“Just do it” is more than a merchandise-peddling advertising slogan for Anastasiya Hvaleva. To her, the United States is just the place to do it.
Hvaleva, 26, is a Kyrgyzstan native and award-winning Piedmont Virginia Community College student who came to the U.S. when her family lost their business during the 2005 Tulip Revolution. She spoke no English when she moved to Philadelphia to live with family and set about rebuilding her life.
Hvaleva is graduating from PVCC with a 4.0 grade-point average; was named the 2013 top community college student in the state by Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society representing two-year colleges; and has been accepted to the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce.
“This country is still the best country in the world because, if you want to do something, you just have to go out and do it,” Hvaleva said. “If you want an education, you just have to be aggressive and go out and find a way to get an education. It’s there. There are no barriers. No one is telling you no.”
Hvaleva faced plenty of barriers and the language was her first. She’d learned German in Kyrgyzstan and grew up speaking Russian but, to make it in the U.S., she knew she’d have to learn English.
“I’m not good with language. I’m good with science and mathematics, but not language, so I enrolled in an intensive English as a Second Language class at Temple University,” she said. “It was not easy, but I put pressure on myself to learn.”
Russian is nothing like English, she said.
“You can’t read a Russian word and have it look anything like an English word, and grammar is completely different. But the German alphabet and English alphabet are a lot alike and the grammar is similar, so that helped. But it wasn’t easy. Thank God that there is [spellcheck] so you can look for spelling mistakes in documents.”
Hvaleva is used to life not being easy. The Tulip Revolution — when Kyrgyzstan's longtime president was overthrown — was not her first experience with social upheaval. When the Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day 1991, Kyrgyz government ceased to exist, employment ceased to exist and even monetary structure changed.
“My father was employed and his company would pay him in calculators that they manufactured because they had no money. I was 6 years old and it was my job to go to stores and to try and sell the calculators to help support the family. I sort of made it into a game and it wasn’t so bad,” Hvaleva said.
“When the Tulip Revolution happened, people lost their jobs and their businesses overnight. There was no employment. My mother lost her business. There was violence. It was like a horror movie. We started thinking of moving to somewhere else,” she said.
She had studied for two years at a university in her native country and held a job as a telecommunications company marketing agent. When she was sent to the U.S. for a conference, she obtained a six-month visa. She decided to make it here, and moved to Philadelphia where her sister moved a decade before.
She studied English as a Second Language at Temple and the University of Pennsylvania. She also met and married her husband and the couple moved to Charlottesville. She enrolled at PVCC with the hopes of continuing her business education.
She focused on math, English and business courses, and she purposefully did it the hard way.
“I signed up for honors classes in English, because English was the subject that would be hardest for me. I needed the most pressure to learn the most,” she said. “I have an affinity for physics and math. Not so much languages. I always had in mind that I’d complete my education because I had to drop out and business education was always a direction for me.”
Her professors said her performance in communications classes was superlative.
“She's dedicated, hardworking, and grateful for her opportunities,” said Laurie Thurneck, professor of communication studies at PVCC. “She's a team player. When working on a group debate project, she exerted subtle leadership while never badmouthing any other teammate for not showing up or doing less exceptional work than she was doing herself.”
Thurneck said Hvaleva didn’t shirk the work.
“She's creative and academically curious. She drew a topic on Faberge eggs and the last czar of Russia for her informative speech topic, and enthusiastically announced that she accepted the challenging topic because she shares the first name of one of his daughters,” Thurneck said. “She seems very serious, but then at other times can hardly contain her enthusiasm, like when she told me about getting into UVa with a big smile on her face.”
The honors courses forced Hvaleva to focus on her writing, reading and comprehension skills.
“I said to myself that, if I wanted to be good enough to go to a really good business school, I had to go to the best classes with the most pressure to perform,” Hvaleva said. “I had to study a lot. There were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of stress. Learning is a lot like static and kinetic friction. You push and push on something, like a heavy table, and have static friction and then it reaches a threshold and the table moves and that’s kinetic friction. Then the more you push, the more it moves. I pushed until things started moving and kept pushing.”
Taking as many classes as she was allowed, Hvaleva found math and science classes easier than language skills. To improve her conversational abilities, she joined the college’s peer tutoring program in which she explained to others the classes that came easy to her.
She also joined and became the president of the PVCC chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the PVCC International Club and the Business Club. Her effort won a nomination to the Coca-Cola All-State Community College Academic Team and the New Century Scholars program.
“It’s one thing to be able to read and understand a language and another thing to be able to speak it. I needed to be able to speak in the language as well,” she explained. “I had to not only understand the information well enough to explain it, but to explain it in a foreign language, English. It was the perfect way to improve my speaking skills. I had more than 20 students in my [tutoring] class and it turned out very well.”
In her off hours during the summer, she worked with researchers at UVa’s Darden Business School, studying green energy technologies, including solar technology. That internship has given her direction.
“I want to work in renewable energy. There is going to be a change in how we use energy and the energy we use, and you can make a difference in all that change. Why not do something with green energy?” she said. “It’s something I would like to do in the future.”
The future, Hvaleva said, is wide open.
“This country is great because there are so many options and they are open. ... In Russia, there is much corruption and you may not be able to go to college because you don’t know someone or, if you do, you may not get a job because of corruption. If you have a business, you may have to worry about the mafia or the government if you do not follow what they want you to do,” she said. “You don’t have that here. Here, people want to see you succeed. They will help you. If you want to be something, you can do it if you work hard enough.”
If she works hard enough, Hvaleva said she might be able to make her goal: a graduate degree from Harvard.
“Perhaps I am too hopeful," she said, "but that’s what I would like to do.”