First Months In America:
An Exchange Student’s Experiences
By Alex Haglund
Editor’s Note: The Nashville News first reported on Ukrainian exchange student Maksym Kuzhdin coming to Nashville as part of the PAX exchange program in early August. Later that month, we published a story by Kuzhdin talking about his first experiences here. Since that time, we’ve gotten to know Maksym or “Maks” more through a few visits to our office, including a job shadowing day for his NCHS English II class. The Nashville News spoke with Kuzhdin to find out about his experiences in the U.S. so far.
Maksym Kuzhdin comes to the United States from the city of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, which at a population of over 650,000, is about twice the size of St. Louis.
Maksym stays with a host family selected through the Pax program. His host father is Tom Speedie of Nashville, and his host brother is Tom’s son, Graham, who also attends NCHS.
According to Kuzhdin, home life with the Speedies is quieter and more reserved than home life with his family in Ukraine, where his household includes his mother and father, two sisters, 12 and 14, and a brother, 10.
Maks speaks three languages– first, Ukrainian. Next, because of Ukraine’s geographic location and former status as a Soviet client state, he knows Russian as well, as many Ukrainians do. Finally, because of his wish to travel to America, he knows English as well.
In fact, Maks’ interest in coming had him making two attempts. The first was more than a year ago, and when he was not selected to take part in the program, he studied English more on his own and reapplied.
Out of about 11,000 people who apply to the exchange program, only about two-percent are selected. The payoff for his determination is that the experiences Maks is getting during his time here are many and varied.
In classes, the program stipulated that Kuzhdin took English II, American History and Government. Maks’ elective courses include Web Design, Psychology and Band.
“Every single lesson is different kinds of fun for me,” said Kuzhdin.
Government was exciting to Maks because he has been involved in a number of civic and non-governmental organizations at home.
He was not originally excited about history class, because in Ukraine, it’s just learning dates and biographies. Here, “it’s more colorful, covering different eras more and seeing how it actually effects people,” he said.
For English, Maks says that while he has been learning English to one degree or another since he was in second grade, classes in Ukraine focused mainly on written rules than on use or pronunciation.
For his elective courses, Maks enjoys web design and psychology, but band is what really speaks to him.
Music is nothing new, Kuzhdin said, and he plays several instruments, but when he played at home, “we just sat there.” Marching band is completely new, and having that coordinated movement going on while playing, “it’s a real show!” he said excitedly.
“I’m really enjoying football games when I’m playing with the band,” he goes on, adding, “and not just playing, but when we’re cheering from the bleachers.” Kuzhdin said that he enjoyed the post-game parties, “the fifth quarter”, too.
Out of school, traveling around with the Speedies has given Maks a number of experiences as well – they’ve taken trips all around Illinois and in St. Louis this fall.
One interesting trip Kuzhdin mentioned was a tour of Springfield and the state capitol with other exchange students. At one point, the students were hosted by State Representative Charlie Meier (R-108, Okawville), and a fire alarm in the capitol had them evacuating the building.
In addition to that excitement, Maks says that her ran into an exchange student on the trip who hailed from Turkmenistan, and the two of them were able to talk some in Russian.
This experience also had Maksym commenting about what a jumble is going on inside of his head right now, with him using Ukrainian, English and Russian.
“It’s insane,” he said, “I can’t speak any of the languages fluently.”
In terms of overall experiences here in the United States, Kuzhdin is very positive. He is enjoying himself a lot and is learning a lot.
He is taken aback by how much we use cars here for even short trips. In Ukraine, he said, every village would have at least one regular bus. Here, he says he only really has seen public transit in St. Louis.
“Ecology is…not great here,” Maksym stated, saying he was puzzled by the U.S. decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords.
Other things, particularly about Nashville, stand out to him. Friendliness and trust for one.
On the evening that he was interviewed, Kuzhdin rode his bike by The Nashville News office after school. Gesturing to it leaning against the front of the building, Maks said that were he at home, if he left his bike out like that without locking it, it would disappear pretty quickly.
A subject that might be both a good and bad experience about America for Maksym (depending on how much is eaten), is the food here.
“The most unusual food here is probably fried Snickers,” Maksym said, referring to an item he tried at a Fall Festival food booth.
While we had been given a heads-up from that Maks had some spicy experiences with some American foods, what we were not prepared for was that he has something of a sweet-tooth.
Maksym said that they don’t have peanut butter, or at least no peanut butter candy to speak of, back home. “I love peanut butter reese and M&Ms,” Maks said, “and I will miss them.”
“I like American donuts too,” he added, saying that he was fond of a lemon cream donut that Gutzler’s made.
His parents, he says, typically live very healthy and feed him and his siblings healthy food. A hamburger, for instance, might only be eaten once or twice a year there, he said. “I don’t tell them how I eat here,” he smiles. “My food experience here has been really, really great.”
Editor’s Note Two: On Maksym’s job shadowing day, we had some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Ski for him. To the Kuzhdin parents, we’re sorry for reinforcing bad habits.