When Oleksander “Sasha” Serkov, 15, talks about life in his native Ukraine and the United States he notes there are differences.
“When I talk about differences, that is what they are – differences. It does not mean one is better or worse than the other,” said Serkov.
He is spending the school year at Paris High School as an exchange student and making his home with the Brian and Jessica Blair family.
Serkov prefers people call him Sasha rather than Oleksandr, adding Sasha is a common Ukrainian nickname for people named Oleksandr. His father is also named Oleksandr.
“It’s much more simpler for Americans,” he said about the nickname.
Coming to the United States fulfills a long held ambition for the young man, noting American culture has long intrigued him, and sees the student exchange program as a two-way street.
“I want to know more about America and share my Ukrainian culture with people I meet,” he said.
While American pop culture is known world-wide and influences music and cinema everywhere, there are other things Serkov finds fascinating. He described the U.S. as a big place that leads in education and innovation.
“It has the most amazing technology I have ever seen,” he said.
Ukranian students don’t simply decide they want to participate in an exchange program and sign up to go. There is a competitive process that continually narrows the pool of students for selection.
Serkov said during the first round of testing there are perhaps 10,000 students trying to earn a spot. Continued testing gets the viable competitors down to around 200.
A major element of the testing is English comprehension. Students in the Ukraine start learning English as small children in the second year of formal education and English instruction continues each school year through the final 11th year.
Testing to participate in the exchange program starts in September and results are not available until the following spring.
“You are nervous because you don’t know if they selected you or not,” Serkov said.
He was originally placed into the alternative category, but five days later the exchange organization moved him into the finalist group.
He was notified of a placement Aug. 15 and was on a plane Aug. 22 flying out of Ukraine.
“I got an email at 5 a.m. saying I would be in Paris,” said Serkov. “The first thing my parents asked is if I was going to France. They were confused.”
His parents are caterers in Kovel, a city of more than 69,000 people. He spent the first 11 years of his life living in Donetsk a much large community of 929,000 and perhaps more than 2 million in the metropolitan area. Civil unrest prompted the family to move.
“There was a dark time about four years ago known as the anti-terrorist operation when the Russian army tried to get Ukraine to be a part of Russia,” said Serkov.
Most of the upheaval was in the Eastern part of the country where Donetsk is located. They moved to his mother’s hometown of Kovel.
Despite growing up in urban areas, Serkov does not consider Paris rural, adding it seems urban to him. He is not a complete stranger to agriculture and rural life. In the past, he visited his grandmother’s home and helped harvest potatoes and carrots from her fields.
Some of the differences Serkov noted between American and Ukrainian schools:
In the U.S. all assignments are prepared on lined paper. Schools in the Ukraine use graph paper for everything.
American schools have more extracurricular activities. Some things like an art club might exist in a Ukrainian school but most extracurricular activity is done outside the school through other organizations.
Schools in the Ukraine are confined to one building with all grades housed in the space. There are not separate buildings based on age.
Buying a school lunch was new experience. The Ukrainian government funds the school lunch program and there is an emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables as part of the meals. The government also provides all school supplies students require.
Ukrainian students have no knowledge of American football. What Americans call soccer is the number one sport.
When Serkov returns home he has the option to try and test out of school or he may need to repeat a year to make up for his time away.
The year in the U.S. is helping his English mastery but the flip side is he has little opportunity to use Ukrainian and he is not studying his country’s history while he is here. Those are things he will have to revisit on his return.
Serkov said the experience as an exchange student has been positive and he enjoys how friendly and open-minded Americans are. He has not yet decided whether to attend a Ukrainian university or seek admission to an American university. Part of the indecision is because he has not chosen a career path.
“I don’t really know what I want to do,” Serkov said.