Victoria Khazan

The People Project with Kseniya

Updated: Jul 20

Interview with Kseniya Kosmina, Brooklyn, NY, USA

You are finishing your graduate degree in Higher Education Administration at Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY). Are you concerned about going into this field, as Higher Ed is experiencing an unprecedented level of disruption?

Entering the field of Higher Education has been the most serendipitous leap of faith in my life. I attribute it to being part of CUNY and Baruch Honors Program. Both had a tremendous influence on me. Baruch and CUNY provided a community of high achieving peers,enabling me to grow intellectually, and become socially conscious. I am in graduate school at Baruch's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, and I’m thrilled to work as a graduate assistant for Baruch Honors Program. CUNY provides incredible opportunities to students of every age and background in New York City; it is a diverse and multi-cultural environment emblematic of New York City.

The community you describe stands in stark contrast to the divisive feeling in the country right now. Have you experienced this at school or work?

I'm no stranger to living in a divided nation

CUNY is very diverse and multi-cultural, so there's an intrinsic tolerance for different points of view. I've found that, students - no matter their background, can build a supportive community and find a home. That appeals to my yearning for harmony and unity. However I'm no stranger to living in a divided nation. I was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which is the closest Eastern city to Russia - only about two hours by train. Ukraine has existed in a perpetual state of conflict with Russia, which has turned into a shooting war within the past eight years. Fortunately, Kharkiv has been spared any destruction. The people's loyalties, however, are more divided than ever. Many have Russian roots and look to Russia for opportunities and support. Many others identify closely with Ukraine, and blame Russia for Ukraine's troubles, lack of opportunities, and poverty.

Ukraine has certainly had its share of change and trouble. What was your childhood like? Do you speak Ukrainian, Russian or both?

there was heavy Russian influence during the time Ukraine was part of the USSR

I had a very stable and happy childhood in Kharkiv. Due to our proximity to Russia, there was a heavy Russian influence for more than 70 years, when Ukraine was part of the USSR. So everyone is perfectly bilingual. My parents and I emigrated when I was 11 years old. In Kharkiv, I completed four grades, and we were taught in both languages, depending on the preference of the teacher. For example, my homeroom teacher spoke to us in Russian, and my art teacher spoke to us in Ukrainian. At home I speak both Ukrainian & Russian interchangeably with my family.

Did you come to the U.S. with some knowledge of English?

That experience was extremely demoralizing

In school in Kharkiv, we learned English as a foreign language, but the rigor of that curriculum was questionable at best. So when I started 6th grade in the U.S., they put me in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program during my first year in middle school or junior high school, as it was known, because the only thing I knew how to say was “My name is,” and “London is the capital of great Britain.” That experience was extremely demoralizing.

They certainly could have taught you more useful phrases, but what specifically was demoralizing?

it took me a long time to just be ok with change, to learn that tomorrow is not guaranteed

In Ukraine, I was top of my class. I loved school, I loved my friends and teachers, and I was completely in my element. Even though life was much harder in Ukraine, I had a very close, supportive community of my parents, my friends, my classmates, and I really enjoyed going to school and learning. When we emigrated, and I realized we were staying for good, I felt extremely lonely and isolated for the first time in my life. I felt useless and helpless because I did not know the language; disoriented because I didn't know what was happening around me. The shock of going from being completely comfortable and on top of the world to someplace foreign without even understanding the reason for the drastic change, felt extremely stressful and traumatic. As a result, it took me a long time to just be ok with change, to learn that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Tomorrow is uncertain.

Your parents did not include you in their plans to emigrate?

I don't think any child could fathom being completely uprooted

The emigration process involved a lot of preparation, paperwork, and interviews all over Poland and Ukraine. It took approximately two years. I realized something was happening, but I don't think any child could fathom being completely uprooted. I found out that we were about to leave to America just a few months before we left. I remember my parents coming into my room and closing the door, as I was getting ready for bed. There was palpable tension and they asked, "Would you want to go to America where your uncle lives?" Obviously, while this was presented as a question, it certainly wasn’t a choice. I also didn't grasp that we were leaving forever. We packed our bags in June. I remember my mom packing my winter sweaters, which was confusing and scary. I protested that “I don't need those,” as I took them out of the bags. I was planning to be back in September for my beloved school.

How long did it take you to realize the move was permanent?

We came to New York in July. I recall it was extremely hot and humid. And as September approached, it very slowly dawned on me that we're not going back. And, honestly, up until the very last moment, I was in denial. I just could not comprehend that would be possible. I'm an only child, which always suited me just fine. But there were not siblings to talk to and make sense of what was happening.

Growing up, what did you imagine you would do professionally?

that was a huge source of stress for me, because I felt like everyone around me had a plan

Growing up, I've never had a clue of what I wanted to do with my life. And that was a huge source of stress for me, because I felt like everyone around me had a plan. Of course, my parents, like many immigrant parents, had ideals like, if you're not working at a bank or a hospital, you're basically a failure. So, my first two years in college I studied finance and had an internship at JP Morgan, which my parents loved, but I hated. I then changed my major and graduated with a degree in Marketing. For two years I worked in advertising, which was a good larning experience but unfulfilling to me. I thought the power of communications and media could change the world. Turns out, that's not exactly how the world works. The one thing that I consistently enjoyed doing, however, was going back to the CUNY community to volunteer, to help with student events, and to mentor students. So, a year ago, I met up with one of my past professors and she asked me an interesting question: "A year or two from now, if you could imagine anything that you would like to be doing as a full time job, what would it be?” And I said, “Working with students in a college setting." And she said, "That's your answer!” This helped me to reflect and realize how much I enjoyed working with students, where I could help influence their thought process, and make a positive impact on their life.

How did you make that change?

I'm really grateful for that leap of faith

I quit my job, which was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done; and I applied to grad school at Baruch College. When I got the acceptance letter saying, "We'll be glad to have you for the fall semester," I felt uncertainty and fear, like jumping into the abyss. I had already quit my job, however, and reflected enough to know that advertising or another corporate job was not for me. I needed something that would feed my soul. Thinking about my college internships (those experiences mostly helped me eliminate what I would not want to do) and the people at CUNY I was fortunate to connect with, helped me to recognize my passion for developing college students. So, I accepted Baruch’s offer once again! I am really grateful for that leap of faith that helped me to leave something that wasn't serving me.

You may have heard that there are many opinions about your generation. What is your perception of Gen Z?

every generation is just making the most out of the time that we have

Prior to the COVID lockdown, I participated in Baruch’s Advising Alliance meetings, where one of the speakers was a Baruch professor with a specialty in generational research. He told us that no single generation is completely different from the one that came before. There is no actual proof that say, my generation is more selfish or self-indulgent. Every single young generation believes that the world is their oyster in some way. Every new generation is more technologically savvy or seems more ambitious or driven or focused. That stuck with me because I’ve been hearing that Millennials and Gen z are so self-absorbed,but I don't think that is accurate. I think that every generation is just making the most out of the time that theyhave. And that includes Gen-Z.

Does all information your generation grew up with make it more difficult "to make the most of the time you have?"

Paradoxically, having choices was very stressful for me

There is a stark difference in awareness and speed of change, especially when you compare it to how my parents grew up in the Soviet Union. No one growing up in Ukraine felt that they had much choice. They just knew that there was a path ahead and they had to follow that path. However, growing up in Brooklyn, presented a completely different challenge. Paradoxically, having choices was very stressful for me. My parents understood that. They admited that it was definitely easier for them to follow a predetermined path. For instance, in Ukraine after high school, you work at a factory like everyone else, and you make a living similar to what everyone else your age is making, and you have the same apartment, and afford the same food and have access to the same doctors and hospitals. My generation in the U.S. has tremendous options, but no guarantees. There is no set path, which sometimes can be the scariest option.

With the complexity and change that you must navigate, does growing up with social media make it more difficult?

I never just scroll through profiles

Like others of my generation, I pay attention to what makes me fulfilled and happy, beyond just surviving. However, I don't use social media, except for my job. I never just scroll through profiles. The only platform I use is LinkedIn, which is great for professional purposes. I know that seeing someone else's "instagram-life" would not be a good influence on me. It would be destabilizing. Also, consider that I grew up in a poor country. People living in Ukraine of the early 2000s did not have the technology available in the U.S. Our family had no computers or cell phones. The first time I saw a computer was in the U.S., and I got my first computer about 10 years ago, in high school when I was 15. I never felt like I was missing out, and I never developed a taste for it.

It's kind of amazing that you didn't have a computer until 2010. What do you think will be the impact on students who are in a similar position during this COVID pandemic?

Over two days CUNY distributed more than 26,000 pieces of equipment

That is literally part of every single conversation I have on a daily basis with coworkers and peers. I consider myself really fortunate to be in CUNY, both as a graduate student and working as a graduate assistant at Baruch. Some of my friends and peers don't have access to technology required to work remotely. So, before New York City went into quarantine, CUNY pulled together enough money to provide every student who needed it, with a laptop or tablet. We had a what was called a “recalibration period.” Over two days, CUNY distributed more than 26,000 pieces of equipment to students who did not have access to a computer at home. That was a huge issue and undertaking.

Do you think the potential for continuing school closings and the more virtual classes as a result of COVID is going to exacerbate the privilege divide?

It just feels like education is not essential

I think that education will change in many ways. Unfortunately, students who cannot access laptops or the Internet will be behind. I think that more resources will be poured into ensuring that people have access to technology. CUNY did a lot, but no one was well prepared for a pandemic. I really hope the Department of Education and individual higher education institutions will recognize that we need to invest resources into contingency planning. There is also a need for investment in training to ensure that instructors are better prepared to teach online. I think it's bizarre that we have so many bodies that regulate finance and medicine, but we don't have a body that regulates education, as it’s self-regulated at state and local levels. We cannot afford to have the quality of education be largely contingent on the wealth of the community or institution. I hope we will recognize that for us to educate future generations, we need a governing body that will be overlooking change from a holistic perspective. There is no one helping higher education navigate this crisis, and we are going to see a lot of colleges fail. It just feels like education is not essential.

There are many waves of change crashing at the shores of higher education, and you’ve chosen this field as your profession. So are you ready?

people will see their college years just as that step between high school and getting a job

That's a good question. To be honest, I don't know how anyone can be ready. All this change happening literally, right in front of my eyes just as I am about to graduate. For a while now, higher education has been shifting from the in-person interactions to a more efficient, but less personal, model. These days it's, "if you have a question, reach out to this platform or that website." That actual experience of interaction, growth and change, which you're supposed to get during your college years, is being diminished. And now, everything is going online, and that means fewer interactions and even fewer people to actually support students. That is the primary role of a college of a system of higher education--to guide and be there for students.

There is a lot of focus on meeting expenses, and making sure that all the technology is effective and efficient. This may be necessary, but we also need to focus on the value of having people who actually talk and guide students through the personal or academic issues. Technology cannot advise students. And I do not want to be part of a system of higher education that is no more than a credentialing process necessary to find your next job. I think if we keep going this way, more and more people will see their college years just as that step between high school and getting a job.

College as no more than a transactional, credentialing entity is a sad future. What counter-measures do you suggest?

college experience is the last time that everything is about you

As an undergrad, I saw the college experience as a way for me to get a job. Only after graduating, I realized how much I missed -- so many opportunities to connect with friends, with professors, with other professionals. What I did not realize at the time was that the college experience is the last time that everything is about you. You are paying to get an education. You are paying for all of the services. If you have a problem, people are paid to help you to get through the problem. In the work world, you are the one being paid to help solve someone else's problem. That is why I'm enjoying my graduate experience so much right now because of that chance to go back to a world that is solely focused on you, and where you can have that personal interaction with peers and professionals that you will not get anywhere else.

How has COVID affected your studies and work?

I don't want to waste an opportunity for a full graduate experience on campus with personal interactions to just stay at home, teach myself, and pay for that privilege

Like everyone else, I have completed Spring semester with virtual classes and I have been working virtually as well. I'm now faced with a choice. I really do not want to do another semester online because I do not want to waste an opportunity for a full graduate experience on campus with personal interactions to just stay at home, teach myself, and pay for that privilege. I am really keeping my fingers crossed that in the fall, we will open again!

Now, I'm going to give you 5 questions, which you have to answer very quickly with one or two words. Ready?

What offends you?

Rude people. People who think that the world revolves around them

What’s one lesson do you feel most qualified to teach another person?

Learning to accept things and move on without holding on to negativity or regret.
 

What makes you cringe?

When someone thinks they're the only person in the room.... speaking nonstop and not giving others a chance to speak or participate.

When you're at your best, you're...

Happy

What change are you working on?

Not taking things too personally or too close to heart.

Thanks so much, Kseniya. Where can people reach you?

You can find me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kseniyakosmina/


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