Milana Tarasova is a poster child for blooming where you’re planted.
The 15-year-old Ukrainian immigrant hits home runs in the academic field of Fauquier High School. She arrived in the U.S. in the early days of 2018 and began school a few weeks later. Despite her most difficult challenge – the English language –Milana has earned a 4.0 GPA every semester.
War with Russia broke out 53 miles from the home she shared in Kharkiv, Ukraine, with her mother, Viktoriya Sulimova, and her 4-year-old half-brother, Albert Sulimov. Sulimova feared for her children’s safety.
A plan was already in the works to relocate to the U.S. Milana’s stepfather, Oleg Sulimov, had moved to Warrenton four years earlier and established a business, Timekeeper Watch Service.
Leaving the home of her childhood was wrenching for Milana.
“I cried a lot, especially on the airplane,” Milana said. “ I remember every moment of how I left my grandma and my friends.”
Milana misses her bedroom in the eighth-floor apartment that was home in Kharkiv. Photographs of friends and family hung on the walls. A white rug covered the floor.
“I felt good in it,” she said. “It was cozy.”
The view from her bedroom window connected her with friends and grandparents. She looked out over treetops, the roofs of two apartment buildings and a small park. She could see the windows of her friends’ homes; when she saw them walking, she would run out to meet them. Her grandparents worked in a squatty office building to one side of the clearing. When she visited them, her grandmother might give her a treat.
The thought of moving to Warrenton was daunting. What would the new school be like? Would she feel comfortable in her new home? How well could she communicate in English? She was scared.
Other than clothes and basic necessities, Milana tucked a chemistry book and a biology book in her luggage.
“I thought I might need them,” she said.
Milana maintained a demanding discipline of schoolwork in Kharkiv; if she wasn’t sleeping, she was studying.
“I didn’t get enough sleep because I had to do my homework,” said Milana. Her mother enrolled her in a school that emphasized learning English.
School in the U.S differs from the school she knew in Ukraine in two major ways.
“It is so easy,” said Milana. “My most difficult problem is with English.”
The other change? She went through all her grades and classes in Ukraine with the same students around her. “This is so different,” she said.
Fauquier County Public Schools administers the WIDA ACCESS Screener to evaluate immigrant students’ mastery of English. Milana tested on an intermediate level, said Leys Rodriguez, who teaches English as a Second Language at Fauquier High School. Nevertheless, Milana opted to take one ESL class to help her acclimate to the unfamiliar environment.
Gratefully, she said that all of her teachers allow her to use her cellphone in class to access Google Translate.
“She advocated for herself, “ said Stephanie Strong, who taught English to Milana last year. Milana asked if she could read stories and novels in Russian, in which she is fluent, then do the assignments in English. Strong helped her to find Russian translations.
She and Milana discovered they shared an interest in braiding hair. Milana adeptly manages a five-strand braid.
Eventually, Milana would like to speak English without an accent.
“My goal is to know English like you,” she said to this reporter.
Milana made friends in her classes, and with whom she shares lunch. Talking with them is comfortable for her.
“We talk about common stuff,” said Milana. Sometimes they laugh at her when she makes mistakes in speaking, but “in a good way,” she said. “If I mess up they tell me how to say. But they don’t make fun of me. They help me learn English.”
After school, Milana takes care of her little brother, sometimes cooking him dinner. She likes to bake and decorate cupcakes.
Milana works on homework one to two hours every school night.
“If something goes wrong with her, she does not give up, and tries again and again to lead her homework to an end,” her mother said.
Lee Hoover, Milana’s biology teacher, has appreciated having her in his classroom. “She welcomes a challenge,” Hoover said. He learned a few words of Ukrainian, which means a lot to Milana.
Milana doesn’t persist with her studies to make good grades.
“I didn’t have a goal of making As,” Milana said. “I just got them.” What drives her is the overarching desire for a good education, at high school and beyond. While she does not know what subject area she will focus on in college, she is drawn to math.
Hoover sees her as a work in progress.
“I’ve got some raw material here; the end product is going to be quite rich,” said Hoover about some of his students, including Milana.
Jennifer Feehan teaches Milana geometry and says she’s usually quick to grasp the concepts. During a recent week’s absence from school, Milana taught herself trigonometry and submitted her assignments on her first day back. Everything was correct.
Feehan divides her students into work groups of three. She notices that the two students in her group “lean on Milana.” She’s pretty sure Milana gives them a hand outside of class too.
“I try to always be kind,” Milana said.
This month, Milana hopes to cross over the threshold of the American teen’s pathway to independence and obtain her learner’s permit. And while she is not now involved in extracurricular activities, in her junior year she plans to play soccer or tennis.
“Her overall demeanor is that she enjoys life,” Hoover said. “She enjoys the adventure of it.” He is impressed that she has learned this at so young an age. Overall, Milana has made a lasting impact on him.
“When you retire, there’s a handful of students you always remember,” Hoover said. “Milana is one of those.”