Natalie Navarrete didn’t know Russian when she came to the University of Georgia. Now, she has studied it around the globe.
Navarrete graduated in spring 2023 with several new stamps in her passport, as well as bachelor’s degrees in international affairs, Russian and Spanish, and a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies. She capped off her academic career at UGA as a 2023 Rhodes Scholar, receiving the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship in the world. She was one of only three public university students, in addition to the nation’s service academies, to receive the honor this year.
“Coming to UGA and learning Russian without knowing a single letter in the alphabet was incredibly difficult, but also very rewarding,” said Navarrete, who studied in the university’s Russian Flagship Program, a federally funded languages initiative. “Going from absolute zero to now having a business proficiency has been a really interesting and honestly exciting experience.”
And Navarrete was up to the academic challenge.
She received the Foundation Fellowship, the university’s top academic scholarship which has supported students for the last 50 years. The fellowship is available through the Jere W. Morehead Honors College and provides travel stipends, grants for research and conferences and additional funding. She is also a Stamps Scholar, a prestigious distinction only given to five Foundation Fellows each year.
“I can’t say enough good things about the Foundation Fellowship and the support that UGA provides its students in general,” Navarrete said. “I’ve learned so much by being around amazing, curious and passionate people all the time. It also helped make UGA a lot smaller and less intimidating in its first year. The Foundation Fellowship provides support for its students in a way that stands out from other universities.”
The fellowship helped Navarrete build a community, and other campus groups continued to strengthen it.
“For Natalie to accomplish so much in her four years at UGA is a testament to both her incredible drive for learning and the strength of our university’s academic programs,” said Meg Amstutz, dean of the Morehead Honors College. “From her immersion in the Russian Flagship Program to her engagement in the Foundation Fellowship, she has been an incredible example of UGA as an academic powerhouse. We are so proud of her.”
In the spring semester of her freshman year, Navarrete joined the Richard B. Russell Security Leadership Program and solidified her academic path forward.
“It was in the Security Leadership Program that I started learning about nuclear policy and nuclear strategy within the field of international affairs,” Navarrete said. “I did my first research connecting how Russian investments in media and education influence the way Latin American countries vote on security issues in the United Nations Security Council. From there, everything sort of snowballed.”
She seized the chance to study abroad. She improved her language proficiency, built a strong professional network and explored additional research opportunities.
“I don’t know how it all worked out, but my study away experiences perfectly built on each other,” Navarrete said.
These experiences started close to home, with opportunities in Athens and on campus, but they soon expanded worldwide.
From Middlebury, Vermont, and Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oxford, U.K., and Cortona, Italy, it all culminated in a yearlong study abroad in Altmaty, Kazakhstan. There were some disruptions due to the COVID pandemic—moving a program to Honolulu instead of Latvia, for example—but the strength of UGA’s Russian Flagship Program eased those transitions.
“Our flagship was extremely creative and managed to come up with lots of solutions,” she said. “I got to study Russian in Hawaii with two of the best Russian professors in the world, who have written dozens of textbooks on learning Russian. It was an incredible experience. And we were all very excited to go to the beach.”
The Russian Flagship Program, supported by both the Mary Frances Early College of Education and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, also connected her to other students passionate about immersing themselves in a language. Daily language classes and intensive study provided their challenges, but on-campus resources offered encouragement.
All flagship students receive a one-on-one tutor and participate in intensive summer programs that help develop fluency. In September 2022, Navarrete had her capstone year at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Kazakstan, a program that included eight-hour days of Russian language and studies, but also opportunities to explore her interests on a new level.
“I took a course on the history of Central Asian Identity and Kazakh identity, and then I was able to apply that during a spring internship,” Navarrete said. “I worked with Altair Academy, a children’s literature group that promotes children’s literacy and reading in Kazakhstan. It was interesting to see how the Kazakh identity was manifested in children’s fairy tales.”
After her year abroad, Navarrete will enjoy a few weeks back in the United States before traveling to South Korea for a five-week conference. There, she will continue her research in nuclear nonproliferation before beginning her master’s program at the University of Oxford.
But first, she made a quick return to campus.
Navarrete lived in a residence hall for three of her four years as a student, even though she spent a large amount of time away from Athens. But any return to campus, she said, serves as a reminder of the university’s dedication to its students.
“You can tell in the way that campus is laid out and the programs that are available that UGA is here to support your everyday life. It really cares about its students,” she said. “And then it goes even further when you see the effort that professors put in to get students interested in different opportunities, to explore their interests and to make the most of their time here.”