Spring 2018 Alumni Profiles

We catch up with alumni Robert Cemovich and Tom Van Rooy about their accomplishments, careers, and how the CREECA experience shaped their direction in life.


(Photo courtesy of Robert Cemovich)

Name: Robert Cemovich

Program Completed: Law degree and graduate certificate in Russian and East European Studies (REES), 1993. (In 1997, the program was renamed Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies—REECAS.)

Works as: Land Legislation Expert in Tajikistan for Chemonics International; Private law practice

Could you tell us a little more about what you do?

For most of these twenty-something years I have been working on land tenure security in the former Soviet Union and East Europe, mainly in Central Asia. That means land privatization, land reform, access to land. Last month I was in Tajikistan, and next month I am going back. There I work with the leadership and government as a legal regulatory advisor. I go in, study all the laws, regulations, decrees, and departmental instructions. I analyze that and identify impediments to people gaining access to land, and then suggest ways to remove them. I look for the gaps in the law.

At my private practice here in Florida, we work with the laws. We are not looking to change them, we just want to know how to use them. But in Tajikistan they have me come in with a critical reading [of the law] and identify the gaps. What I have gradually learned over time is that there is an institutional resistance to privatization.

How did you break into that career field?

I had some luck. Right when I decided to go back to law school at UW-Madison, December of 1991, was when the Soviet Union officially fell apart.

My REES advisor was Professor David McDonald, in the History Department, and my advisor at the Law School was Zigurds Zile, who specialized in the Soviet legal process. In 1993 I graduated and was about to go to a law firm in Chicago, when another professor at the law school put me in touch with some folks at Booze Allen and Hamilton. I took the bar, and then just never showed up at the law firm—I went to Kazakhstan. I packed for six months and came back from the former Soviet Union roughly twelve years later.

There is no way I would have been prepared for that without my experience at CREECA. There were a bunch of us lawyers, but only a handful had that knowledge of the region—very few. The rest were just stumbling through it. Really, the knowledge of Soviet legal process and political climate is what I used. I knew exactly how certain laws were going to be read and interpreted. There is no way I would have gotten that at a regular law school. My training at CREECA altered my life as much, if not more, than the law school did. I really mean that!

Where else have you worked?

I have actually been a consultant with various consulting companies working in the former Soviet Union. I worked as the Chief of Party for land reform in Moldova, where we spent a year and a half drafting new amendments, laws, and regulations during privatization. We were actually the first ones to break up collective farms, resulting in actual land titles to farmers. That was a big experiment, because they had these land committees that did everything they could to block it. We had a good team of local lawyers working around the clock, and because there was political will we managed to get the law amended. I will never forget that day because it was the day I quit smoking! Now 100% of those collective farms have been broken up.

Since 1994, I have worked on land reform and projects related to land tenure security in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Benin, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Tajikistan, Turkey, USA, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.


(Photo courtesy of Tom Van Rooy)

Name: Tom Van Rooy

Program Completed: MA in REECAS, 2012

Works as: NATO International Staff Officer (Interim); Director of Programs at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (Brussels)

Tell us a little about your current situation.

Shortly after completing my MA, I moved to Brussels, Belgium for a six-month internship at NATO, which led to a job. Fast forward almost six years and I am still happily living in Brussels and employed at NATO. Outside of my regular work, I also volunteer for the Brussels branch of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy—an organization that aims to foster the next generation of foreign policy leaders through interactive events, trainings, and networking opportunities. And I of course do my best to find time to enjoy living in the heart of Europe! Brussels serves as a great jumping-off point for travel, and like Wisconsin, Belgium is world-renowned for its beer.

What do you like most about your work at NATO?

At NATO, I have worked on a variety of issues closely connected to topics and regions that I studied on the REECAS program, and I have put my languages–namely, my Russian–to good use.  I consider myself lucky to be doing something I enjoy where I have the opportunity to regularly apply things I learned at CREECA to my work.

How did your time at CREECA influence the direction of your career?

When I started my graduate studies, I did not have a clear idea of what career I wanted to pursue. I had a strong interest in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but I did not know where I wanted to take that. Thanks in large part to supportive professors and advisors, my time at CREECA helped me to focus my interests and ultimately pushed me towards foreign and security policy.

What was your favorite class at UW-Madison?

While I definitely have a soft spot for the Russian history courses I took with Professor David McDonald (the amount of knowledge the man has about Imperial Russia suggests time-traveling capabilities), the Islam in Central Eurasia seminar I took with Professor Uli Schamiloglu remains one of the more memorable courses of my graduate studies. Covering an area a bit outside of my focus, Professor Schamiloglu’s seminar proved to be a fascinating dive into what was a relatively new subject for me, thanks to Uli’s deep expertise and engaging approach. Ask me about the role of sayyids in the 15th century Crimean Khanate and I still may have a word or two to share with you.

Did you work any unexpected or interesting jobs between your education and current work?

My grandparents own a dairy farm about an hour away from Madison that always served as a sort of backup employment option for me during my years as both an undergrad and a graduate student at UW-Madison. Over the summers and on the occasional weekend, I worked on the farm repairing buildings, putting up barbed wire fencing, and doing other odd jobs (although never once milking a cow). While a few days of manual labor always helped me to better appreciate my academic work at UW, I did also enjoy the brief escape from the cages of Memorial Library.