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Casandra Draudt fulfills international asperations

Hannibal native Casandra Draudt is pictured during one of her two visits to the Ukraine. She is standing on the bridge overlooking Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 2021. Contributed photo. 


When 26-year-old Casandra Draudt of Hannibal was 13 years old, she taught herself how to read Russian.

“I was a weird kid growing up,” she said, “my interests were eclectic.” 

Early on, she said, “I had an interest in history, that I got from my dad,” who throughout her youth watched documentaries and read books about World War II.  Casandra explained this week, during her spring break from studies at New York University, that at his side, she also became interested in World War II. That interest “spiraled into a real interest in the Eastern Front war between Germany and the Soviet Union.

“I think it was really the worst period to be alive, it was horrifying,” she said. “I wanted to learn the lessons from that, as someone outside of the conflict and removed a few generations.”

After high school, “I decided keep that interest alive.” She attended Moberly Area Community College for two years, then transferred to the University of Missouri-Columbia.

At MU, she majored in Russian.

Russian was a “small but respectable major, with three to four professors,” and five students in her class. “We were all friends; we’d go to events together, and we had group chats.  It was a close knit community. 

“I was quite focused on my studies,” she said, “I never really liked the party college scene, sororities. I mostly did my own thing, studied a lot. I had stacks of flashcards written in Russian, and I memorized all the words. There was a lot of homework, and writing papers, training for what I do now (in grad school.) I was quite diligent; it was a privilege to go to MU at all; my parents, Jay and Janet Draudt, helped pay my undergrad,” she said.

Then, in February 2020, she obtained a passport, with plans to put her new language skills  to the test.

Casandra was the recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship for students who spoke languages important for U.S. security. “I was supposed to study in Russia,” she said, but then Covid struck.”

Instead, “I was able to take an online intensive Russian program. I studied Russian five hours a day, every day.”

“During the pandemic, it was absolutely devastating. No figure of authority had any idea what to do, and students were left to fend for themselves.”

She applied for a Fullbright scholarship three times.

“The first time, in 2021, I made it to semi finalist, but Russia didn’t accept anybody that year.

“I applied in 2022, but then then war broke out in Ukraine.”

She is currently in the Fullbright cycle again this year, but instead of waiting for the outcome, “I’ve accepted a Peace Corps assignment in Moldova. Moldova is between Ukraine and Romania, it was annexed into the Soviet Union during WWII; it is a nice, tidy, respectable little country.

“I’m supposed to be doing English teaching, come June,” she said, “but currently the geopolitical situation in the Russian occupied region of Transnistria is flaring up. I’m not sure if they will send me there anymore.”

She is attending NYU on a Cohen Fellowship. “Stephen Cohen had some very reprehensible beliefs, a very pro-Russian guy.” While she doesn’t agree with his politics, “I would not be able to continue my education without this money,” she said. 

She got her acceptance letter for the Cohen Fellowship on Feb. 24, 2022, she said, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Before moving to New York, she worked at Watlow for six months. She also worked at Domino’s in order to raise money for her travels to Ukraine. Both of these jobs contributed to her real-world experience, she said.

Attending NYU has been an experience in itself. “There are some out of touch people in New York. Not everyone, but some. I talk about my experiences, and they look at me like I’m coming from another planet. It gives you real world experience that is quite shocking and unique.”

She has been to Ukraine twice, the first time for three months in 2021, and in in 2023 she was there for 10 days.

“My first time there, it was really just an amazing experience, it was the first time I’d left U.S. I visited most of the major cities and got around on my Russian skills.”

By the time she returned in 2023, she had learned Ukrainian.

"When I spoke Russian, I never had any problems,” she said, but she wanted to be able to speak to the people of the Ukraine in their own language.

“The effects of what Russia has been doing to this country, I felt it everywhere. I went to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and I spoke to this man, an internally displaced refugee from the city of Luhansk. He had fled the city with just his car,” because the Russians had taken everything else. "He was so friendly to us, we were in the same train car, four people per wagon. He was really nice to my friend and I, really interested in why we were there. I talked to people my own age, whose grandparents still live in the occupied region of Donbas; they haven’t seen them since 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine.”

On her first trip to Ukraine, “I was in city of Dnipro, and I had been watching travel blogs the night before, feeling really confident. I saw a group of men in their 40s talking, and decided to go talk to them in Russian. “One was sweet, like a kind of grandpa figure, and took me all around the city. He told me about Dnipro, bought me lunch, took me on a tram. He was an off-duty soldier in the Ukraine army.”

“He was from the city of Donetsk and he joined the army at age 51 when the Russians occupied it. He told me that they spoke Ukrainian among themselves, so I decided to learn that language; it’s been such a great experience.”

“They really love Americans there. The last time I was in Ukraine, I was in a cafe, and my credit card was having problems working; it was a Bank of America, card, they saw that, and said, it’s OK you, don’t have to pay. That is very normal. Maybe it’s just because I had learned the local language, but Ukrainians are always thrilled to help when I’ve had a problem. They are fantastic people.

She is hoping to revisit Ukraine during her stay in Moldova, should that trip take place in June.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired from the Hannibal Courier-Post in 2014, after working as a community journalist for 39 years.


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