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College of Education > News and Publications > 2015: 10-12 news > Life as an immigrant inspires book

Life as an immigrant inspires book

From Russia to Israel to America, Katerina Bodovski has encountered many experiences in her lifetime. She is now sharing those experiences with others in her new book.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up and attending school in Moscow before studying sociology in Israel and, eventually, the United States, Katerina Bodovski always knew she’s encountered some interesting life experiences. But she never imagined she’d be able to share those experiences with those outside of her classroom. 

Bodovski baby photo
Even as a toddler in Moscow, Katerina Bodovski says she always had something to say.

“I had this idea and thought about writing something but I thought that was crazy,” she said. “I’m not old enough to write a memoir and I’m not a celebrity. Who is going to read it? So I dismissed the idea.”

It wasn’t until her son told her she had “an interesting story” that she finally gave into the notion of writing a book. Years after initial thoughts about writing a book crossed her mind, “Across Three Continents: Reflections on Immigration, Education, and Personal Survival” was published in October.

“When a 13-year-old kid tells you that, it means something,” she said.

Bodovski, an associate professor of educational theory and policy at Penn State, has had the opportunity to experience three different educational systems in three different languages in her lifetime. A Russian native, she grew up in the Communist Soviet Union, with Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power when she was 12. Back then, it was not uncommon for the extended families to live together in small apartments because renting or buying property was not permitted; it was given by the state, she said.

“You hear former Soviet citizens, both within and outside of Russia, say, ‘Yeah but we weren’t communist. We didn’t believe that so that didn’t affect us,’” Bodovski said. “I disagree. I strongly believe that the circumstances under which your life unfolds, defined by time and place, are crucial to what is going on in your home or in your classroom. It does matter a great deal.”

Time and place is what shapes biography, Bodovski said. “It shapes who we are.”

And so Bodovski began writing about her own life, applying the sociological perspective she knows as a researcher to her own experiences.

After graduating high school in Russia, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, where she lived for 10 years. During that time, the country attempted a peace process; however, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and violence between the Israelis and Palestinians resumed. Bodovski later moved to Pennsylvania to earn her doctorate at Penn State, University Park. While at Penn State, she witnessed America’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the aftermath that followed. Bodovski experienced it all as an immigrant and a student.

Bodovki t-shirt
A 10-year-old Katerina Bodovski sports an American t-shirt during a summer vacation to the Ukraine in 1982, nine years before she learned to speak English and could understand the meaning of "happy times."
“Here are these three countries and educational systems that I have first-hand experience in,” Bodovski said. “Each one is situated in very different cultural and political contexts.   And as a researcher who studies the sociology of education, I talk about my experiences in these countries through the lenses of a sociological perspective.”

“Across Three Continents: Reflections on Immigration, Education, and Personal Survival” is a crossover of autobiographical narrative and sociological analysis. In the book, Bodovski connects the dots between the life she has led, the experiences she has had and the research she has conducted for more than 15 years.

“In my book, I talk about my experiences in these countries and use the sociological lens to explore how the social, cultural, historical, economical circumstances have shaped what went on in the classrooms and in the homes,” Bodovski said.

“Writing the book was very emotional,” she said, adding that Penn State plays a major role in the book because the University has been the pinnacle of all her experiences. Immediately after earning her doctorate from the College of the Liberal Arts, she was hired as an assistant professor of Educational Theory and Policy, a job that she said was a dream come true. In 2013, she was promoted to the rank of associate professor and in 2014 became professor-in-charge of the Comparative and International Education program.

“When I was writing my book, I thought of Edward Frenkel’s memoir called Love and Math,” Bodovski said, referring to another former Russian citizen. “He called his book a ‘platonic love letter to math’ because of his passion for math and wanting everybody to learn it. So, quite seriously, my book is a platonic love letter to Penn State. It is why I was able to write this book.”

By Jessica Buterbaugh (November 2015)