“They told me that the day it happened was May Day, like our Labor Day here,” Julia Abramova remembers. “They say we were at a parade and then the skies got really dark and gloomy, and it got really windy. Everyone went home; normally you’d stay up all night and celebrate, but we went home early and everybody fell asleep. Nobody knew why.”
This isn’t an excerpt from a “Twilight Zone” script — it’s one family’s real-life account of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident in 1986. The accident killed many instantly and released a cloud of radiation that would affect many more for years to come.
At the time, Abramova and her family lived in nearby Belarus (then a part of the Soviet Union, today an independent republic). Their sudden sleep, it was later revealed, was brought on by the intense dose of radiation they’d just unwillingly received. Abramova was only 1 year old at the time, and her parents, concerned for the safety of their growing family, decided it was time to leave.
Fast forward to today. Abramova is SkillsUSA’s national secondary president, an honor that’s perhaps the peak of an already distinguished high school career. A senior at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Va., she’s a member of the National Honor Society, French Honor Society secretary, yearbook sports editor, community service chair for the B’nai Brith Youth Organization and more. How does someone so young handle so many different responsibilities?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in Abramova’s nine-year love affair with dance. Her favorite genre is hip-hop, she says, “because you can feel the beat. And if you’re moving to the beat, anything you do looks really good.” Abramova’s moving to her own distinct beat these days. But finding it wasn’t so easy.
Three years after Chernobyl, the family arrived in Norfolk, where they’ve lived ever since. During her first six months as an American, Abramova learned English quickly — so quickly, in fact, that she was publicly recognized by her local mayor and newspaper. Her skill in languages would lead to career goals later, but early on she had different occupational fantasies, from hairdresser (went out of style quickly) to doctor (diagnosed as unfeasible due to her fear of shots) to psychologist (later realized it was all in her head).
It wasn’t until the end of her sophomore year that things began to take focus. That was when she joined SkillsUSA … without even knowing it.
An officer of what?
“I was sitting in a room picking courses for the next year,” Abramova remembers, “and I had one more subject to pick.”
A course description for cooperative technical education caught her eye claiming it could help her “prepare for the future.” She signed up.
“I had no idea about SkillsUSA until about a month after I joined the class,” she says. “So, I’m kind of into this class, we’re working out of these ‘PDP’ books [the Professional Development Program, SkillsUSA’s employability skills curriculum], and I don’t know who makes them or anything, but they’re pretty cool. And then my teacher says, ‘Why don’t you run for district office?’ And I was like, ‘Of what?’”
The teacher, Carolyn Powell, explained to the confused student about the organization she’d been a part of since joining the class, eventually convincing Abramova to run for office. It wasn’t an easy decision for a girl previously labeled the “shy and quiet” type.
“I was always scared to get out in front of people and actually run for something,” Abramova points out, “not knowing that I could make a difference in anything.”
She won the election, a victory that set off a chain reaction of opportunities for personal and professional growth. “It was a lot of fun,” she says, “going to meetings and realizing you represent 1,200 people in a district. It made me feel pretty cool.”
Then came a turning point in her SkillsUSA experience: officer leadership training. “We were doing workshops in communications and team building, and people were so enthusiastic,” she says. “That’s kind of when I realized that, ‘Yeah, this is definitely what I want to do.’ I just fell in love with the organization.”
At the end of her junior year, with fresh insight into her potential in SkillsUSA, the student considered a run for state office. Powell had something larger in mind. “She was like, ‘No, run for national office,’” Abramova says. “You should have seen my eyes! My eyes are really big, but they got 10 times bigger.”
However, the dates for SkillsUSA’s national conference conflicted with a trip to France already planned by her French class. “I had said, ‘France first,’” she recalls. But when the trip was canceled, Abramova again found herself adjusting to a sudden change in life’s tempo.
But now, she was adjusting more gracefully, learning that her life didn’t have to be bound to the unpredictable rhythms of outside forces. She was learning how to create her own rhythms, learning how to follow them.
Putting the realization to use
When faced with tough questions during her campaign for national office, she decided not to dance around the issues. “I’m just going to be myself,” she remembers thinking. “I’m not going to make up something and have them vote for me just because I agreed with their opinions. It had to be totally me, and if that’s what they wanted, then that’s what they got.”
That is what they got. Now Abramova describes her term as a SkillsUSA national officer as “definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” She’s traveled extensively, met leaders of business and industry and spoken at numerous events. Not bad for the “shy and quiet” type.
An ovation longer than Giuliani’s
In November 2002, Abramova traveled to New York with fellow national officer Ray Ramsey. They would be presenting to more than 200 industry leaders at the annual meeting for AMT — The Association for Manufacturing Technology. They were following a Webcast greeting from President Bush. And right behind the students on the program was one of the nation’s most popular political figures: former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Abramova describes the feeling that night not as having butterflies in her stomach, but jets. And they weren’t flitting about — they were pulling Gs. But looking back on how far she’d come since joining SkillsUSA, Abramova knew she was ready. Scared, but ready. “It was kind of like I was on a mission,” she says.
The officers were joined on stage by two other SkillsUSA members, international champion A.J. Rowe and machining graduate Suzanne Raposo. After their presentation, Abramova and Ramsey received a longer standing ovation than would later be given Giuliani, and AMT recommitted itself as a partner with SkillsUSA. Mission accomplished.
A dark cloud of disaster may have been the catalyst in bringing Abramova to America. But her future is anything but dark. She plans to attend college next year and major in international relations with a minor in economics. Because of her love of languages (she’s picked up French as easily as English and still speaks Russian fluently), she hopes to work for the United Nations. “I really want to work with languages and people and put to use all the skills that I’ve learned in SkillsUSA,” she says.
Abramova is also planning a recital with her dance company, “Golden Slippers,” as she does every year. In fact, she’s adopted the saying, “Life is a dance, from one stage to the next” into her e-mail signature. Why?
“Because all these different things that you do, you should enjoy them,” she says. “The same way I enjoy dance is how I should enjoy life.” And the beat goes on.