Years and years ago, in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ days there were lots of “only in America” stories. “Only in America” could an immigrant through his own hard work and because of the opportunities this land of ours affords, achieve far more than he ever dreamed was possible. I know my grandparents told stories like that. Maybe yours did too.
Nowadays we don’t hear these stories much. Not because they don’t happen, but because what we do hear about is the “success story” of someone like Paris Hilton, who born rich and privileged, has achieved even greater fame and fortune by behaving disgracefully. (Amazingly, Barbara Walters cited her as “one of the most fascinating people of the year” on her TV special Wednesday night.)
Well, I spoke this week to two young men who I’d call really fascinating, students of the City University of New York who were just named Rhodes Scholars, a stunning achievement. Lev Sviridov of City College and Eugene Shenderov of Brooklyn College are both chemistry majors. Their families fled countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Lev came to America when he was eleven with his mother, a journalist. In Moscow, she had been an editor on Top Secret, a rare hard-hitting television news program. She came here for a brief teaching stint at Duke University, and ten years ago, after yet another upheaval in the Soviet Union, they decided to stay. “I loved America from the first. When there was a chance we might go back I told my mother, ‘Please, let me stay, let me stay. Just leave me on the street. It will be okay.’ Then when Yeltsin brought out the tanks and she felt we couldn’t go back I remember looking at the scene on a little black-and-white television set with the soldiers in front of the parliament and saying, “‘Thank you, thank you, Yeltsin.’”
Lev says he learned English playing baseball in Central Park. For a while, he and his mom were homeless. “If we couldn’t find a place to sleep, we would spend the night wandering around.” Then Lev, through the help of various organizations, won a full scholarship to Fieldston, an elite private school. “I got a great education there.” How did he relate to the other students? “Well, I was the scholarship kid. And they were, well, obscenely rich.”
He went on to City College “because I could afford it.” At City he was the president of his class last year, winner of the Goldwater Fellowship in Science because of his outstanding scholastic work–”I want to make Summa Cum Laude”–and has served as a translator and permanent member of the Glasnost Public Foundation to the United Nations. “But,” he says with great passion, “I will never go back to Russia. It is a country that doesn’t cherish its people. It’s worst than a caste or a class system. There is no opportunity. They don’t know what freedom or liberty is for.”
His fellow Rhodes scholar Eugene Shenderov’s achievements are just as impressive. Says Lev, “Honestly all the people who were up for the Rhodes Scholarships were terrific. We sat around talking with each other during the interview process, and we began to feel sorry for the judges. How could they pick?”
Eugene is from Ukraine and came to America with his parents when he was six. His father is a physicist and his mother a pharmacist. He was homeschooled during his elementary years because of a weakened immune system, an after-effect of Chernobyl.
Eugene, who has a 4.0 average at Brooklyn in their B.A.-M.D. program, is also a varsity tennis player, president of the college’s chess team and an Emergency Medical Service driver. In high school he ran research projects at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where his parents worked and he plans to be an oncologist. At Oxford he will research how “to educate the immune system to attack and eradicate cancer.” Liv, who has asthma, plans to study inorganic chemistry at Oxford to learn more about how pollutants react in the human body.
“When I heard my name called, I was numb,” Eugene said. “The first thing you think is, could they please call it again so I can be sure?”
I asked both young men if they thought their fellow students, those who were not born abroad, appreciate the many opportunities that are available in our country. “Well, it is easy for many people to just criticize than to be constructive about things they don’t like” Lev said. And Eugene noted, “People think the grass is greener somewhere else. It isn’t. They don’t understand what it is like when, for example, my father graduated the top of his class but because he was Jewish couldn’t get a job. But here it is amazing–from immigrant to Rhodes Scholar, it can happen. When I first thought of applying my father didn’t think it was possible. He said, ‘There is no way you can get it.’”
Wrong. It can happen. Only in America, only in America.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.