By Valeria Saborio
Sometimes initials are given for a reason and the reason might be revealed only when you are going through hard times. Facing rejection and adversity. We have all been there. Seems like the world is going to end sometimes when doors are closing on us. Chemistry Professor Olga Katkova, from Truckee Meadows Community College, taught me and thousands more that when one door is closing, it just means a better door will open. I believe her story is worth telling. So here it goes.
Olga’s story never ceases to amaze me. Ever since my first day in her chemistry class, my heart was inspired by her perseverance and strong faith. Seeing her today, full of joy, life, passion, and peace is a true gift, and there is not one lecture where her students not only learn how to balance a chemical equation but also how to be thankful for every blessing.
Olga is a chemical engineer and chemistry professor who is living the American dream. It only takes a small conversation with her to notice two things: how much she loves life and how passionate she is about teaching chemistry. "You will see me smiling, laughing, having fun every single day. The reason why I am always so happy is because once the simple things like walking and carrying a purse were taken away from me”, she says. When she graduated with her first degree in marketing, she knew that she wasn’t following her dream. She then decided to enroll in Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology in Moscow, Russia, her home country.
She earned her master’s in chemical engineering and soon a door opened up for her: pursuing her PhD in the United States. Little did she know that her visa would be rejected for not knowing English. After the failed interview she came home in tears, and with a dictionary in hand, wrote a letter to Bowling Green State University (BGSU). In the letter she explained that, even though they had offered her a PhD program, her visa was rejected so she could not come. Luckily for her, the university got in contact with the U.S. embassy in Russia, and they promised that Olga would learn English to the best of her abilities and pursue her degree successfully. A few months later, with her passport in hand, $250 that her family borrowed from neighbors, and one suitcase, Olga was ready to start her new journey in the U.S. This was in 2003.
“I have to admit that it was very hard since I didn’t know any English at this point. The classes were tough, and my studies involved not just reading books but translating almost every single word from lecture notes, articles, and course books. I would lie if I said I never thought of quitting, I did. But my dear dad kept encouraging me; he used to say that one day my hard work would pay off. He was so right. The knowledge and experience that I gained as a teaching assistant at BGSU has proven extremely valuable, especially once I realized that a teaching career is what I want to do in my life.”
Professor O.K. is an active member of the American Chemical Society
After one year of trying to adapt, Olga’s professors handed her yet another rejection. “I came to the U.S. as a PhD, but after one year of them seeing me struggle, they told me to switch my PhD to a master’s. They told me it would be extremely difficult for me to continue for 5 more years and struggle the way I did. Did it hurt my feelings? Absolutely! However, I decided to go with the flow. I had a feeling something better was coming. After two years, I graduated with my second master’s degree and was hired at Western Nebraska Community College after being rejected from over 100 jobs. They quickly helped me change my status from F-1 international student to a permanent resident. Little did I know that deciding to pursue my master’s instead of my PhD would save my life. Literally.”
In 2006, Olga was diagnosed with cancer. She had Ewing’s sarcoma. “I understood the word sarcoma but had no idea what the first word meant. I googled everything at home. I was so eager to find some similar stories, and most importantly, to find out that people survived this cancer and lived happily after. Most of the stories were tough but inspirational. The word "amputation" presented in many stories, but I couldn't even comprehend at that point that this tiny dark spot on my bone could lead to amputation.”
“I underwent 13 months of aggressive chemotherapy but never stopped teaching; the support from my students and colleagues kept me going even when the times were really tough. The end of the chemotherapy was not the end to my battle with cancer: I endured 3 years on crutches and went through numerous difficult surgeries. Overall, to summarize my survival story, I learned that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even though there were some days that I just couldn’t believe that this nightmare would ever end. Cancer survival taught me to take one day at a time. It also taught me to keep a positive attitude and remember that somewhere somebody is dealing with an even worse situation. When I was on crutches for three years, I kept reminding myself that somebody would give anything to be in my place on crutches instead of being paralyzed or something else. I learned a very true saying: "I used to cry that I don’t have shoes until I saw the man who doesn’t have feet." Also, I believe that my survival made me a better teacher because it opened my heart to compassion and love and helped me understand other people better.”
Olga Katkova receiving her American Citizenship
Looking back, Olga now understands why she was rejected. “If I would have denied the opportunity to get my master’s, if I would have complained and victimized myself, what would have happened? I would still get cancer in 2006, and I wouldn’t have had a job. They would have sent me back home with my student visa because my insurance could not have covered all my medical expenses. This is why I love to share my story because when my PhD was denied it didn’t make any sense, but I didn’t know that later on, this decision would literally save my life. My parents couldn’t come to America, and my coworkers became my family and walked through every step of my cancer journey from the first chemo to amputation.”
“When I faced amputation, I was so ready. I was carrying a 12-pound apparatus on my knee for a year, and it was not working. I wish I knew sooner, but also going through this challenge made me stronger and I needed that time to prepare. I wouldn’t have been able to handle chemo and amputation all at once. I know that because I tried every single possible procedure to save my leg, it gave me peace, and when amputation came, I was completely ready. I look at my prosthetic leg as a medal now. I love my leg, and I love that I can be active and healthy and enjoy life so much more now. It’s always a personal choice who you want to be. A victim or a victor.”
12-lb apparatus Olga carried in her knee before amputation
Once I survived this madness for 5 years, many more blessings came. I am an active member of the American Chemical Society, and after 9 years of being in Nebraska, I chose to work at TMCC. I’m always thankful for Nebraska because they fought for me through cancer, helped me get my green card, and looking in retrospect everything falls into place. Just follow the flow. Give a chance to every opportunity that comes to you. This truly is the land of opportunities, and I will always be grateful for this nation. I’d like to say that I am also proud of the hard work I have done to make this nation a better place by teaching my students.”
“Count your blessings and practice gratitude. Everything will fall into place. I’m a true believer that any situation is not bad nor good. Any situation is neutral and can be seen as a white canvas. You as a creator paint it. You can paint it beautifully; you can paint it horribly. You are the painter. Even if I lost my leg to cancer it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me recognize goodness and practice gratitude.”
Nowadays, Olga is one of the most amazing professors at TMCC, there is not one student that does not love her class and she is also known for advising students into successful careers. Olga is enjoying the sweetest stage in her life yet: being married and having a beautiful daughter. “When I had cancer, I went into menopause. I never thought I would be able to be a mom after all that I went through. My husband and my daughter are a daily reminder that miracles do happen, and that life is good. No matter what.”
Professor Olga with her family
Valeria Saborio is from Costa Rica and is pursuing her Industrial and Systems Engineering degree at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada.