Mary Orsak

“My shoelaces are absolutely always untied,” Mary Orsak ’22 said. “I am not what you’d expect a Rhodes scholar to be.”

Orsak, who is from Dallas, has an immediately warm and direct presence. She greeted me in a grey turtleneck sweater, jeans and sneakers, from her perch in a Humanities Quadrangle classroom where she’d been preparing a presentation for her class on Russian short stories. She is majoring in Russian at Yale, and in many ways, she said, is “a normal 22-year-old.”

Her idea of a perfect Friday night is playing board games with her friends from Pierson. “I’m really bad at all of them,” she said. She’s also currently watching — and loving — “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” as well as the “Great British Bake Off.”

When she begins to speak about Russian and Eastern European studies, though, the force and brilliance of her passion is immediately apparent. She describes her path to Russian as “circuitous:” she actually came to Yale wanting to study Czech, a way of honoring and connecting with her grandfather, whose family immigrated to Texas from the Czech Republic. He passed away when Orsak was 13 and has paid for half of her college education.

However, when she arrived at Yale, she was convinced by a professor to learn Russian first, because Russian is more difficult. Once you’ve learned that alphabet, the professor told her, Czech should be a breeze. 

“And here I am getting a Russian degree,” she said with a shrug and a baffled laugh.

It wasn’t love at first sight, though. Orsak explained that, in her first year, she struggled with the Russian language: “Everything feels so foreign and overwhelming,” she said. With a whole new alphabet, it felt like she was “thrown into the pool,” and left to figure out how to swim.

It was only the summer after her first year, when she studied abroad in St. Petersburg, that she truly fell in love with the Russian language and culture. It happened “in a kind of remarkable, marvelous, magical way,” she said, her face lighting up as she vividly described the canals of St. Petersburg and its eerie white nights — belyye nochi — in which the sun only sets for two hours.

There, over the five-and-a-half weeks she stayed, she fell in love with the literature, art and history of Russia to which she felt connected, given her Czech heritage.

Back at Yale, in her sophomore year she thought that she would study both Russian humanities but found herself gravitating towards her Russian courses. Each semester, she would shop more and more Russian and Slavic courses than she would humanities, and eventually decided to concentrate wholly on what she loved most. It was the passion of the Yale Russian professors that helped her realize that she was “allowed to love it,” she said, and who “validated [Russian] as a real choice.”

The Russian professors, she explained, are passionate about the cultural production of Russia beyond the general buzzwords that are associated with the country — geopolitics, Putin and hacking. Orsak explained that Eastern Europe is a set of countries, regions, and peoples that tend to be viewed through a single lens: as a threat to the United States. The small department size allowed her to work intimately with professors who saw beyond that unilateral and misconceived view. They are “excited that there are students who want to study what they love,” she told me.

Orsak sees academia as a democratizing force. “It’s not simply teaching at Ivy League institutions and publishing really specific, dense monographs,” she said. Instead, she sees it as making her love and appreciation of the culture accessible to all. She hopes to be an academic in order to communicate a sense of the beauty, diversity and complexity of Eastern European studies to the general population. This is part of the reason she wants to go to Oxford – she sees it as an opportunity to learn how to become a good teacher from some of the world’s best educators. 

The process of applying for the Rhodes scholarship was, for Orsak, one of deep introspection. She saw it as an opportunity to reflect and understand her journey, but felt that it was also, in some ways, a simplification. It was hard to make herself into “some marketable product that can be easily digested by a group of strangers,” she said.

“So much of the narrative you create is a story of your successes,” Orsak told the News. “It was difficult to incorporate failure in a way that was genuine, and not self-deprecating for the sake of making myself a better applicant. We are real individuals who have failed, and who are here in spite of those failures.”

      Orsak said that her conception of failure has changed over her time at Yale. She entered college with a conception of success and failure limited to academia and said that, as her worldview expanded, she realized that her validation should not be exclusive to scholastic achievement.

      A lot of that realization came from her work with Yale’s mental health services. Orsak is the former director of Walden Peer Counseling, which provides anonymous peer guidance to Yale undergraduates. Her mother is a psychiatrist, and she has always been passionate about mental health and increased access to mental health services. Through her experience counseling peers in crisis, Orsak came to a deeper understanding of the importance of friendship and wellness.

      As she described the moment of finding out about the Rhodes scholarship, her story focused on her friends. While most Yale students were getting ready for the Yale-Harvard football game, Orsak was in the Pierson College seminar room, which lies in the basement of the college. When she heard her name, she said, she was so surprised and overwhelmed that she couldn’t process anything. 

She texted her parents, her boyfriend and her friends in Pierson, who all ran down to the basement, crowding around the door. She desperately signaled to them that she was still on the official Zoom, and finally, when the call ended, they all rushed in. One of her friends brought a beer, saying that she’ll need to get used to drinking beer in pubs in England. “It was an absolutely heartwarming experience,” she said.

      Orsak’s Oxford semester doesn’t start until October 2022. So, her attention has turned back to Yale — she’s now focused on finishing her thesis, which examines performance art in the ’60s and ’70s in Prague and Moscow. She’s analyzing the way male performance artists borrow from western feminist performance art to critique the state socialist body. 

“It’s very dark and violent,” she said. 

On a lighter note, in December, after her thesis is finished, she plans to finish out her Yale career “with a lot of fun,” and would like to spend as much time with her friends as possible. Then, over the summer, she hopes to go to Brno — the second largest city in the Czech Republic — to work on her Czech, before heading off to England. 

When I asked her if she felt burnt out by all her studies, she told me that she wasn’t: “It’s hard to be burnt out when you’re absolutely in love with what you study.”