We are grieved to learn that our friend Stephen O. Lesser (b.1939) passed away on June 15, 2021. Stephen studied international relations at UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins University, and served as a Foreign Service Officer in Japan. In the 1980s, he took a summer intensive Russian course at UCLA with the late Professor Olga Kagan, which launched a deep friendship that later extended to an interest in the UCLA Russian Flagship program. In 2014, to encourage students to reflect on their overseas studies and share their experiences, he initiated the Stephen O. Lesser Award for the Best Reflective Essay on a Summer Studying Russian Overseas.
Stephen enjoyed reading Flagship students' essays, meeting them at the annual awards luncheon, and hearing about their overseas experiences and their motivations for studying Russian. UCLA Russian students who met Stephen appreciated his encouragement and the importance of reflecting on their study abroad experience. Sophia Badalian, Class of 2020, remembers:
Although I only met Stephen Lesser once, I understand how impactful and influential he was to the department that became my entire UCLA career. His award program most certainly allowed me the opportunity to critically reflect on my time in Kazakhstan. In writing about my experiences abroad I was able to honestly express that, at times, I felt discomfort on my journey in Almaty. He awarded me for these expressions and this honesty; I am so grateful for him doing so, as it was hardly expected. After the Stephen Lesser Award Ceremony, he commended and encouraged the idea I wrote of - of seeking discomfort. It is clear that his adventurous spirit aligned with the values of Flagship. His excitement surely did not go unnoticed; I hope I can speak on the behalf of many when I say I am thankful for his drive to motivate students to reflect on the experiences that shaped our education.
Dante Matero, Class of 2016, credits Stephen with offering encouragement to stay in the field of Russian studies:
In 2015, when I won the Stephen O. Lesser Award for the Best Reflective Essay on a Summer Studying Russian Overseas, I was in sore need of encouragement. As a young scholar in the niche field of Russian Studies, receiving this award felt like a sign to keep going—a reminder that my voice was worth listening to. Then, when we met at Professor Olga Kagan's home, Stephen was full of enthusiasm, eager to hear all about my summer studying Russian in Kazakhstan, and generous with advice and recollections of his own time in the region. It’s partially due to Stephen Lesser’s generosity that, six years later, I am still working and producing new, creative work in this field. Thank you, Stephen. And thank you on behalf of all of the students whose early careers you graciously supported. Rest in peace.
Stephen wrote about his experiences and perspectives in a brief write-up for the award:
As an undergraduate at UCLA, many years ago, I majored in international relations. At that time I sampled French, German and....Russian. Then, these seemed to be the most important significant languages to study.
Times have changed... but Russian has always been a unique window into a world both similar and different from our own. My four trips, two to the Soviet Union and two to Russia have been memorable.
This recognition serves both as encouragement and a form of respect to those who travel to such an important country, meet people, make friends (I hope), and enrich your lives and those lives around you.
Stephen’s own experiences were multifaceted and fascinating, and included working on voter registration in the Mississippi Summer Project as a graduate student in 1964, travel throughout Asia, studying multiple Asian languages, serving as the honorary consul of Tajikistan, and many others (see also his Los Angeles Times obituary at https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/latimes/name/stephen-lesser-obituary?pid=199108026).
Stephen was an extraordinary person, a Renaissance man in the breadth of his interests and knowledge and a lifelong learner with a gift for empathy and friendship. We are honored and grateful that he extended his friendship to us.