As a first-generation Ukrainian-American, Sophia Datsko has been navigating her way through life with her own compass. Balancing traditional Ukrainian culture and the societal push to assimilate into contemporary American style, Datsko has embraced both sides with style, making her own brand.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Datsko was immersed in her heritage since birth. From tags at the grocery store to the hymns in church, everything was in Ukrainian. Surrounded by Ukrainian culture, Datsko did not learn English until she entered public school at the age of six. The language barrier wasn’t a set back for too long before Datsko was striving for flawless marks every year.
The push for perfect grades was as much external as it was internal. Datsko specifically cites pressure from her mother to give 110%.
“The push to always do your best in school, I think, comes from immigrant parents across the board,” Datsko says. “They demand excellence and perfection.”
This determination has led to a lifetime of motivation. “Since I could remember, I knew what my future was going to look like,” she says. “And that was: to work hard, to be successful, to get a good-paying job and then, to take that and hopefully give back to my family, since they are the ones that moved here and raised me.”
There is a downside to the consistent pressure to aim for excellence.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “Sometimes it can be the most overwhelming stress ever.”
Datsko was the first member of her family to go to college. Navigating applications, standardized testing, financial responsibilities and housing all fell on her shoulders while working as the family translator. Her perseverance didn’t stop with her acceptance letter, either. With countless nights spent sleeping at the library and multiple jobs on top of extracurriculars and school, Datsko seems to be doing it all.
When people ask me how I do it, I don’t know, I have to do it. I mean, that’s life. I have no choice, I have no one to fall back on but myself.
Although the stress can be overwhelming to handle at times, Datsko sees it as a blessing in disguise.
“I attribute my hard work ethic, my ability to do well in school, my 4.0, my involvement in extracurriculars, all of that to my Ukrainian heritage,” Datsko says.
Since realizing the blessing of her Ukrainian identity her love for her culture has only grown. “My time at Penn State definitely strengthened my love and appreciation for my heritage, just because I’ve met so many different people,” she says. “I have met generational Americans, first-generation Americans, international students and more.”
Her love for diversity between cultures and her pride in her heritage has influenced her schooling. Datsko is a current junior double majoring in political science and international and global studies. She loves learning about the similarities and nuances of other cultures: “I have a deep appreciation of a person and a person’s story.”
Fluent in English, Ukrainian and Russian, her ability to communicate with a variety of people helps inside and outside the classroom. “It’s such an asset to know a second language, not just from an academic perspective, but socially,” she says. “There’s respect and people are impressed.”
This intrigue of cultural competence and diversity has led Datsko not only into academic interests, but also personal. Datsko’s friend group consists of a variety of cultures and identities, covering every corner of the world.
“My friend group talks about [cultural competence] so often, and that’s why we get along so well. One might think, ‘We represent how many continents, how many cultures, how many religions,’ all those things. But, the commonality there is that we know what it is like to be different.”
Navigating contrasts and finding commonalities has been Datsko’s tool in finding her own identity, and it has made her stronger because of it.
We have different languages, different cultures, different religions. But, we have more similarities than not. At the end of the day, we are all Penn State college students, and I think that’s a very powerful thing.