Sofya Omelchenko ‘09
Volgograd, Russia/ Lakeville, MN
Education: BA Global Studies (Honors) from The New School, New York, NY
Employment: Program Manager of University Without Borders
Profile created by Tatyana Movshevich
FLEX Importance: Participating in the FLEX program gave me opportunities I could have never dreamed of having otherwise, primarily with regards to applying to U.S. universities after the program. A year in the U.S. allowed me to gain an intimate insight into American society, as well as to develop my English language skills to the level where I could continue my education in an English-speaking university. FLEX also helped me realize my leadership potential and understand the importance of international education for a young adult’s worldview.
FLEX Lessons: The exchange was the first time I was away from my parents and everything familiar. The exchange year taught me a great deal about being self-dependent and proactive in my everyday life. These were crucial skills to learn at that age, as they defined the quality and success of all my future endeavors, including going to the university in a foreign country, settling in New York on my own, traveling to China and Rwanda alone, and so forth. These skills have also proven to be very useful in my career development, because in the current economic situation (and in my professional field) little can be achieved if one does not know how and where to look for the next opportunity, be it an internship, a job, or a simple network connection.
Current Work: I have recently dedicated most of my time to working on the project called University Without Borders (Университет без границ; http://universitetbezgraniz.ru/). The main goal of the project is to bring affordable liberal arts-style online education to the Russian public. UWB offers 6 to 8 week online courses across multiple academic disciplines that are built around tight collaboration between the instructor and the students. It also runs a web-discussion series that is free to the public. The project is still very young, but it has been growing steadily since its inception in 2012 with major developments on the horizon.
Current Highlights: As Program Manager I get to participate in many aspects of the organizational development of the project, from basic online content generation and management to strategic planning, networking with major partners, and grant writing. Such an all-encompassing involvement in a social enterprise from the very start has allowed me to learn a great deal about organizational development and program management, as well as the ways in which today’s technology can be used to promote development in emerging economies through online education.
Recent Experience: In the past I also worked for a social enterprise called Eos Visions (they are currently in the process of rebranding and re-emerging under a new name, Global Engagement Institute, or GEI) in Rwanda. This organization works towards delivering sustainable social development solutions through capacity building responses and experiential learning programs. The largest project I was involved in with them was a research project on the state of healthcare in Rwanda/EAC and global trends in healthcare. It was a challenging, yet very exciting research project because I was able to learn a lot about the healthcare priorities in Rwanda and neighboring countries, as well as global health policies that are currently debated at the highest levels of the UN (particularly in terms of post-2015 development agenda). Based on my research, I was able to give recommendations to the GEI management in terms of what programs in healthcare should be developed and/or further strengthened.
Past Highlights: While living and studying in New York, I was able to intern with some of the world’s most prominent human rights and humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International and the International Rescue Committee. The work I did with the latter is the dearest to me. I began as an intern for the IRC NY Youth Program in the summer of 2011 and eventually progressed to be a paid member of their Refugee Youth Summer Academy administrative team in the summer of 2013. I count this position as my most important professional achievement and as one of the most meaningful jobs I’ve ever had. RYSA runs for six weeks every summer and helps over 100 recently-resettled refugees (ages 4 to 20) to prepare both academically and socially for the entrance into the NYC public schools system in September. Because the program is short yet very rich with academic and extra-curricular activities, you have to give 100% to RYSA every day. In other words, during those 6 weeks making the Academy work for students becomes the most important thing in your life. I will always consider working for the IRC Youth Program, and particularly RYSA 2013, as one of the most significant experiences I have ever had.
Current Concerns: There are many things about today’s Russian society that worry me greatly. Speaking in broad terms, many of these concerns come down to the indifference that is prevalent in Russian society towards many societal issues, including LBGTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, and rights of the disabled. This is not to say that indifferent and negative sentiments on many similar issues don’t exist in the West – they do. However, I think that because the Russian education system lacks a rigorous training in critical thinking, many more people are susceptible to what can be called the fear of the other, i.e. fear of someone who is not like you, be it members of LGBTQ communities, immigrants, disabled, “Western” influencers, non-Christians, and the list goes on. Therefore, it seems that large parts of the society, comprised primarily of people who in one way or another do not fall under the mainstream definition of “normal”, are left neglected and often abused, which is painful to see. There is no clear quick way to bring any meaningful change to systematic negligence and abuse across all levels of society.
Message to FLEX Alumni: Since we live in the age of globalization, being closely attuned to the world around us, being aware of it in its all vastness and diversity, and being an active part of global networks is of great importance. Languages, travel experience, and courage to face the new and the unexplored are what allows people to become active global citizens in this day and age.