Carla Sereny

I'm seated in front, 
surrounded by one of the groups of students that I taught English to.

Peace Corps Volunteer in Russian Far East (Vladivostok, Russia) from 1999-2001 (now back in US)

  • The Past
  • The Present
  • The Future

  • The Past

    How did you become interested in computer science?
    I've always loved computers, because they've been a part of my life ever since I was a young child. My father used our home computer mostly for his work, but would allow my younger sisters and I to play with it. As a result of our early exposure, we have always been comfortable around computers - even when the specific technology might have been unfamiliar to us.

    In high school, I got a computer of my own and became even more interested in them. In the eleventh grade, I became involved with the Computer Club at school - quickly becoming the president of the group that was almost exclusively populated by boys exceptions being myself, one of my sisters, and a close friend). That year, I took on a couple of projects that cemented my decision to study computer science: I taught myself how to use the Internet and learned some of the rudiments of the C programming language. I've been hooked ever since.

    What was the best part of your Carnegie Mellon experience? Worst part?
    I'm not sure that CMU can really be described in terms of "best" and "worst". I really enjoyed my fellow students and the challenge of taking so many academically rigorous classes. I did not really like the atmosphere surrounding the few women that were part of the SCS program at the time; at times, it was very stressful being one of maybe two or three women in a computer science class.

    The Present

    How did you become interested in joining the Peace Corps?
    A friend of mine had mentioned the Peace Corps to me during my first couple of years of college. I had always been interested in traveling and realized that I wasn't quite ready to jump into the workforce and code after college. So, after attending an information session during my senior year, I decided to apply. I had taken two semesters of Russian history in college and had always loved Russian literature, so when I received my letter saying I was headed to the Russian Far East I was absolutely thrilled!

    What did you do there?
    When I initially started looking at joining the Peace Corps, they didn't really have a need for technology volunteers. However, I really wanted to join and knew I would eventually find a way to incorporate my computer science background. So, I officially became a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Along the way, I've done many other things besides teach English: I organized a computer camp for teenage girls; brought computers to my classroom and into my regular curriculum; acted as an editor of the volunteer newsletter; and been involved with grant decisions, funding local volunteer projects.
    I would like to point out that there are now specific opportunities for people with computer science backgrounds within the Peace Corps: a new specialty, the Information Technology Volunteer, has recently been introduced that puts volunteers in touch with people who have never seen a computer or used the Internet.

    What was the gender breakdown of your colleagues at the Peace Corps? (Is this an issue for you?)
    The gender breakdown was approximately 6/4, female/male.

    Would this be advisable as a Summer or Christmas break experience? Or is it more like a full-time job?
    The Peace Corps requires a two-year commitment, plus three months training in your country of service. It is more than a full-time job.

    Had you ever been to Russia before?
    No. My only experiences abroad had been on vacations to Western Europe and Mexico.

    Standing on the hill 
in front of my apartment building. Early winter

    Was it difficult to adjust to the Russian culture? What were your living conditions like?
    I guess I didn't have a terribly hard time adjusting, because I spent my entire time living in Vladivostok - a sizeable city of about 700,000 people. Vladivostok had most of amenities of any major city: a commercial bus system, large shopping areas, etc. However, there were a lot of problems that lurked beneath the surface of a seemingly solid infrastructure. For instance, hot water was largely unavailable for about eight months of the year and heating during winter months was kept to a minimum. Thus, adjusting to the bitterly cold winters was made doubly hard. My situation was a lot better than many of my other fellow volunteers, because many smaller towns and villages were not heated at all during the wintertime.

    Probably the hardest thing to get used to was the way that women were expected to dress and behave. I had always been the type to just wear jeans and a t-shirt, but in Russia I often got stares when I left my apartment dressed that way. Most women wore makeup, high-heeled shoes or boots, and immaculately ironed and cleaned clothing. Also, despite the fact that most women and men worked full-time, women were the ones expected to clean and cook for their families. Most of the men that I knew did not help out around the house at all.

    Did you always have Internet access? How advanced is technology in Russia?
    There are huge gaps in levels of technology around Russia. When I visited Moscow, for example, I was able to use the Internet at high-speed Internet cafes, replete with flat-screen monitors >and some very high-end machines. However, in Vladivostok, the Internet cafes offered slow access (probably the equivalent of a 56K modem) and much less impressive computers. In some of the villages I visited, there were no computers or nobody knew how to use the computers or the computers had been around since the early 1980s.

    I didn't have steady Internet access for my first month in Russia - I had to go downtown once a week and use the computers at one of the half-dozen Internet cafes around town. However, I soon figured out how to dial-in using my laptop and after that I had fairly steady Internet access for my remaining two years. The biggest issue with going online was the cost: when I finally moved into my apartment, I ended up spending what for me was two months’ worth of my monthly stipend (given by the Peace Corps) in order to have a phone line installed. Internet costs were relatively high, but I managed my budget carefully and was able to download my email daily (usually logging on for about fifteen minutes each day). The cost of getting on the Internet was too expensive for the majority of the Russians I interacted with on a daily basis.

    The Future

    What are your future plans?
    This year, I'm working as well as volunteering for a local library teaching computer classes to seniors. I've sent out applications to law school and hope to start studying next fall. I would like to specialize in combination of Intellectual Property and International law.

    Any words of wisdom for the members of Women@SCS?
    I would highly recommend something like the Peace Corps for people interested in traveling and really getting involved in another culture. It was certainly a challenge, but something that I got a lot out of. If anyone is interested in learning more about my experiences or about the Peace Corps organization in general, feel free to send me an email at Good luck to everyone and enjoy your time at CMU!

    By Grace A. Lewis (Alumnae representative for Women@SCS)
    Software Engineering Institute
    COTS Based Systems Initiative