Six months ago my new life began. Now it is filled with a sense of fear and the unknown, but also delight and anticipation of new things. And all this was done by one short word: YES.
On February 23, 2022, I found out that I will be a Humphrey Fellow this year. I was so happy that I almost forgot to breathe. Exactly one day I was the happiest person in the whole world. But the next day, February 24, Russia launched “a special operation” in Ukraine. I felt lost. I was afraid that my participation in the program would be canceled. But it did not happen, as I was informed after some tormenting days of uncertainty.
My preparation process was very fast paced. With every passing day it seemed that this opportunity to study in the USA or even just to go abroad, was becoming more elusive. To deal with the risk, I was offered to leave the country already in March and wait for my US visa outside of Russia. At that time, I even felt grateful to the fact that my English was quite poor. Because it opened up a possibility to start my language courses in April at the University of Montana, several months before my Humphrey fellowship. So I ended up in the state that Americans call The Big Sky Country and The Last Best Place.
When I arrived in the USA I pinched myself to realize that this was not a dream. I promised to say YES to all new opportunities, even if doing something for the first time is scary and you may look stupid. There is a popular saying in Russia: if you don’t know how, don’t do it. Many people find it very difficult to start something new, because you cannot be perfect the first time. People are afraid to start dancing, go to the gym, learn to draw, change careers, leave toxic relationships, you name it. It’s like a part of the culture code, which is difficult to change. Therefore, my every YES to kayaking, canyoning, Argentine tango and other adventures was a way out of my comfort zone. And it turned out to be the most happy summer of my life.
It took a long time for me to understand that people in the USA do not equate my country with me personally. When you read Russian media news, you get the feeling that all Russians are being canceled all over the world. At first, I was avoiding “where are you from” questions. It got to the point of absurdity. Once we called an Uber and the driver was Oleksiy from Ukraine. I froze in my seat and kept silent throughout the ride, scared of the possible reaction if he finds out I am Russian. At one point he actually asked the question I was so afraid of: where are you from? Everybody just named their countries, but I lied: I’m from Argentina. My colleagues kept joking about this for another three months to come. But I have changed now. If somebody asks me where I am from, I just tell the truth: I am from Russia. It has never caused a negative reaction among Americans.
Watching American life, I have learned not to put off my dreams. I love movies and being in the movie theaters has always been magic for me. In Missoula, I finally decided to volunteer for a local movie theater. It was one of the best experiences of my life! I felt like walking straight into a movie about American movie theaters: red walls, small theater halls, cool posters of old films everywhere and they screen American classics. The process of me making popcorn felt like getting into a computer game! People ordered their favorite flavors: more butter – less salt, more salt – less butter, no butter or no salt. I was a real movie fairy who helped people enjoy the show.
The language courses in Montana flew by so quickly, as if I had only time to blink. Thanks to all the wonderful people I met in Missoula, I have regained my self-confidence. There is not enough room in this post to list everyone who gave me back to me. Just know that you are all forever in my heart.
Now I’m in Arizona. Phoenix is the city of eternal summer, and for this reason I love it dearly. And while I don’t yet know what awaits me when I return to my homeland, I know that this year will be the most transformational in my life, as well as in the lives of other Humphrey Fellows. The main lesson I have learned already: say YES to all opportunities.