{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 1-22-09}

Her name is Tatyana. She’s 17 years old, a senior in high school. More than anything else in the world, she wants an American education.

It’s great being an alumni volunteer. It gives you a chance to get to know some amazing young people. I’ve talked with maybe a dozen college applicants from Colorado Springs, and it’s been great. Who could have imagined, though, that I’d interview one from St. Petersburg?

I guess the university alumni relations office could. When I told them I’d be in St Petersburg for a while, they plugged me into their system and out came Tatyana. Out of a city of three and a half million people, she’s the only one who’s applied to my school. I figured I had to talk to her. How could she not be interesting?

We agree to meet at a subway stop in the center of the city. This actually isn’t that difficult. There is often only one way out of a Russian metro station, so people find it easy to meet at the top of the escalator.

Riding one of these is an experience in itself. They’re longer, steeper, and faster than American escalators, presided over by a stern matron in a glass booth the size of a refrigerator. Her only job, as far as I can tell, might possibly be to change the direction during rush hour. Not that I’ve ever seen that happen.

Tatyana and I greet one another, and walk into a nearby shopping mall with an internet café I found a couple of days ago. I order tea, she gets orange juice. She offers to pay, which I appreciate, but I’ll pick up the check. The prices here are OK for westerners, but they’re high for most Russians.

I ask Tatyana about her family. She tells me her father died when she was young, so she lives with her mother in a small apartment. Her mother works as a technician in a pathology lab. Tatyana tested into one of the city’s best schools, and like her mother aspires to a career in the sciences.

So why an American school? Tatyana tells me that the Russian system doesn’t permit much educational freedom. American universities have international reputations for academic excellence that she values greatly. Perhaps most importantly, American schools are wealthy. Wealthy enough to give her a scholarship. Without financial assistance, she has no hope of coming here.

It’s hard enough to get along as a Russian family with 2 parents. Even then, virtually all families have one child. It’s all they can afford.

For single parents, it’s even worse. Despite her technical training, Tatyana’s mother makes about $10,000 a year. For the schools Tatyana hopes to attend, expenses for year will cost five times her family’s income.

I switch to English and ask Tatyana about her studies. She handles the transition flawlessly, and I wonder how many American high schoolers could do that. She also claims conversational ability in French and German. Based on the ensuing hour’s discussion on some pretty esoteric topics, I don’t doubt it.

The odds are very, very long for students like Tatyana. Selective schools will accept barely a fifth of American students who apply, an even smaller percentage of international students, and a smaller percentage still will get the financial aid they ask for.

So if no American school accepts her, Tatyana is prepared to attend the university where I’m currently teaching. It’s the #2 school in Russia, a pretty darn good consolation prize.

But Tatyana is nothing if not driven. She thinks four years in America is something worth striving for, and she knows that you can’t get to the stars if you don’t reach for them.

She’s absolutely right.

Tatyana will hear from colleges at the same time American students do, the first week in April. We agree to keep in touch via Facebook and email, she promises to let me know if she gets in anywhere. There’s a film out by a new Russian director that she thinks I should see, so I tell her I’ll check it out. I send her on her way, then power up my laptop and file my report with the alumni office on the other side of the ocean. What a world we live in.

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