CENTERBURG — “Coming to the United States, the hardest thing I had to learn was English,” said Russian emigrant Yelena Arishina, Ohio’s 2009 Junior Miss from Centerburg. Arishina and her sister, Marina, and their mother, whose name is also Marina, arrived in the United States in 2001 after Arishina’s mother married Greg Myers.
Eleven years old and entering the fifth grade at Centerburg Elementary School, Arishina skipped a year of school as she couldn’t understand a word of English. But teachers and fellow students immediately accepted her as a friend, and rallied to help the new girl from Russia. They drew pictures of objects and animals in order to help her learn words. Her stepfather also helped her at home with reading and words.
Arishina said adjusting her brain to the language was a big help. She joined the volleyball team, and her teammates and coach, Susan Sally, also helped her with words and phrases.
She learned rapidly. Eight years later she is an intelligent, vibrant, accomplished young woman, who on Saturaday graduated second in her class from Centerburg High School. She will reach her 19th birthday July 3. She speaks near-flawless English and, she said with some amusement, that her English includes American slang.
Arishina was born in 1990 in Nalchik near the Caspian Sea on the southern tip of Russia. The two young girls and their parents lived in a two-room apartment on the ground floor of a five-story apartment building. For this average family, it was a comfortable, happy time in a city of 800,000 people, with the Caspian Mountains nearby.
Everyone walked; schools and stores were nearby, but public transportation — trolleys, buses and minvans — were always available. A trip in a minivan cost five rubles. For comparison, the exchange rate today is about 30 rubles to the dollar. Classes in schools were divided, with classes from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.; other students then attended from 1 to 7 p.m. Students wore uniforms to school.
Sports were in clubs, not in schools as in the United States. Russia, said Arishina, is culturally diverse; music, dancing and theater play a big part in Russian life. The girls took music lessons and Arishina studied the violin. Their mother is a professional musician, a concert pianist and a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory of Music. She now teaches music at Gahanna Lincoln High School. The family had a piano in its apartment, a German piano liberated by an uncle in the Russian Army. And Marina says, it is a very good instrument.
Their father was a soldier, and then a police officer and detective. In 1998, while on a secret mission searching for terrorists in the mountains, his squad was ambushed. Attemping to help the men in his squad escape, Arishina’s father was shot and killed. For his heroism, he was awarded the Russian Medal of Honor. He was within one day of promotion as a police officer.
A brother of Arishina’s mother lives in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and is a friend of Myers, who wanted to tour Russia. He met Arishina’s mother on the trip; just before 9/11 they were married in Moscow. Getting the paperwork done for the family to come to the United States was quite a hassel, Myers recalls. But with the help of the offices of Sen. George Voinovich and Congressman Mike Oxley, Myers said he and his new family came to the United States.
Arishina recalls she was excited and a little scared about her new adventure. They landed in New York a week after 9/11 where Myers met them for the car trip to Ohio. The trip was different than she had expected. Instead of big cities, she said, there were hours of driving over the Appalachian Mountains and across miles of American farmland.
Established in school, she said one of her teachers, Phyillis Love, was a big influence in helping her learn English. And, of course, music was important. She liked the sound of trumpets, and didn’t want to play a “girlie instrument” like the flute or clairnet. But braces interfered with playing the trumpet, so she participated in the marching band flag corps. With braces out of the way, she went back to the trumpet, emerging last year as first trumpet in the marching and concert bands, with the boys, she said with a smile, as second trumpet.
But her mom wanted her to learn the piano, so she is now accomplished at the keyboard. Her list of activities is long, including studying Spanish as another language, being president of her junior class and managing editor of the school newspaper, the Trojan Crier.
“I didn’t want to be president of the senior class because they have to arrange all the reunions,” she said.
Her sister followed a similar course through high school. She will be a senior studying English at Jacksonville University in Florida, where she is a member of the rowing team.
Arishina is a two-year member of the National Honor Society and is a student council member, pitched softball and was a member of the swim team. As a junior, she attended Buckeye Girls State at Ashland College, where she was elected director of the Department of Transportation. She has taken three college courses for entry into college. A long list of hobbies include photography, swimming and running, writing poetry and shooting sporting clays with her stepdad.
Last fall she entered the Knox County Junior Miss Scholarship program, and was named Greater Knox County Junior Miss. In February, at the Ohio Junior Miss program in Mount Vernon, she was chosen Ohio’s Junior Miss. This weekend she will go to Mobile, Ala., to participate in Amercia’s Junior Miss. The program will be June 25 through 27. Her college career will be at Troy State, Ala., which offers full scholarships to state Junior Miss winners. She plans to study international relations and business.