A quick email response proved to be the deciding factor for Sofiya (Sonya) Zybaylova to attend South Dakota State University.
However, State wasn’t her original choice.
“I was admitted to go to Temple University in Philadelphia … I had everything set up,” she said.
Zybaylova then received a call from Temple saying more information was needed and that those documents couldn’t be processed in time for her to attend the fall semester. Zybaylova, a foreign exchange student, remembered her father said if she wasn’t admitted to a university in the United States for the fall semester, she had to return to Tomsk, Siberia, Russia.
“If I would have gone back to Russia, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. I probably would have had to work and I would feel like a disappointment to my parents,” she said. “They sent me away and I would have wasted so much money just to go back home. I would have been a failure. I had to find a way to stay here, but staying legally.”
Knowing the first days of classes were less than a month away, Zybaylova then began applying to several universities, hoping to get accepted.
“I said I will go to any other school that is willing to help me and has a journalism program,” she said. “I knew schools in the Midwest would probably accept people faster because they don’t have as many students … I said wherever I get accepted first, that’s where I am going.”
One day after Zybaylova applied to SDSU, she found her saving grace.
“I got an email from SDSU that they would be willing to help me out. A couple of hours later I got an email from Utah, and I said ‘nope, I made a promise to the first school that accepted me, that’s where I am going to go,’” she said.
She packed her things and moved from Indiana, where her grandmother lives, to Brookings to begin her bachelor’s degree in journalism.
This trip to South Dakota wasn’t the first for Zybaylova. She visited the state as a child.
“The only things that I remembered were Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Bear Country USA. Then we went to Vegas.”
After arriving on campus, she approached Betty Nelson, the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication’s program assistant, to see if she could help out with a departmental project. Nelson pointed Zybaylova in the direction of the Yeager Media Center, where she became a production assistant for television recordings and broadcasts on campus.
“I felt like people really cared about me here, even though I didn’t know anyone,” Zybaylova said.
As a production assistant, Zybaylova helps produce recordings and live broadcasts of “Jackrabbit Insider” and “OnCall with the Prairie Doc.” Production assistants run cameras, technical boards, computer-automated graphics and more while working in a studio setting. The hands-on knowledge she has gained through the Yeager Media Center has helped her help other students become familiar with the studio.
Outside of studio time, Zybaylova said she keeps up with Russian and American news. She said reporting and media guidelines are different between the two countries. She said Russian reporters have been sent to Ukraine and Syria and have been killed while covering the war.
“That is something you don’t really hear people talking about,” she said.
She said media guidelines in Russia are more loose than those in America, but government plays its own role with news.
However, Zybaylova isn’t necessarily looking to become a news reporter in Russia. She hopes to do something that involves international work, using her journalism degree, global studies minor and her two fluent languages.
“You can get so many things out of this degree. You don’t have to be a reporter, you don’t have to work in news.”
The Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College student is looking to get her master’s degree before entering the workforce. She is considering staying in the U.S. or moving to Canada or the United Kingdom to learn about international policies and different forms of government. She is set to graduate in May 2018, which happens to be the next time she plans to see her parents.
“I haven’t seen my parents in four years,” Zybaylova said.
Making trips to Tomsk are tough, taking nearly two days. When she has made the trip, it took four flights. She also lost 13 hours due to time zones.
For the last three years, Zybaylova has called South Dakota home. She said the winter weather in South Dakota and Siberia is different but comparable. She said in Russia, it gets colder, but in South Dakota, it’s windier.
“I have never experienced wind like I have in South Dakota,” she said.
While she misses Russia and her family, she also misses the food. Zybaylova likes to cook and makes traditional Russian recipes.
“Sometimes I feel homesick, but I am used to it by now. I came here for a purpose. It was my choice, I could have got up and left everything, but I chose to be stronger and stay.”