Senior Viktoriya Ulman mines Oswego East as Ukrainian student in America

Adorned in her daily multi-colored outfits dripping with accessories, dyed platinum pixie hair, and tall figure standing at about 5 ft 7 inches, senior Viktoriya Ulman is an extremely difficult person to miss in the hallways. When we met she waltzed into the room dressed in a poofy bright pink ankle-length skirt, a tucked in black top, and dangly earrings to pull the entire look together. She oozes energy and eccentricity everywhere she goes, always smiling and practically bouncing up and down. It is clear within seconds of meeting her that everything she does, she does with passion and spunk.

Viktoriya, having lived in Ukraine, Russia, and the U.S. all by her sophomore year, finds inspiration in the vast world that surrounds us. She moved to America her sophomore year with her mother, who she considers to be one of her best friends of all time. Her mother had switched jobs, sending them across the globe. Joining them, her step dad and his two young daughters. Her father and his entire side of the family remain in Ukraine.

“I miss them, but I try not to think about it,” Viktoriya says. “I try to focus on my school work rather than missing my hometown,” and here, for a moment, one can sense that she truly means it. But she then undercuts the comment with a laugh, not one to take her own nostalgia too seriously.

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Viktoriya sits with her classmates on the 1st of September — the Day of Knowledge — the first day of the school year. “I moved from Moscow to my hometown in Ukraine, so I didn’t know anyone there and had to make new friends,” Viktoriya said. Photo courtesy of Viktoriya Ulman.

It’s her unique and forward-focused approach to life that has driven her to reach incredible academic success here in America. She attributes her hard-working mindset to her Ukrainian roots. However, it was anything but simple when she had first arrived — for both Viktoriya and her mother Nataliya.

“I was afraid whether I would be able to find a stable job. Plus I worried that Vicky wouldn’t like it here and would want to go back. There were a lot of hardships that we had to go through to get where we are right now, so of course it worried me whether we would be able to assimilate and have a happy life away from our usual surroundings,” Nataliya says.

Both of them knew that it would be difficult to get their bearings here in America and explained that they had to work twice as hard as anybody else to get where they are. Viktoriya’s mother explained that learning a new language, maintaining a job thousands of miles outside of her comfort zone and supporting her family required her to put in 10 times more effort than the next person.

“We both had to learn how to live here, because the way the world works in the U.S. is entirely different from what we are used to. I moved knowing just basic English, completely alone, and that most definitely took a toll,” Mrs. Ulman says. She explained later that in America, hard work does seem to pay off and she couldn’t be more thankful for that.  

Viktoriya had grown used to changing environments so drastically, having moved around a lot when she was younger. The fear she felt towards the change in location was there, but it was manageable. One thing she did not feel prepared for, however, was how different the school system would be here in America.  

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Viktoriya has not seen her grandmother in more than two years, though the two remain incredibly close. Photo courtesy of Viktoriya Ulman.

“It was nerve wracking, and I didn’t know what to expect. Everything in America is different, everything. Especially from the school standpoint — I just didn’t know what I was going into. I was clueless. I knew I would be struggling with it,” Viktoriya says, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

The American school system, as Viktoriya explained, is much more lenient than the school system one would see in Ukraine or Russia. Individual freedom is extremely limited as far as school is concerned, considering the government itself selects all of the 13 subjects students will partake in each year. She dreamed of the opportunities and choices available in America even as a little girl, and it was one of the reasons her family decided to make the journey from Ukraine to Illinois.

In Ukraine, things like after school clubs and sports are an oddity. Sports through the school are rarely ever seen. Anything students want to participate in, other than hours of monotonous studying and homework, has to be done on students own time. Evidently, time is something the students do not seem to have lots of.

“Back there teachers have a lot of focus on homework and assignments- you don’t have time to communicate with friends or do anything besides homework until 10 p.m every day. Here, we have plenty of time and opportunities,” Viktoriya says, her face lighting up. Without the government selecting all of her classes for her, she has been able to find a new sense of drive and passion towards the subjects she studies.

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Viktoriya and her classmates attended a field trip to the Carpathian Mountains. “I feel like it was stressful since it was a bunch of teenagers together on an extended weekend trip,” Viktoriya recalled. Photo courtesy of Viktoriya Ulman.

After the initial shock of the vastly different education system, Viktoriya immediately began taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way. Outside of the allotted eight class periods a day, Viktoriya participates in every extracurricular activity she can get her hands on. She is an active participant in German Club, Chinese/Mandarin club, K-Pop club, as well as the German, Math, and National honors societies. While Viktoriya lists off her impressive number of extracurriculars, her favorite German teacher Anna Hog interjects with a laugh.

“What clubs aren’t you in? You might want to take an aspirin before the graduation ceremony, because those are a lot of achievements to keep track of,” Hog jests. To Viktoriya, it’s everything that she had always hoped for.

“Because I transferred here my sophomore year, I didn’t have as much time as everyone else to build my college applications,” Viktoriya explains. “I had to fit it all in at once!”  

“I am very honored to be a World Languages teacher, I have been able to learn so much about so many cultures and languages from my students, which has allowed me to make connections most people do not have the opportunity to experience,” Frau Anna Hog elaborated on a separate occasion. “I believe this is very similar for Viktoriya, as she has lived in several different countries and has experienced first hand that education is the key to success. This seems to be the mindset in many other Eurasian countries,” she adds.

Staying true to her overachieving European mindset, Viktoriya actively studies the German language on top of all of her other extracurricular activities — despite already being tri-lingual.

“I just figured ‘Why not?’ I think that because I already know three, learning languages is so much fun. You get to explore different cultures and dive into different societies.” Viktoriya  said. “[Learning many languages] should be important to everyone, because knowing how other societies and nationalities work, which ties to language obviously, is important. It’s how you understand other people. Americans are not the same as Ukrainians or Russians or Chinese people,” she adds.

Her appreciation for other cultures, along with the cultures she grew up in, have inspired Viktoriya to seize every moment of every day and make sure she never misses out on any chance of self improvement or success. She believes that she will continue to have this mindset beyond her high school career and into college.

“It has to go back to my roots. Without college, you do not have any other opportunities. Back then I was so focused on moving here because there were so many more opportunities and chances to succeed. That’s how my mindset works. I wanted to succeed, I wanted to do something with my life, so that’s why I really capitalized on my education. In my brain, education equals success,” Viktoriya says.

She hopes to continue her education in universities such as Loyola or DePaul to study finance, claiming that her love for Illinois has made Chicago feel like home.

Rachael Disher is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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