Excited for a new life, anxious about the unknown, overwhelmed by how much busier and bigger everything seemed — Svilena Bochukova felt it all as a fourth-grader whose family was settling into their new American life after immigrating from Bulgaria.
She also remembers how badly her hand ached.
Three months later, she began fifth grade proficient in the formerly foreign language.
Svilena, an only child who lived with her parents on Chicago’s Northwest side for a few years before they moved to Des Plaines, didn’t speak a lick of English. So she spent that first summer copying 100 words a day at least 20 times apiece until they stuck.
And eight years later, the 18-year-old is preparing to move to Cambridge, Mass., to begin her freshman year at Harvard University.
“I honestly believe that if you’re willing to work hard, you can achieve anything,” Svilena said. “I saw how persevering and immersing myself in learning English resulted in progress, and that compels me to continually try to grow.”
Svilena recently graduated from Maine West High School, where her she assembled a resume that made her a shoo-in for the Ivy League.
In addition to scoring a perfect 36 on her ACT college entrance exam, Svilena was class salutatorian and won Maine Township High School District 207’s Best in Academic Excellence and Community Service award.
Then there’s the second- and third-place regional Math Team finishes, her DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) project that resulted in a donation of 3,000 cans of food to the local food pantry, as well as her involvement in track, cross country, yearbook, Amnesty International, Student Council, tutoring, election judging ... well, the list goes on and on.
“Svilena is an amazing young lady, both in and out of the classroom,” Maine West Principal Audrey Haugan said. “She is among the best I have ever met in my 26 years in education.
Even more extraordinary than her achievements, however, is her investment in each undertaking.
Svilena truly loves to learn. She welcomes new challenges that expose her limits so she can push past them. She wants to inspire and be inspired.
During a junior year physics lab, Svilena submitted corrections to improve her work despite already holding a 98 percent in the class. Classmates laughed, but Svilena doesn’t get why everyone wouldn’t take the same opportunity.
“It’s not about being obsessed with a grade,” she said. “It’s about seeking a deeper understanding in the concept.”
In some ways, Svilena feels she has no other choice than to wholly commit herself.
Though parents Stetoslav and Stela have never pressured her, Svilena knows they left a comfortable life in Bulgaria so she’d have more opportunities. Previously both educators, they now work as a construction worker and kindergarten teacher, respectively.
“That selflessness is inspiring to me, and I always have their sacrifice in the back of my head,” Svilena said. “I’ve met a lot of kids who don’t know how good they have it here, but I can’t afford to be that way.”
To spend more time with her parents before heading off to Harvard, she decided to stay in Des Plaines this summer waiting tables at a local country club instead of going back to Bulgaria as she always has.
Once Svilena gets to the 375-year-old university, she’ll consider majoring in government and statistics to prepare for a possible career with the World Bank. She wants to promote micro-financing in impoverished areas, provide financial assistance to refugees and empower immigrants to succeed.
She’s seen firsthand how international resources can lead to opportunities, and vividly remembers the expression on her parents’ faces after finally getting their green card following years of not getting picked in the visa lottery.
“My friends joke that I have a career of the week because I’ve changed my mind so much, but I know I don’t want to chase a profit, be famous or have a lot of power,” Svilena said. “I do want to see everything and do something to touch as many people as possible.”
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