Sample Diversity Statement # 3
How do you know when you have a grasp on what it means to live in a "postmodern" post-Soviet country? When you have realized that you don't want to live there anymore. While I was far from having such an "existential" grasp on reality at ten years old, one thing was certain - my friends and I were not optimistic about our future. Just a couple of years ago we all dreamed about becoming pilots, astronauts, and important diplomats. Now, as we watched our parents work two or three jobs simply to make ends meet, we realized the futility of our dreams and high expectations.
Around this time, one of my friends got to travel "abroad" with his parents. I don't remember just where exactly Andrew went with his parents that year (either Poland or Hungary), but I do distinctly remember his coming back to school after fall break. Wearing new snow-white Nike shoes and a "NY Yankees" baseball hat, he told us of all the amazing things he saw "abroad." He told us of supermarkets "with like fifty brands of smoked sausage," all sorts of toys, clothes, and - most remarkably - "no lines." (We were pretty sure Andrew was making that part up). From this time on we referred to this magical world only as "the abroad." Naturally, Andrew became the most popular kid in our school; at least until someone else came back from visiting "the abroad."
So, as one can imagine, my friends and I started dreaming about going abroad someday. First, these were just fantasies. However, we found ourselves in high school still holding on to the same fantasies. And one day, as my friend Ivan was telling us about his cousin's impression of Germany, I said, "What's the point of just dreaming about going 'abroad'? Let's act like men. Let's do something about this." We weren't quite sure what we were going to do, or what it meant to "act like men," but it sounded good. Concluding that no matter where we would travel or immigrate, knowing English would help, we all started learning English. The amount of instruction in English we received in the classroom was negligible, so I convinced my mother to pay for private lessons with a linguistics professor at the University.
With time, I learned about international student exchange programs, through which one could come to the United States, and study in an American high school for a semester or two. After applying to several exchange programs, I was selected to a private school in Huntsville, Alabama. I had no idea where exactly Alabama was, or what it was like, but I thought: "Hey, it's America, right?"
I arrived to Huntsville in December 1994. "America" was nothing like I thought it would be. There were no skyscrapers, no "Broadway" style musicals, no fancy night clubs. Instead, there was a small Southern town, with countless Protestant churches, a mall, and a NASA Space Flight Center - the single most significant local landmark. My host family went to church three days a week, and often invited me to go with them. I did not want to be impolite, so I finally agreed. "West Huntsville Church of Christ" was quite an experience. When at one time I asked my host parent Jim why there were no black people in their church he told me that it's better for "people to congregate with those who are most like them." When I told my host parents that I was thinking about moving to the States one day, Linda, my host mother, blushed, and Jim ardently tried to persuade me to go back home to Ukraine and stay there, saying "It's better for everyone to live in their own country."
As I now reflect on the six months I spent in Huntsville, Alabama I am thankful that I was too young to fully recognize the deeply-rooted racism, ethnocentrism, and fundamentalism all too often ubiquitous in the socially-segregated South. I learned that the country which I once considered part of the "magic world" was plagued by its own problems, no less serious than the ones back home, and that in some parts of this magic world "freedom and opportunity" were not equally available to a black person or a person with an Eastern European accent. At the same time, having traveled a little across the U.S. while living in Alabama, I fell in love with America, and with the freedom and opportunity one could enjoy here.