Volume X, Issue 3 | June 12, 2024

Found in Translation 

Patrisia Diaz Maldonado first left Ukraine in 2019 to study economics at SMC. She became invaluable, not just for her fluency in Ukrainian and Russian, but also her ability to make new students—many fleeing the war in Ukraine—feel welcome.

SMC In Focus


Almost every day, Patrisia Maldonado gets a call from someone at Santa Monica College. Sometimes it's Admissions. Other times it's Financial Aid or another department. But the ask is always the same: Can you translate for us?

"Even people who don't know me by name know to call me," says the 21-year-old Ukrainian native. "All they've been told is that there's a student who speaks Russian and Ukrainian who can help."

Patrisia, who graduated this Spring with Associate degrees in General Science (Honors) and IGETC, has become invaluable to SMC, not just for translation services, but her uncanny ability to make new students and their families — many fleeing the war in Ukraine — feel welcome.

"They're here starting from scratch," Patrisia says. "I understand that because I started out like that too. The only difference is that I wasn't forced to move here. I had a choice. They don't." 

Patrisia likes to joke that PowerPoint presentations are needed to explain her educational journey. After leaving Ukraine on her own at age 16, she enrolled at SMC in 2019 to study economics, a major she and her mother had agreed on. But after two semesters, she quickly found herself gravitating toward the sciences.

"I had never thought about my future at that point," Patrisia confesses. "After that, I fell in love with biology."

But then the pandemic arrived, bringing about a speedy — and longer than anticipated — return home. During that two-year break, Patrisia got a job teaching science to sixth graders at a Ukrainian school, an experience that further kindled her desire to pursue her passion in life sciences. So when she returned to SMC in February 2022, she decided it was time to switch majors and focus on a four-year degree in cognitive science.  

Then a friend called one evening and told Patrisia to turn on the news. Her worst fears had come true: Ukraine was under siege. Her mother and sister, all of her friends back home in Kyiv — all of them were now in the middle of a war. It was a terrifying and surreal moment.

"We hear about war all the time," Patrisia says. "But when you see places that are now ruined, places that I used to pass by on my way to school ... So many people I know have died in the past two years. It doesn't feel real, because I'm not there."

But Patrisia knows that war is a reality, especially for her mother, sister and friends back home.

“They’re trying to adjust, trying to live every day like everything’s normal,” she adds. “But when you’re living in the middle of air raids and the curfews, a “normal” life doesn’t feel real. It’s the war that’s very much real.”

Even as she continued with her classes, Patrisia was working hard to get her mother to safety — a task made difficult by her mother's own fearlessness.

"Not once did she say she was scared," recalls Patrisia with a trace of admiration. "I FaceTimed her once, and she was sewing sandbags for the barricades. She told me: ‘What else are we going to do? We've got to prepare.’"

It took some time, but Patrisia finally convinced her mother to visit Los Angeles for a couple of weeks in Spring of 2023; she now lives with Patrisia in her small Santa Monica apartment.

Throughout everything, Patrisia managed to focus on her studies, all while finding ways to immerse herself in the SMC community. Her most cherished memories of campus life include her time with the Cheer Team ("The sweetest, nicest people ever!" she says), her participation in the Inter-Club Council (ICC) — first as a delegate and then as vice president — and her job as an assistant at the Center for Students with Disabilities.

As for the future, Patrisia hopes she'll be able to return home someday.

"My dream would be to open a school in Ukraine," she says wistfully. "And maybe even change the educational system."

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