Interview conducted on January 24, 2016
“I wanted to leave to a better place for more opportunities. I needed to start over where I knew no one and no one knew me. Wherever was the furthest away from home–across the ocean seemed appropriate.”
The concept of “home” means something different for all of us. Svetlana never had a single place to call home. She was born in Ukraine and grew up in Israel. Many of her decisions during her adolescence were not hers to make, and when she did chose, it was often between the lesser of two evils. Leaving Israel and coming to the United States for a higher education was one of the first positive decisions she made purely for herself.
HOW A BILLBOARD CHANGED EVERYTHING
Initially, Svetlana was registered to attend university in Israel. On the way home from registering for her first semester, she saw a billboard advertisement on the side of the road encouraging people to study abroad in the U.S. This sparked her curiosity.
She researched the logistics of studying in many locations, but something kept pulling her back to the American universities. I asked her what she knew about the States before she began her research and she said, “I watched so many movies about the U.S. and the ‘American Dream.’ I didn’t really have a lot of information before I came, besides the videos and movies. I didn’t mind where I went [to university], I just wanted something new. I asked myself, ‘Why not?’”
“I wouldn’t say I was afraid, but I was excited. Those two emotions feel the same inside you, so I decided to feel it as excitement. I was completely in the dark about what it would really be like. I came from the same friend group my whole life, so I was worried that I wouldn’t meet new people. I was scared that I wouldn’t succeed in school, as well. But, I was more excited than scared. I wanted to come to the U.S. so badly, but had no idea what to expect.”
Svetlana says she was inspired by her uncle and her grandmother. Her grandmother really believed in her through this whole process, and Svetlana had always looked up to her uncle. With his support and encouragement, she was able to bring her dreams into reality.
She found a school for SAT preparation, English language classes, and advice for studying abroad. Her advisor was a great help, preparing her emotionally, and helping her choose a city. Svetlana applied to universities in Massachusetts, California, New York, and Texas. After about a year of paperwork and weighing all the pros and cons, Svetlana decided on Suffolk University in Boston.
“ALMOST LIKE CARTOON CHARACTERS”
On her first day in the city, she panicked. She had no idea where to buy pillows, one of the few things she said she needed to sleep that night. After attempting to use a physical map (this was before she had a smartphone) to try and find what the random passer-bys called a “department store”, she was graced by a nice couple who walked her all the way to the closest TJMaxx. They asked her what else she needed and they proceeded to show her where to find a phone and take out money from an ATM. She described her whole first day as surreal: “People on the street looked exactly like the movies; the people spoke exactly like the movies. They were almost like cartoon characters to me.”
At the beginning, she said, every problem or concern led to small panic attack. Things that seemed second nature to her now would result in extreme frustration because she couldn’t explain exactly what she wanted to do in English. But, every small success, whether it was ordering food in English at a restaurant, or figuring out how to buy a train ticket for the first time, made it all worth it for Svetlana.
“I started to have routines. I began to know the chain restaurants and other businesses like CVS and Target. I got used to American things and American foods. The food is so weird! The sizes are so big! Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were life-changing. And fluff– who thought of that?!”
“I NEEDED TO PROVE IT TO MYSELF”
Svetlana explained that she needed her first year to be at a smaller university, like Suffolk, because she was able to obtain the individual help she needed in mastering the English language.
“I needed to prove it to myself that I could do it,” she said. “Once the spring came after my first semester, it was better. I was no longer taking 8 to 10 hours to read a few pages.” As her confidence in reading and writing in English grew, she set her sights on a larger university, Boston University. Here, she would have a larger international student body with which to meet, more opportunities, and a world class psychology department from which to graduate.
When she started her first semester at B.U., she felt much more comfortable. She joked that because she was able to find an apartment in the U.S., she could now do anything else in Boston without being scared. At this point, she was able to talk to professors and get good grades. She had a lot of momentum starting B.U. and viewed it as one more goal to accomplish. She said that she was moving forward and felt confident that she could adjust to the new university.
Boston and B.U. began to feel like home. Svetlana said she met people “instantaneously” from classes. And through these initial connections, her friendships began to grow. “When you have people that you actually care about and you begin to love,” she said, “that’s when it feels like home. That is B.U. for me, a collection of little moments.”
EMBRACING A NEW CULTURE
“I had to re-learn how to communicate. I did not see that coming. People smile at you on the street. This was the most incredible thing I noticed. In Israel, people argue with others; it’s the way of life. In Ukraine, life is hard and people don’t smile. Here, people smile all the time! It’s so weird to me. Now I smile all the time and say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ when I see people. It’s easy to talk about nothing to anyone. Small talk is something I never did before. Sometimes people just talk about the weather. Americans don’t cut to the chase. It took time for me to be ok with it. The beauty is that people can be so smart and so superficial at the same time. I struggled with the American notion of ‘extreme politeness’ for the first couple years. There’s a certain way to say something, good or bad, and show how you feel with words. I had to be a spectator at first and see how people communicate with each other and how people have friendships.”
Prior to coming to the U.S., Svetlana said that she felt like she had two parts of herself. She felt like there were two people inside her; two customs. Now, after coming to the States, there’s a third, an American piece in addition to the other two. When she travels to Ukraine or Israel, she notices how she changes. She said her words and body language both change and her heart is divided into three pieces. Svetlana understands the American culture now. “It’s an additional layer of myself. Every place I go, there’s something I learn and it adds to myself,” she said.
The U.S. is unlike anywhere else she’s lived. There’s something special about it, Svetlana says.
She thinks that the people are amazing. They have a love for life, an energy, and they do things because of goals. They do their jobs with passion and with a lot of drive. This drive, she said, has rubbed off on her and now she’s thinking of what goals she has for the future.
WHAT CHANGED THE MOST
“When you go abroad for so long, it changes you to a point where the world seems so small, but it’s really so big. If you overcame difficulties coming abroad to live, and you were open to those experiences, then you can be a better, stronger person. By being a part of so many cultures, I’m actually a part of none. I’m not looking from the outside in anymore, but rather putting myself inside the culture. I get to live within the culture and look at everything differently. If you take this mentality to everything you do, you open your mind to other beliefs and you can learn from each other. At this point, I’m not afraid of anything. It’s everything I ever wanted and more.”
Svetlana’s advice for someone looking into studying abroad is to “just do it.” Don’t be scared, she said. Be ready to change and adjust your opinions and beliefs. Be open to the experiences and try everything. Fear and excitement feel about the same.
The final piece of advice Svetlana can give is: “Take a moment during long drives or on the train to understand where you are. Be present in each moment and experience everything fully. Expect small setbacks at the beginning. Every new thing might knock you down, but soon it will feel like home.”