Slavic literature scholar aims to inspire fellow Ph.D. grads

Mira Nikolova, a native of Bulgaria and a doctoral candidate in Slavic studies, plans to draw parallels between Ph.D. students and saguaro cacti in her Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony address on Sunday, May 24.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In 2018, Mira Nikolova was at an academic conference in Tucson, Arizona, when it occurred to her: A Ph.D. student is a lot like a saguaro cactus.

“The cacti thrive in very challenging conditions in the desert — they blossom with beautiful flowers, and they provide sustenance for pretty much every creature in their ecosystem,” Nikolova said. “Ph.D. students go through challenging and isolating moments — the process is not for the faint of heart. But we have so much potential to make a positive impact, and I think we should give ourselves credit for that.”

Nikolova, now wrapping up the sixth and final year of her doctorate in Slavic studies at Brown University, says that the research process can feel solitary even to the most socially engaged graduate students — especially in the time of COVID-19, when social isolation is a universal fact of life. So on Sunday, May 24, when she earns her Brown degree along with 217 other Ph.D. students, she hopes to inspire her classmates to look past today’s isolation and toward tomorrow’s potential.

“It’s easy to become overwhelmed by details and lose track of why we’re here,” Nikolova said. “But we have to persevere and remember there are things we can do to positively impact our society and our ecosystem.”

Each year, the University’s Graduate Student Council selects one Ph.D. graduate to address the graduating class and their loved ones at the doctoral ceremony during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed Commencement from proceeding as planned, the GSC’s tradition lives on: Nikolova, chosen by a panel within the council, will employ her cactus metaphor in an address to her fellow graduates during the Graduate School’s Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony.

Nikolova’s affinity for succulent plants dates back to her childhood in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her family’s apartment was too small to accommodate a pet, so she asked her mother if they could keep cacti instead.

“We still have the cacti at home,” she noted proudly.

Nikolova seemed to be headed toward a career in science and technology from an early age: In addition to her early interest in plants, she had chosen to focus on chemistry in high school. But shortly after she began undergraduate studies at Bowdoin College, she surprised everyone — including herself — by pursuing an entirely different area of study.

“Going into college, I was looking at neuroscience, art history, English, psychology,” she said. “I had all these interests and ideas, and I was able to explore so many of them — that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education. I ended up discovering classes in Russian and then majoring in Russian.”

Nikolova’s passion for Slavic cultures and languages carried her from Bowdoin to Brown, where she has studied the ways in which exiled or condemned Slavic writers depict the condition of physical or social isolation. Her interest in the subject was born from “The Condition We Call Exile,” a 1987 essay by Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky. 

“There’s a recording from a conference where he presented this essay, and he’s talking about all kinds of people who live in exile — foreign workers in Germany and the Soviet Union, Mexican refugees in the deserts of Southern California,” she said. “It sends goosebumps down my spine, because it feels as if it could have been recorded last year.”

“ It’s easy to become overwhelmed by details and lose track of why we’re here. But we have to persevere and remember there are things we can do to positively impact our society and our ecosystem. ”

Mira Nikolova 2020 Ph.D. graduate

The Balkan native speaks as effusively about the University as she does about her chosen field of study. Ask her about the highlights of her time at the University and she’ll gush about every facet of her experience — right down to the foamy cappuccinos and friendly staff at the cafe inside the Brown Bookstore, where she was a daily fixture. 

Nikolova’s professors, she said, inspired her to push the boundaries of her study with their own willingness to explore philosophy and political science. She took courses across the humanities and social sciences, taking up Czech and traveling to Prague for a summer language program. She believes the broad knowledge she developed enriched her classroom teaching considerably and strengthened her relationships with the diverse array of undergraduate students she taught.

“Sure, my focus is on literature and poetry,” she said. “But culture and language is so inextricably linked to literature that you can’t understand one without understanding the other. I was drawn to Brown because they understand that everything is connected, and so they approach education in a very open-minded, curiosity-driven way.” 

Outside the classroom, Nikolova’s most cherished memory is her experience in the 12-week Brown Executive Scholars Training Program, which is designed to expose doctoral and master’s students to careers in higher education administration. 

“Inviting students to participate in the administrative process is a big vote of confidence on Brown’s part, and it was such a valuable experience,” she said. “I think it’s exciting to consider the possibility of having an impact beyond the classroom, at a policymaking level.”

For now, Nikolova is thrilled to start work as a lecturer at her undergraduate alma mater, Bowdoin, in the fall. 

“I’ve come full circle — I’ll be teaching people a bit about my home culture in the place that was my first home away from home,” she said.

“I think teaching will be it for me,” Nikolova added. “That ‘aha’ moment gets me so excited, when you see students engage with the world and find their purpose, and you feel like you played a small role in that overall journey.”