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Meet Katya: “VAL Gave Me An Opportunity to Be Successful”


Posted on Thursday, February 4, 2021, at 11:10 PM

Belarus is known for its potatoes, tractors and being one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is also a beautiful, heavily forested nation with a population of 9.5 million people. This former Soviet Republic has been ruled by Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko since 1994.

Katya arrived in Vermont in the summer of 1998 from Minsk.  She just completed tenth grade and, at 16, spoke three languages—Russian, Belarussian and Polish.  She came to the United States to reunite with her father whom she had not seen in seven years.

“I only came to visit for the summer, but we decided that it would be very beneficial for me to stay longer and enroll in school to improve my language skills, make new friends and fully immerse myself in American culture,” Katya said.  “I fell in love with the United States and Vermont, in particular. It felt like home to me immediately.”

Eager to learn English, Katya enrolled in Brian Mahoney’s Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) English Language Learning (ELL) class at Burlington’s Sara Holbrook Community Center in June.  By September, she was a registered 10th grader at Burlington High School (BHS).

“It was the most terrifying experience in my life—full immersion, no language, no friends,” Katya recalls. 

“I remember Katya as being like a sponge when she was in my classes,” Brian said. “She was so eager to absorb everything around her. Students like Katya are easy to teach.”

Her first friends were fellow students from former Soviet Republics who also spoke Russian.  She quickly got a job at the now-closed Ames Department Store.

“My younger brother, who was eight, dramatically helped me,” Katya said. “He moved to the U.S. when he was one year old. I helped him with Russian and he helped me with my English.”

Katya worked hard and thrived at BHS.  Her English improved quickly, allowing her to skip 11th grade and advance to 12th grade.  She graduated in June 2000 and enrolled in Champlain College’s Marketing Management program.

During her first year of college, Katya’s strong interest in finance inspired her to seek a job in banking. She walked into KeyBank at the Corporate Plaza in downtown Burlington to apply for a job.

“I asked if there was a president of the bank and was told that her office was located on the second floor,” Katya said.  “I took my resume and proceeded to find the president’s office. Instead of applying for a job in a conventional way, I wanted to personally meet with a representative of a bank and ask to be hired on the spot. The president was so impressed with such a bold move that she offered me my very first banking job on the spot. I worked as a teller for about five years before a promotion to loan officer at another bank.”

“My current passion for human resources came to me about five years ago,” Katya said.  “I worked as a Client Services Manager at Bayada Home Health Care and a Human Resources Manager at Genesis HealthCare.  Those roles taught me the skills needed to be an effective manager. I love working directly with people.  I love making connections and creating bonds with my employees and co-workers.”

Katya’s resume highlights jobs with increasing responsibility in Vermont’s banking and health care sectors.  Today, Katya is a People Partner, Employee Experience staffer (Human Resources Manager) at Rhino Foods in Burlington.

As Katya looks to the future, she is eager to complete her Master’s Degree (She is half-way there!) while raising her two beautiful daughters.  She is committed to giving them the opportunity to attend college and earn degrees that speak to their passions.

Katya overcame significant challenges of language while embracing her adoptive country to become the success she is today.  She misses relatives, the culture, the food, the theaters and long walks along the Swislac and Niamiha Rivers in her beloved Minsk.  Fortunately, Katya can make Borsch, a favorite Belarussian soup with Vermont-grown beets.  She also embraces the beauty of Vermont.

Reflecting on that first VAL English class in the summer of 1998, “VAL gave me an opportunity to become successful and get my very first job as a customer service associate at Ames. Brian is a very easygoing individual. He made me feel very comfortable in the class; he encouraged learning and encouraged his students to show up to class every day and on time. Brian was always great at making learning a lot of fun.  He is very talented at coming up with creative activities using various topics.”

“VAL helped me meet my personal goal, which was to learn English,” Katya said.  “I needed these skills right from the very first day I arrived as I always wanted to pursue higher education and to reach those goals.”

“There is a Belarussian proverb, Live for a century, learn for a century,” Katya said.  “This proverb reminds us that our entire life is always a learning process and we should never presume that we know it all, as there is always an opportunity for learning no matter how old we get.”

When asked about something she brought with her to the United States from home, Katya said, “My independence.”

How true.

© Vermont Adult Learning

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