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The People Project with Kseniya

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.