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Ukrainian summer program opened doors for ASU master's student


Portrait of ASU alumnus Brandon Urness.

ASU alumnus Brandon Urness was inspired to pursue a career in international politics after spending time abroad in Mongolia and Ukraine.

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January 21, 2022

From building yurts in Mongolia to serving as an international election observer in Ukraine, Arizona State University alumnus Brandon Urness’ unconventional journey has now led him to pursue a master’s degree.

Urness started his ASU journey at the School of Politics of Global Studies, where he received his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2015. As a transfer student from a local community college, he was drawn to ASU’s program for the opportunities to network and build relationships in the field of politics. 

As an undergraduate, Urness participated in a number of influential internships, including at the Arizona Supreme Court, the United States Congress, the city of Phoenix and the Arizona Republican Party.

After graduating, he traveled to Mongolia, where he served as a missionary for two years, building yurts and learning about the country. As his time in Mongolia came to a close, he was looking for international language programs and learned about the Critical Languages Institute’s Ukrainian summer language program.

“I actually applied for the Russian program and one of the program directors told me about a grant that was available if I switched to Ukrainian,” Urness said. “ I thought, ‘You know, great, if there's money available, Ukraine is right next to Russia, and Ukraine is important with everything happening in the news.’ From there it just kind of fell into place.”

Urness spent eight intensive weeks on the ground in Ukraine, learning the language, culture, history and traditions. 

“My professor was extremely passionate, and she even gave us extracurricular activities if we wanted to get more involved or understand some of the recent political things at the time. I feel like I really got way more than just a language education,” he said.

Learning Ukrainian opened up a number of doors for Urness — most recently, he worked as an election observer for the Ukrainian presidential election in 2019. Today, he is working on completing his online master’s degree in political psychology. He shared more about his Sun Devil story.

Question: What initially interested you about your major?

Answer: I would say that I'm a big believer that the experiences we have kind of shape where we end up. I started college on a path of wanting to go to law school. Then, when I was in college, I had these internships and I realized that I was more excited about politics than I was about law school. I was following what was happening in the news. I was taking foreign policy classes. It was just a time where there was just a lot of information and a lot of high energy stuff, so it kind of planted that seed and grew from there.

Q: What’s your favorite part about the career you have chosen?

A: Politics are so exciting and there's always another fight to join. There's never a dull day and the work is significant. It's personally significant to me, and I think of the struggle for democracy and for elections. It's also the story of America, and we see how important these things are around the world, from Ukraine and most recently in Hong Kong, with democratic protests, and there's an uprising happening right now in Kazakhstan. There's never going to be a shortage of people who can help, who can train, who can organize and who can support the individual right for freedom.

Q: What has been your biggest motivation to succeed professionally?

A: I would say that I'm pretty motivated by the fight. I would say that the fight is important to me, and bringing the fight, whether it's at home or internationally, to the enemies of freedom anywhere is probably the biggest motivator for me. It's not win or lose, it's whether or not you've done your best and you fought with everything you have.

Q: What advice would you give to new students?

A: I would say just read books. I think a lot of students these days don't make a lot of time for reading, and I would say it doesn't really matter what you read as long as you're challenging your opinions and critically thinking and always focusing on your growth. I think if you have that kind of ember in your spirit, no matter how small, obviously it'll smolder, but eventually it's going to break out into a fire.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: I want to finish my master's program and apply for a PhD at ASU. I'm very interested in teaching and being a local resource for politics and international issues for Arizona students. I would say that's kind of my longer goal. Ten years from now, I'd like to work in consulting or some kind of campaign role. Right now, I remain focused on my academics.

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