaty, and got a job working for the US State Department’s Central Asia regional mission. That experience changed my life trajectory. While working for the US Embassy/Agency for International Development, I received an inside look at foreign aid programs, including those in democracy promotion and economic reform, and decided that I was interested in political economy and democratization. I decided to go back to the US to get a PhD in political science. At Indiana University Bloomington, I focused on comparative politics and American politics, completing my degree in December 2010. I loved my program, especially the well-rounded, successful and inspirational women who taught and mentored me.
Please tell us more about your professional journey: Do you remember the ups and downs of the process or during your graduate studies? Have you encountered any obstacles or prejudices on your way? Were there any other expectations of you (within your family or purely cultural)? Was there a time when you had to balance/maneuver between family and work? How did you manage it?
The first year of graduate school was very, very hard for me. I didn’t think I would be able to finish the program. I had taken some time off from school and worked, so it was hard to readjust to academia. I also had a small baby, three months old, and a toddler, three years old. I was the only person in my graduate program with a family and the responsibilities that go a long with it. I remember one day I was in the office talking to our kind department secretary. I was so tired and when I saw her understanding expression, I started to cry. Then the director of graduate studies, Professor Yvette Alex-Assensoh, came in. She missed her meeting to sit with me and give me advice. I told her that I was going to quit and come back when my children were older. And she gave me the best advice I could have received. She said, “Barbara, there will never be a time when your children don’t need you. When they are in school, you’ll have even less time than you have now. You’ll be helping them with their homework, taking them to activities, helping out in the classroom. You are a bright student, and we believe in your (or we wouldn’t have admitted you!). You can do this. You might have to work harder, sleep less, organize your time better–but you can do it. If you really want it, you can do it.” I will never forget those words. And six years later, I graduated with honors and a number of external grants and awards under my belt. It was not easy, but those ended up among the best years of my life. I learned so much and got to spend a lot of time with my children–far more than if I had to work 40 hours a week.
In terms of prejudices I have faced, I would say that there are certain norms and expectations that have been challenging for me culturally and normatively. Political science is a male-dominated field, which rewards (in my opinion) some stereotypical male behaviors that do not come naturally to me. For example, once at a job interview I was told that I needed to be more assertive and that my strength was that students were fond of me. These were clearly gendered descriptors based on gendered expectations. I have over the years worked hard to develop my own style of teaching and communicating, one that builds on my natural inclinations as a first-generation Chinese-American woman, as well as on my own distinct personality and interpersonal style. My goal is to promote the kinds of values that matter most to be as a scholar and teacher, and to do so in a way that feels comfortable and honest to who I am as a woman with a complex and challenging personal history who has been incredibly lucky along the way.
As of now, what are you working on? Why is this project important to you? What is the most appealing aspect of your daily job?
Currently, I am working on my book manuscript about business opposition in post-Soviet Eurasia. This will be my first book, and so it is incredibly important to me. I love writing and thinking through my arguments and how to write them in the clearest and most accessible way I can. I try to practice the skills that I ask of my students–speaking and writing for a broad generalist audience is one of the things I value most, and if there is only one thing I leave them with, I hope that is it!
The most appealing part of my daily job is the intellectual freedom and engagement that it offers me. Professors study what they are interested in and passionate about; we teach courses that build on our intellectual passions and thereby inspire and help students develop their own potential. For me, it is really about the circulation of intellectual energy and knowledge. Most days, I come home tired, but happy. I get to be as creative in my scholarship and teaching as I can muster. And that is not something many jobs afford.