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When Elena Khazanova graduates from Columbia College of Columbia University as Valedictorian today, she will complete a remarkable journey from Leningrad to New York that would have seemed as improbable to her five years ago as, say, the demise of Communism in her native Russia.
Today, at 21, she is the first foreign-born Valedictorian at Columbia in recent memory and truly has to pinch herself from time to time.
"I have received many opportunities here which would have never been possible for me in Russia," she said. "The liberal arts education at Columbia taught me not just a multiplicity of facts and equations but an understanding and appreciation of beauty in any form, be it a brilliant thought, an elegant experiment or an exquisite piece of music."
Less than five years ago, she arrived in South Burlington, Vt., as a new immigrant just months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having studied English for eight years in Russia, her original intention was to spend a year as a high school student in Vermont. Catherine and Joseph Frank, her host family in South Burlington the previous year when she participated in a two-week student exchange program, had invited her back. But Soviet authorities in Leningrad had turned down her request to study abroad.
Meanwhile, her father, whom she barely knew after her parents divorced when she was a child, had obtained permission to emigrate from Odessa to the United States with his new family. He offered to take Elena with them, a decision that at the time meant she would have to give up her Soviet citizenship and not return to Russia.
"I had to struggle with my feelings in order to follow my mind, and at the same time that was the struggle between the past and the future," Elena said. "In Russia I did not see an opportunity for progress in my own life, and that is why I decided to come to the U.S.A."
Although she had graduated from secondary school in Russia, she spent 1991-92 at South Burlington High School to acclimate herself to American academics. Encouraged by the Franks, she applied to Columbia, where she majored in neuroscience, received the prestigious Albert Asher Green Prize and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She views her success less in terms of ambition than as a thirst for knowledge. "I didn't really think - Valedictorian or Phi Beta Kappa," she says. "For me, I simply go with the learning process. This is what holds me."
In September, she will pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor when she enrolls at Cornell University Medical School. She intends to specialize in geriatrics, a field she considers neglected in this country.
During her Columbia years and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she has returned to Russia twice to visit her mother and has been discouraged by conditions in her homeland. "The laws are not really certain yet and the standard of living has gone down so much," she said. "I was shocked to see the homeless and old people struggling to live."
She said the atmosphere on campus "of acceptance and a genuine attempt at understanding the variety of cultural, ethnic, and religious differences that the students bring" has been an important experience for her. While she has learned that America is not the "perfect land with absolute equal opportunity that many foreigners perceive" it to be, "Columbia has demonstrated to me that what really counts is hard work and devotion and not the background that one has. Had I stayed in Russia, I know that because of the rampant anti-Semitism in my native land, I, as a Jewish woman, would have had very limited opportunities in both education and a professional career."