Graduation day for father, daughter

Ukrainian immigrants receive nursing degrees from Towson University

January 10, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When Yuliya Korkh, a 22-year-old Ukrainian refugee, sat down to decipher her textbooks on nursing, she had an unlikely study partner -- her father.

Yesterday, father and daughter graduated from Towson University with nursing degrees, ending a six-year odyssey that began when they fled their native country with $200, a little English and a lot of hope.

"Do I look great?" asked Leonid Korkh, 47, modeling his mortarboard yesterday in his Northwest Baltimore apartment.

"Father and daughter, same hats," Yuliya answered with a grin.

Theirs is not a story of miracles, even considering that the two managed to plow through complicated medical textbooks while learning English.

It is more a tale of hard-fought goals, sacrifice and survival.

Leonid Korkh had a job as a biologist with a government research institute in Ukraine but decided to leave in 1994 because of a growing bias against Jews after the dismantling of the former Soviet Union.

When the family arrived here, wife and mother Larisa Korkh became the main breadwinner. She worked nine-hour shifts taking care of three elderly Russian women, walking to work so the other two could drive to school, waiting to learn English until her family was educated and employed.

"As her husband, I am grateful to her," Leonid said. "She is a very courageous woman. Now we will try to give her the opportunity to study."

Leonid and Yuliya pitched in where they could. Between the two of them, they have held at least a half-dozen part-time jobs. Leonid first blanketed apartment buildings with fliers for take-out pizza. Then he washed cars and worked in the meat department of a kosher supermarket.

Yuliya baby-sat, cleaned houses, worked at a dry-cleaner and at a library.

They entered nursing school a semester apart, but soon were in the same classes, sitting next to each other, swapping notes. They found two other Ukrainians in the 30-student nursing class and a study group was formed.

"When I'm at home, I feel like he's my father, but when I am at school, I feel like he's my classmate," Yuliya says.

"Same for me," her father responded.

Before each exam, the four Ukrainians would gather at the library or the Korkh apartment. They had only one rule: no English. They explained complex medical theories to each other in Russian and drank hot tea as they struggled through chemistry, anatomy and pediatrics.

The Korkhs graduated with impressive grades -- all A's and B's -- and Yuliya has a job at Northwest Medical Center in Randallstown. Her father has a job interview this week.

"It's a very exciting moment in our lives," Leonid Korkh said. "We've made a very big step toward our future."

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