From Russia, With Success

A degree in international studies and a transformative study-abroad experience helped prepare Sydney Yonak ’13 for a career in geopolitical risk management.

By: A.C. Shilton  Monday, April 15, 2019 10:44 AM

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Photos by Brooke Slezak

Sydney Yonak ’13 spends her days thinking about risk. As the global markets engagement manager for Eurasia Group, Yonak helps multinational corporations and financial institutions analyze how international politics may affect everything from commodity prices to global stock exchanges.

While her job is all about managing risk, Yonak also knows that sometimes risk begets rewards. Early on in her time at Muhlenberg, Yonak expressed interest in studying abroad in Russia. Political Science Professor Christopher Herrick, who directs Muhlenberg’s International Studies program, encouraged Yonak to apply for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The prestigious, State Department-backed award for young leaders hoping to study abroad seemed ideal. Yonak got to work polishing her application. She was selected and was soon registering for classes at Saint Petersburg State University.

"Spending a semester abroad completely immersed in the Russian language and culture was an extremely eye-opening experience and did wonders for my language skills," she says. Her host mother spoke no English, so Yonak had no choice but to learn quickly.

When she arrived back stateside, she knew the risk of studying so far away had brought a rich reward: a new and better understanding of the importance of international affairs. “Studying abroad made the world seem both bigger and smaller,” she says. “Bigger because it increased my global awareness and exposed me to new ideas, perspectives and ways of life completely different from my own, and smaller because it made the world seem more intimate and relatable.”

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Post-Muhlenberg, Yonak worked to give that experience to other people. She spent two years as a program coordinator for the Open World Program, which brings emerging leaders from Eurasian countries to the United States for professional exchanges. Then, she completed a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.  

Today, Muhlenberg’s diverse liberal arts curriculum is something Yonak still finds herself drawing upon. “The well-rounded education I received at Muhlenberg, in addition to the strong support I received from many members of the Muhlenberg community, provided me with a wide range of skills and unique perspectives,” she says. And when you work in risk management, a diverse skill set and knowledge of viewpoints beyond your own are definitely assets.