Defying Limits

October 31, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

Defying Limits

Alumni Natalia Sorokina and Nechama Gluck were among the first communication studies majors at BMCC, where they met and became friends.

Now, Sorokina is enrolled at Columbia University, and Gluck is at New York University (NYU)—both having earned generous merit scholarships to attend the prestigious schools.

But what they have in common goes much deeper than that.

“My first night, I slept on Brighton Beach with my suitcases,” says Sorokina, who collected money in small amounts from as many relatives as possible, to buy her airfare from Russia to New York City.

“Somebody on the plane had told me there was a Russian community there,” she explains.

“I walked around the next day, asking people if they needed a cleaner, a cashier, or a delivery person. A woman in a flower shop said, ‘I need a cleaner, a cashier and a delivery person’, and I said, ‘I can do all that!’”

Breaking free

Before moving to New York, Natalia Sorokina had been teaching high school English in Russia with the equivalent of an associate degree, and her aspirations to continue her education were not, she says, well received.

“In Russia, I didn’t feel like I was free to be who I am,” she says. “It’s hard to speak up, if you’re a woman there. Moreover, nobody expects you to speak up—but I always did.”

She not only spoke out in Russia, she defied the norms expected of her, by having a relationship with a woman.

“I was beaten up by skinheads, right in front of my building, just for holding her hand,” she says. “The police were watching, and their response was, ‘Skinheads and gays, let them kill each other’.”

Meanwhile, almost 5,000 miles away, Nechama Gluck was coming of age in Rockland County, upstate New York.

“It was a very closed Hasidic Jewish community,” she says. “My dream was to go to college, but I never thought that was possible, because a woman in that community is expected to marry early and be a housewife.”

As a girl, “I spent all my free time in the library, reading secular books that weren’t allowed at home,” she says, “and I saw my first movie, The Princess Diaries, at age 16 at a friend’s house. I was terrified, I thought I’d be struck by lightening.”

The last straw, as she calls it, was watching her nine older siblings enter into arranged marriages by age 20—something she adamantly opposed, for herself.

“So I dropped out of high school,” she says, “and ran away to Queens. I have an aunt there; she’s a lot more liberal, kind of a black sheep in my family, and she had run away herself, when she was young. She encouraged me to get my GED, to get a job.”

First steps

While Natalia Sorokina slept in the florist shop, “with all the roses,” she says, saving money for the apartment she would share with three roommates in Sheepshead Bay, Nechama Gluck set out looking for a job.

“I worked in a medical office, I was a cashier in a hardware store, and I worked at the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center,” she says.

One memory stands out for her.

“I was skating by myself one night after the rink closed, but about a hundred people were there at the restaurants, watching, and when I did a cool trick on the ice, they would cheer.”

Slowly, each young woman gained confidence, and began to seek a college that would encourage their growth.

“Definitely going to a community college, to BMCC, and majoring in communication studies was a big step in the right direction,” says Gluck.

“For me too,” Sorokina adds.

Gaining skills

Both Natalia Sorokina and Nechama Gluck have vivid memories of their time together in BMCC’s first class of communication studies majors.

“What we learned was amazing, but how much they cared about our futures was even more amazing,” says Gluck.

“Dr. Poster, when she enters a room, she has this energy,” says Sorokina. “She told us, ‘Relationship dominates content, in every type of communication’, and I have found that to be so true.”

“They made us examine our values,” adds Gluck.

“Professor Blank, his conflict resolution class felt like stress-relief sessions,” says Sorokina. “He would give us contexts—landlord/tenant; business partners—and a conflict we would resolve, reviewing each other’s solutions.”

“Professor Chang, he told us, ‘I’m not trying to break you, I’m trying to make you flexible,” Gluck remembers, and, recalls Sorokina, “Professor Glaser taught small group communication, and we examined different roles people play in a group. I learned a lot about non-verbal communication.”

“Me too,” says Gluck. “I was working in a school that semester, and mediating between the parents of a child and the administration, and everyone’s body language gave me cues and helped me redirect the conversation in a productive way.”

Next steps

Now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication Studies at NYU, Nechama Gluck is also completing a minor in Korean language.

“I wanted to continue what I started at BMCC,” she says. “I had become so passionate about culture and communication, and now, when I graduate from NYU, I plan on living in Korea a year and teaching English. I’m taking intercultural and communication classes, so it’s not just language that I’m learning, but culture and sensitivity skills.”

She chose her minor in Korean, she says, “because I just fell in love with the language; there’s a certain musicality to it.” Also, she thinks that being fluent in Hebrew might give her insight in reading a phonetic alphabet that looks symbolic.

Easing the expense of NYU’s private-college tuition, Gluck was awarded a CCTOP (Community College Transfer Opportunity Program) scholarship, as well as a Phi Theta Kappa scholarship.

Eventually, she says, “I’d like to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, exploring the media. One of my dream jobs is being a newscaster for Al Jazeera. They really try to give an unbiased presentation of news events around the world.”

Natalia Sorokina’s plans are just as well defined.

She transferred to Columbia University after a year at BMCC, and is seeking a bachelor’s degree in Human Rights and International Public Affairs—all made possible when she was awarded Columbia’s coveted New Student Scholarship.

She is also planning to start an internship at the United Nations.

“In the summer I went there for a tour, and spoke to people who work there,” she says. “You don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree to intern at the U.N., which is good, but I speak two languages and they said it’s better to have three, so I’m taking French.”

“My dream,” she says, “is to get a position where I’ll be able to affect policy regarding the LGBT community, and women around the world.”

Looking back

What about the worlds they left behind?

Natalia Sorokina remains distanced from her family, and hopes to reconnect with them someday—though she never plans, she says, to return to Russia.

“I love my country,” she says. “I love the people, the literature, the history—but the government’s human rights policies sicken me.”

Nechama Gluck reflects that, “It was almost two years before I saw my family again, after I ran away. We’ve reconciled, though, and grown from it. We accept each other for who we are. We love each other, and they’re proud of me now, that I’m in college.”