Viktoriia Kovtun shares her story: From Ukraine to Boone, banking to Honors, challenge to success

Viktoriia Kovtun joined the Honors College on August 1, 2023, as the business officer and executive assistant to the dean. The Honors College is thrilled to welcome Kovtun (’20) to this position and our community. Kovtun was born and spent most of her life in Kharkiv, Ukraine. She earned a master’s degree in banking from Kharkiv National University of Economics in 2012, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from App State in May of 2020, with an International Leadership Certificate following that. In January of 2018, she moved to Boone, North Carolina, and the United States with her husband, Dr. Andrew Polonsky, when he accepted a position in App State’s Department of Computer Science. After arriving in Boone, Kovtun took courses at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (CCC&TI) to improve her language and math skills. She eventually passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Records Examinations (GRE) in order to be admitted to App State’s Walker College of Business’ MBA program. 

Kovtun brings skill, wisdom, positivity, compassion, and humanity to our Honors community. In what follows, she reflected on the state of the world, and emphasized the importance of knowledge, mutual respect, cooperation, support, and kindness. She stated,

“Our world is beautiful but at the same time we are living during harsh times. It is almost the year 2024 but we are still witnessing genocidal wars, we see millions of kids dying from malnutrition, abuse and neglect; we still have pandemics, uncured diseases, and the climate crisis. We still see countries where girls are given to men without their consent, countries where women cannot vote, study, or be who they are — they are not even considered equal human beings. We are still witnessing racism and discrimination. I am from Ukraine, where people are giving their lives right now for freedom. Freedom is the most essential part of human lives that makes it impossible to live without. Many people don’t have freedom, while in so many places it is taken for granted. I can go on and on, but you all know this without me. There is only one way to make our planet a better place – to have more educated people. Knowledge gives you compassion, knowledge develops your empathy, knowledge gives you the ability to question everything and to search for the truth, knowledge gives you the ability to see what is broken, but most importantly, knowledge gives you an ability to make good changes and accept them. Regardless of anything — I still believe in humanity. I believe that our cooperation, mutual respect, support and kindness will help us to go through the dark times and we will build a world where everyone will feel like home.”

This is the perspective Kovtun brings to her work, to Honors students, and our Honors College community. Below, Kovtun shares her full story in detail; it is one Honors students, especially, will want to read! First, here are the take-aways — the gems in her words, life, and story:

  • Knowledge is a powerful tool that could help you to become a professional
  • Never say “never.”
  • One cannot interact with people if one cannot understand their language
  • Getting a degree is one of the smartest decisions… Getting a degree is easy to say, but not so easy to do.
  • Use your education to learn, integrate, build community, and make connections
  • Pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone is very rewarding
  • My English skills skyrocketed in a very short time [living and studying in the United States]. 
  • Be grateful and rely on supportive teachers, your academic mentors, and attend office hours
  • You will always get help at App State!
  • Practice makes perfect and hard situations teach you how to find a way to overcome challenges.
  • Good intentions, believing in yourself, hard work, and determination will always bring the desired outcomes.

Kovtun is incredibly well-suited for her new position, bringing knowledge and experience along with a willingness and ability to support not only the College in our budget and management, but also Honors students in working to complete their international education requirements, Honors thesis submissions, and the day-to-day challenges of Honors education. Her story below illustrates why she is such a great fit by reinforcing the mission and strengths of Honors education at App State. She shared,

 “I was born and spent most of my life in Kharkiv, Ukraine. All my memories about Ukraine are very warm and happy — I had a great childhood and I am very grateful for this. Even though I lived in a big city, I spent most of my summer vacations with my grandparents who lived in a small village with a river. They had a farm with plenty of chicken, ducks, rabbits, pigs, goats, and cows; they grew their own vegetables and fruits. Did I mention that they had cats and dogs? What a paradise for a child! Since today this place is my “power” place. Me and my family always gather there when I come to Ukraine to visit them. I have a very big, loud — a bit crazy — but very loving and supportive family that I am missing daily. 

Even though I always was a country girl in my heart, I lived in a big city and I planned to have a career in a bank there. I am the type of a person who cannot work from home. Home for me is purely for relaxation. I need to get up in the morning, go to the shower, do some makeup, dress up and run to the office to be productive. I am also an overthinker. This is why I like to have clear tasks to perform and policies that I can follow to make sure that I did everything correctly. Working in the bank checked all those boxes. 

I applied to the Kharkiv National University of Economics and got my master’s degree in banking. It was an interesting experience to be a student there. It was a free education which is a plus, but I felt like I didn’t have enough support to go through the whole process of getting a degree. Students didn’t have mentors — we were the ones who had to make sure that we were on track with everything, and if one failed exams, it was very easy to get expelled. But being a student there gave me a lot. This was a place where I learned how to quickly digest huge amounts of information and how to distill the most important thoughts from the large number of words. It also gave me the understanding that knowledge is a powerful tool that could help you to become a professional in what you are doing. 

I started to work in the bank while I was getting my master’s degree and I absolutely loved it. It was very challenging, I would even say hard, but I truly enjoyed it. I loved to work with people, I had wonderful colleagues, and I felt excited about my new responsibilities. It was my first job and it gave me the feeling of independence and freedom. I was very happy where I was in my life and I never planned to live somewhere outside Ukraine. Well, never say “never.” My life completely changed when I met my future husband. 

My husband Andrew is Ukrainian, but he moved to the U.S. when he was 14 years old. He got his master’s degree at the University of Connecticut, and then moved to Norway to get his Ph.D. He lived in Europe for a big part of his life. We met each other in Ukraine when he came to visit his father and friends, and we have been together since. 

In December 2014, I moved with my future husband to Paris. It was a huge step for me and a very uneasy decision. I left my family, friends, my career, my whole life in Ukraine! I was 24 years old and had to start everything over. At first it was amazing – we lived in Paris, we could travel often, and we visited so many countries in Europe. But with time I came up with one very important question: What next? What will my future here look like? I couldn’t get to the university [in Paris] because they never had a place for me. France provides a free education and to get into the University in Paris is almost impossible because so many people want to study there. I also didn’t have a right to work there with my visa status. We had to change our apartment constantly because it was almost impossible to find a long-term rental. Overall, we didn’t feel very welcome there, and after three years of living in Paris, we came up with a decision that we need to move on. 

My husband always wanted to come back to the U.S. He loves this country with all his heart, he considers it his home, and I feel like his mentality is more American than Ukrainian because he grew up here. When we lived in Paris, he kept telling me that he wants to go back to the U.S. because it is a place where he feels most comfortable and happy. As for me, the U.S. was like a different planet. All I knew about the U.S. was learned from movies, music, and TV shows. I understood that I will have to start everything over again in a different continent, different country, in a different language, and in a different culture. But the hardest realization was that I would be divided from my family in Ukraine by the Atlantic Ocean and a seven-hour time difference. 

With all of that in my head, we landed in Charlotte in January of 2018. My husband got a position in the Department of Computer Science at App State. We had never been to North Carolina, and had never heard of Boone. I had only visited my husband's family in Connecticut, and that was my only experience of ever being in the states. When we took a Hickory hop shuttle to get to Boone, the driver was very curious about our accent and our story of how we ended up in Boone. He and my husband talked almost all the way back to Boone. I was trying to participate in the conversation but I couldn’t understand a word. My heart sank – I came to the US thinking that I could understand and speak English. But I started to question how I would interact with people here if I couldn’t understand them?

But when we arrived in Boone, it was love at first sight. I was taken away by the beauty of nature, I was touched by the kindness of people, and for the first time in a long time, I had the same feeling that I had when I visited my grandparents’ village when I was a child. I realized that this is the place where I could feel like home, but in order to stay here and to make it my home, I have to work hard. And I should start to do it right away. 

When I came to Boone, I didn’t have my green card and I could not work. I decided not to waste my time, and to pursue a degree from App State. I think that getting a degree was one of the smartest decisions I ever made in my life. It helps one to quickly learn the language, integrate into the community, meet people and build useful connections. 

Getting a degree is easy to say, but not so easy to do. I honestly thought that this was as possible for me as getting to the top of Mount Everest – I thought I would never be able to do it. English was not my first language, I didn't know anyone, I was still adjusting to a new life and new culture. I remembered how hard it was to get my master’s degree in Ukraine. I was not ready to go back to school at 28 years old. One of the hardest challenges I faced started at the very beginning. In order to even be able to apply to the program I had to pass the TOEFL (English exam that lasts three hours) and GMAT (three hours of math tests).

I studied for those exams by taking classes at Caldwell Community College (CCC&TI) to improve my language and math skills. I think without this important step, I wouldn’t be able to pass those tests. In my English class, I had to read a lot and write essays every single day. I really don’t like to write —- this is not my strong side. But pushing myself out of my comfort zone every single day was very rewarding: My English skills skyrocketed in a very short time. 

I also cannot be more grateful for the support of my teachers that I had at CCC&TI. It was the first time that I realized how important and helpful it is to have an academic mentor and have an opportunity to meet your professors during office hours. It not only helped me to succeed academically it also helped me to build a relationship with my teachers and get amazing recommendation letters when I applied to the MBA program.   

After one semester at CCC&TI, I successfully passed the TOEFL test, but I failed my GMAT test. It was very depressing knowing the amount of time I spent preparing for it, but it only pushed me forward to my goal. I decided that I would get into the MBA program and nothing in the world could stop me from it. I went back to CCC&TI for one more semester, and I decided to take the GRE test instead of GMAT. I will never forget the feeling when I saw my results and realized that I got the necessary score to apply for App State’s MBA program. My second big victory was that I got accepted to the program. 

My journey in the Business School was anything but boring. The first couple weeks felt like a rollercoaster — my mood shifted from the excitement to a panic attack in a second. Sometimes I didn’t understand what my professors said, sometimes I just blanked out in the middle of my question because all my English words just flew out of my head. Sometimes I had to repeat myself a few times because my peers or teachers could not understand my accent and I wondered: Did they not understand my pronunciation or did I say something stupid or inappropriate?

The real nightmare was the written tests. When working on the computer, the program gives you suggestions on how to write the word and helps you with grammar. But on the handwritten test, I did not have that option available. The Ukrainian alphabet is completely different from English; even the sentence building in Ukrainian is different from English. But practice makes perfect and hard situations teach you how to find a way to overcome challenges. I finished my first semester in the MBA program with all As, and I could never have been more proud of myself. 

What I love about App State is that students always get help here. I would never be able to graduate without the support of people who worked in this University. No one ever refused to help me, no one turned their back on me, and I never had a rude response for any of my questions or requests. I had such unique and amazing students in my MBA program to share my educational experience and work on projects with! They were funny, creative, supportive, understanding and willing to help. We always laughed during our study sessions, and complained about business and sleep deprivation. But, we always had a way to help each other to achieve our goals and get the degree we all wanted.    

I graduated from the MBA program in May 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. The whole world tried to figure out how to live this “new normal” and I decided that since we all shifted to a virtual reality, I would probably have to go back to school again. I chose to complete App State’s online International Leadership Certificate Program. It was virtual not because of the pandemic, but because we had to lead an international group of people who lived in different parts of the world, and we had to work together on the same project. People from my group lived in different continents, had absolutely different time zones, and the hardest part of all of it was that each had a very different level of English as well. This program leveled up my communication and organizational and leadership skills so much that I literally felt like a new person.

App State gave me new perspectives, new opportunities, new me; I love this place with all my heart. This is why I decided that I want to work here. It found this a great opportunity to pay back to the community that was so welcome and supportive during my integration into my new life. Additionally, I would work with people with whom I am connected in so many ways.

To find a job that I wanted at the University was not as easy as I thought. But I am the person who does not easily give up on my dreams and who believes that good intentions, believing in yourself, hard work and determination will always bring the desired outcomes.  And it did work again indeed — I got a Business Officer position at the Honors College. My first job in the United States! In 2021, I also became a mom — One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me. Being a mom and combining your professional life could be challenging, but I am glad that I am managing to find this balance and to be happy. I really want to be a good example to my son and show with my own example that you can have both — family and professional career.  

I am so happy to wake up in the morning and I say 'thank you' that I go to a job that I love.  It is a huge luck to work with people who share your values, whom you can trust, and who are passionate about what they are doing. I felt it when I was a student, and I know it now as an Honors College employee — people are working here to give students the best academic experience possible. We want everybody to succeed but we also want the students to enjoy this journey and take the most of it.”  

If you have not already, please be sure to introduce yourself to Viktoriia when you are in the Honors College. You can also click here to view Kovtun’s biography and schedule and appointment. We are grateful you are part of the Honors College community!

Top photo features (left to right) Viktoriia Kovtun, Dr. Polonsky, and their son, Ronnie. Photo submitted.

Published: Nov 7, 2023 12:49pm