From Russia with love
Sitting in the West Atrium at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences building in Grand Forks in February, Rugby, N.D., native and MD Class of 2023 President Anja Selland is reflecting on her first year. It had been a busy one already. Not only had she adjusted to the rigors of medical school, but she was still working hard to keep up with her other passion—classical ballet. Over coffee, as snow flurries moved in from the west, the fluent speaker of Russian chatted with North Dakota Medicine about The Nutcracker, health care in Russia, and how the study of language and medicine really aren’t so different after all.
[Conversation edited for clarity and space.]
So, I know you’re from Rugby, but what did you study as an undergrad and where? I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. I majored in Russian Studies, which connects to my background in ballet.
Hold on—you’re from Rugby, N.D., but studied Russian in Minnesota? This is a long story! From the time I was four until I graduated from high school, I took ballet lessons in Minot from a Russian instructor. When I was in middle school, our family spent a sabbatical year in Alaska. My dad is a family practice physician, and my mom is a pastor. This sabbatical year was a good break from a busy medical practice and a great family adventure. In Anchorage, I had the opportunity to take Russian language class and discovered that I enjoy studying languages. Following high school graduation, I attended the Bolshoi Ballet Summer Intensive Program in New York City. This was followed by time in Moscow to study Russian and ballet through the U.S. State Department National Security Language Initiative for Youth. Language is a requirement at St. Olaf, so I studied Russian which was a nice fit with pre-med requirements and my dance scholarship there.
So where does medicine come in? Medicine was my plan all along, but I chose a Russian major because it provided a nice balance to the mathematics, chemistry, and physics courses. Following college graduation, I received a Critical Language Scholarship to Vladimir, Russia, to continue my Russian language studies. After the summer program, I moved to Moscow, where I taught English for a year. I continued dancing at a local studio. Yet, I wanted to go to medical school, so I came home and worked as a scribe and CNA while I got my application ready. Now I’m here.
And loving life. Is it fair to say you’re fluent? Well, I was able to navigate life in Russia where English is not as common as one might think. I’m frequently in touch with my Russian host family and friends. However, if I were to take, say, a history class in Russian, I would be greatly challenged. The vocabulary is quite expansive.
On that note, here’s a two-part question: First, do you think your Russian language instruction will make you a better physician by helping you improve your communication skills generally? And, second, do you think your ballet training might shape how you will practice as a physician? Yes to both. As I said, my childhood ballet instructor was Russian, and those teachers are known for their discipline. Growing up in that world has contributed to my own discipline, which you need to be a successful medical student. It takes a lot of work, energy and time. That’s ballet. It is a challenging and disciplined art that has helped me in many ways. Like Russian language and ballet, medicine is also an art and a language. As a first-year medical student, I am now navigating a new language just like I did during my immersion in Russia.
Do you have experience with the Russian health care system? Not much. Mostly through a friend who was sick. I met an American doctor who preferred to practice in Russia. He had left the U.S. years ago after frustration with the bureaucracy of the American system. They do have a universal health care system, but there are also a lot of home remedies. When I was sick, my Russian friends had all these suggestions of what I should do, but none of them was “go to the doctor,” even though I likely needed antibiotics!
Do you have any interest in returning to that part of the world to practice after you graduate with your M.D.? For the longest time, my interests have been medicine, ballet, and Russian. Those three things don’t often overlap. So, I’d like to see how I could integrate them.
Assuming you stick with medicine, rather than a career in dance, what do you hope to specialize in? I think primary care would be a good fit for me because of its comprehensive nature. At this time, I’m pretty open-minded and excited about exploring various specialties.
Here’s a toughie: What’s your favorite ballet? That’s an impossible question! The most recent ballet I saw was Don Quixote at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Every element of it is incredible—the orchestra, costuming, staging, and of course the dancers are just top-level. But there’s a scene from La Bayadère that’s my favorite too. Swan Lake is also amazing, so— every ballet!
And you performed in The Nutcracker locally, yes? Yes. I decided to continue doing ballet even as a med student. And North Dakota Ballet Company has a pre-professional division. They’re very flexible and accommodating so college students and adults can continue to be involved with dance. I auditioned for the Nutcracker during Block I, which was a stressful decision for a busy medical student. I was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It is a very difficult solo which provided an exciting challenge. The performances followed three days of final exams. It was really fun and completely worth it. Often students don’t feel like they have time for other interests in medical school, but this created an important balance for me. I’m surprised too—I didn’t think I’d be dancing and performing in medical school; yet, we have it in Grand Forks and it’s fun. I’m glad I tried.
Would you do it again? [Hesitates] Yes, I would. I love The Nutcracker. When the music by Tchaikovsky comes on and it’s just [smiles] … wow.