ALBANY -- Russian Alexander Eliseev first visited the United States as an foreign exchange student when he was 16 years old.
He attended high schools for six months in Salt Lake City and in Arizona on an American Indian reservation.
Having good experiences at both, Eliseev wanted to attend a English-speaking college either in the United States, Canada or Australia. After researching fire science programs in those countries, he stumbled across Albany Technical College.
Although he would have to pay four times the in-state tuition rate, Eliseev was quickly impressed by Albany Tech's price and its state-of-the-art campus.
"I was looking for the cheapest one and a major that is closest to army command and organization," said Eliseev, 19, who grew up about 300 miles south of Moscow in Voronezh.
Since he was interested in joining the U.S. Army, Eliseev said his first choice of study was law enforcement, then it would be either firefighting or emergency medical technician. When he found out U.S. citizenship was needed to study law enforcement and a physical was needed to get into the EMT program, he chose to pursue a fire science degree since he was still in Russia.
"Firefighting has the closest structure to the military and management, I find it to be very useful," he said. "If I ever became an officer it will be very useful."
Eliseev had little interest in serving in the Russian Army and had long wanted to join the U.S. Army.
"I don't like Russia much," he said. "The U.S. (has a) volunteer army. Everyone is drafted into Russian Army for two years. I've heard they don't get paid, they get beat up, and that's not just what I've heard. I know a guy in it who's in the infantry and he only shoots 15 bullets a year, so it's just free labor.
After getting through the school's application process and arriving on the Albany campus as a 17-year-old in September 2007, Eliseev made a quick impression on Albany Tech 14-year President Anthony Parker.
"I remember thinking he was very young to be that far away from home," Parker said. "When you get a foreign student coming from a culture so different than his, it shows the drive and initiative of him. (He's) not only responding to the challenges of the curriculum, but responding to the culture. The culture of Moscow and the culture of Albany have got to be a little different."
And they definitely were. Eliseev said he had never lived in a city that
had such a large African-American population.
"In my town, in Voronezh, there was no black people and at the Salt Lake high school there were two or three, and in Arizona at (East Fork Lutheran High School in Whiteriver) they were all Indians."
The lack of tall buildings, sidewalks and abundance of sharp objects near the Albany area roadways also made an impression on Eliseev, who lived for nearly a year in the Regency Inn off East Oglethorpe Boulevard. Eliseev said the lack of sidewalks was particularly challenging for him since he rode a bike everywhere, including to the Lee County Wal-Mart. Because he only had a small refrigerator, Eliseev said he was forced to go to a store every couple of days.
"Albany was a huge town by area, but there was no high rising buildings," said Eliseev, who endured a lot of flat tires while riding and carried a spare in his backpack. "It was like a small town that had just grown.
Despite some of his challenges, Eliseev said he liked his days at Albany Tech. In his time at the school, Eliseev earned a firefighter certificate in the two-quarter program and also earned his online two-year associate's degree in fire science technology, said his teacher Don Laye. Eliseev's last day of class is today.
Laye, who retired after 26 years from the Dawson Fire Department, called Eliseev an "educator's dream." Laye has been Albany Tech's department chair of fire science technology for five years. Eliseev was the first foreign student he had taught.
"He says this is my goal and this is what I'm going to do to achieve it," Laye said of Eliseev. "You could tell (he was a foreign) student by his accent, but that did not hinder him. English as a second language was not a barrier to him. He's worked hard at what he wanted to achieve."
Following his Albany Tech studies, Eliseev will get an opportunity to achieve his ultimate goal of serving in the U.S. Army. Through the one-year pilot program Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, Eliseev can gain American citizenship by serving in the Army. After taking three plane trips to New York City as part of the selection process, he will be one of only 557 individuals with language skills admitted into the program. The program also includes 333 individuals with medical skills.
"I signed a contract already for infantry for eight years," said Eliseev, who plans to make a career out of his military service. "I'm shipping (out) on my birthday, Jan. 10. That's nice birthday gift."
Eliseev will take his three-month basic training at nearby Fort Benning in
Columbus. Parker and Laye both plan to attend his graduation. If his military commitments allow, Eliseev will participate in Albany Tech's
spring commencement ceremonies.