Long journey leads to Alma
Sophomore Sasha Laykova remembers her Ukrainian roots
Many Division III athletes in the state of Michigan take the same basic path from birth to entrance into college. They are born in the state, raised as a Michigander, go to high school at their local educational facility and then choose a college of their liking to further pursue their academic endeavors.
Not so for Sasha Laykova, sophomore volleyball player at Alma College. Laykova, a 19-year old standout outside hitter for the Scots, was born to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father in the city of Ternopil, Ukraine in 1995.
From there, her life took a path very different than most student athletes in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA). After her parents divorced, Laykova's mother Olga, had to make some decisions regarding the family's future.
Olga Laykova, with the strong desire to give her daughter a chance to live a prosperous life, struck it big with a lottery ticket in Ukraine that allowed the family to move to the United States and pursue the "American Dream".
The Green Card Lottery was a program through the Diversity Lottery that gave out 50,000 immigrant visas every year. The visas were distributed between six geographic regions with a greater number of visas going to regions with lower rates of immigration, and with no visas going to nationals of countries sending more than 50,000 immigrants to the USA over the period of the past five years. Both the person and that person's family were then authorized to legally live and work in the United States.
To be eligible for the Green Card Lottery, one needed to be meet two requirements. The first one is that you or your spouse (or in this case Laykova's mother) needed to be a national of a country eligible to participate in the Green Card Lottery program. The second requirement was receiving a high school diploma or one of the required equivalent.
Olga Laykova won this lottery, fulfilled the requirements (was a volleyball coach in the Division of Sports as well) and moved her young daughter Sasha to the United State in 2001. Ironically, Sasha's uncle won the lottery just four years later and now lives in Atlanta with his family.
Moving to a new country brought some uncertainty. After a couple of stops along the way, including six months in Colorado Springs, Colorado and first grade for Sasha, mom and daughter settled on the Forest Hills region of Grand Rapids.
The adjustment for the young girl from Ukraine was very difficult. She spoke no English, had no friends, and her mother had to work many hours to provide for the two of them. At times, Laykova found it discouraging and confusing.
"When we first moved here, most of my friends were Russian or Bosnian because we all lived in the same neighborhood," said Laykova. "As I met other friends, I couldn't help but know that I was different from them. We didn't have the sleepovers at our place and I didn't even have them over after school.
"I guess it was easier for me to hide from my past instead of trying to explain it to people. My elementary and middle school years were difficult and I had a hard time expressing myself."
In high school at Forest Hills Northern, Laykova was a four-year varsity volleyball player and was honorable mention All-Conference in 2013. She also firmly entrenched herself in many off the court activities such as National Honor Society, Senior Executive Board, Younglife mentoring, tutoring and chorale activities. In other words, she was a typical high-energy, successful high school student.
It was in these years that Laykova came into her own as a young woman and her experiences at Forest Hills really helped her mature and set goals for herself.
"I really enjoyed high school and I believe I gained a lot of confidence in those years," Laykova said. "I wasn't afraid to talk about my early childhood and my friends did not judge me. In fact, they were always fascinated to hear my stories."
Like many high school athletes, Laykova had dreams of playing at the DI or DII level, but injuries curtailed those plans. Scots Head Coach Sarah Dehring had been watching Laykova since the 10th grade, and made sure Sasha felt wanted at the school. So, she chose Alma, two hours to the northeast of home, to continue her education and to play college volleyball.
She is now completing her second season on Alma's varsity squad and maintains a 3.97 GPA in the classroom in the school's renownded IPHS and Chemistry programs. She has dreams of becoming an OB/GYN doctor or a pediatric physician upon graduation. Injuries have been discouraging for Laykova in her two years at Alma, but the good has outweighed the frustrations.
"I have had some ups and downs with volleyball because of my health," Laykova said. "But, being in college is great for many reasons. I do put a lot of pressure on myself as I really keep pushing to be better every day. That can lead to stress and anxiety, but this environment has been great for me in terms of growing as a person."
Yet, with all the excitement and opportunity that her young life enjoys, she has not forgotten her roots and the family and friends left behind in very uncertain times in Ukraine.
For those with an interest in world events, it has been difficult not to hear about the conflict in Ukraine and the effect it has had on the citizens of the former Soviet bloc country. Ternopil is a city in western Ukraine located on the banks of the Seret River and is one of the major cities of the historical region of Galicia.
Laykova's family still has many ties to the region and watch the news of the country with much trepidation and interest. Fortunately, Ternopil has not yet been part of the violent aspects of the situation, but they still have felt the effects of the turmoil very strongly.
Even today, Laykova's Grand Rapids home has Russian television stations that her mother and grandmother watch intently. It has been very difficult for the family to watch the country being "torn up," and much of the past summer Laykova followed and discussed the conflict with them.
"It has been very tough on my family," Laykova said. "They still know many people in Ukraine that are living through all of this. It makes me worried and frustrated, as it seems that they are fighting each other. I am filled with sorrow for all of them and yet, I can't help but to feel very thankful that I am here. I still have good memories of visiting the country when I was in middle school and I would really like to go back someday."
It has now been 13 years since Laykova's mother made the difficult decision to uproot her young daughter and move to a country very far away, not knowing the language and having no money and no job. But, she did it out of love for Sasha and the desire to give her daughter a better opportunity to fulfill her adult dreams.
It is a credit to Sasha that she has embraced that opportunity and is developing into a very impressive young woman with a bright future ahead of her. Yes, she is athletically gifted and is a major asset to the Scots volleyball program. But, there is so much more that she has to offer away from the court and she has embraced that opportunity with great enthusiasm and drive.
It all started in a country many miles away and with a green card lottery ticket that the vast majority of Americans do not even know exists. But, it was a ticket of hope and an opportunity of a better life ahead.