by Barbara Trainin Blank
A native of Cherkasy, a town in Ukraine, Alina Kheyson is pursuing her MSW at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work and earned a certificate in nonprofit management, fundraising, and grant writing at New York University’s School of Continuing Education.
Fluent in English, Russian, and Ukrainian, Kheyson is now studying Spanish because of its usefulness in the social work field.
Although she is reluctant to apply the word “leader” to herself, her professors are not. Professor Elchanan Marvit, who directs Touro College’s Brooklyn Division, was impressed both with Alina’s “story and her persona” when she applied to the school and as a student in his policy classes.
“Alina came to the United States and didn’t know a word of English,” he says. “But she really picked up on the language and became part of the community.... She was determined to get her MSW.”
Marvit nominated Kheyson for the New York State Social Work Educators Association Student of the Year Award, which she won. He described her as “an intelligent, insightful, deliberative, and thoughtful student” and a “flexible, patient, and enthusiastic” reader-leader of her small group in class.
This April, Kheyson will be speaking at a conference of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Also impressed with her leadership abilities is Folusho Otuyelu, assistant professor of clinical social work and MSW Liaison-Child Welfare of Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work. She taught Kheyson in a few courses, and the two have met to discuss possible mentoring.
“I noticed that she’s a stand-out student,” says Otuyelu. “She’s very strong, especially her analytic mind. But she’s also empathetic. If another student doesn’t understand, she is the first student to raise her hand to explain. The students really look up to her.”
Many of the students struggle with work-life-school balance, Otuyelu adds, and they know Alina has had those issues, as well. “She is willing to give her time to other students and is more collaborative than competitive.”
Kheyson attributes her academic success to family. Her mother was a teacher who later became a social worker. Her father is a lawyer and consultant. Kheyson’s brother is a doctor, and her sister is studying international law and diplomacy.
The family arrived in the United States in 1998 but returned to Ukraine in 2011 to be closer to her father’s parents. Alina returned to the U.S. in 2013, after meeting her husband in Ukraine. They have a two-and-a-half year-old daughter who Kheyson calls the “highlight of my day.”
The MSW student initially intended a career in medicine and spent three years as a student in an international medical school. However, the values she learned from her parents and one of her nannies steered her in another direction.
“She was the nanny I had until I was six—a post-War woman who never had any children,” says Kheyson. “She was very kind. She would ask if anyone didn’t have meat or proper nutritional food—the families all shared a big yard. Then she would bring out a pot of food. It was very touching. She was my childhood inspiration.”
Also inspiring was her mother’s kindness and her father’s commitment to justice. “The equilibrium of these two shaped my commitment to bettering people’s lives,” Kheyson says. “My parents were the first to help their neighbors.”
While in Ukraine the second time, Kheyson volunteered with children through her sister.
“I wanted to see what the social service system there was like,” she says. “It was a corrupted system—but still contained a lot of good people willing to do amazing things.”
With other volunteers, she traveled to villages to see orphanages. They found children without pencils and teachers without salaries. “There was a lot of abuse and neglect, and no money [had] been allocated to education for the past 20 years,” she observes.
The experience solidified Kheyson’s plans. “I love children,” she says. “I realized that a doctor may practice medicine and never see a particular child again. It’s important to me to do my best for people who come for help.”
After completing her MSW, Kheyson hopes to get a Ph.D. She plans to teach and to create a program related to trauma—ultimately in private practice.
“I’m not sure where it will go,” Kheyson says, “but I hope to guide people toward a better life. Everyone has had something, some trauma in life. It’s about how to live in spite of it.”
From her father, Kheyson learned that “sometimes people have to learn to crawl before they know they can fly. A great role model is someone who achieves the maximum in life and inspires others, demonstrating that we can do something amazing despite life’s everyday hurdles.”
Kheyson is interning at Met Council Single Stop Crisis Center in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where she does crisis intervention half a day and works with Holocaust survivors the other half. As the recipient of a UJA-Federation scholarship for social work graduate students last year, Kheyson is committed to working at a Federation agency, which Met Council is.
In her career and life, she is eager to give others the gift of her humanity.
Freelance writer Barbara Trainin Blank, formerly of Harrisburg, PA, lives in the greater Washington, DC, area. She writes regularly for The New Social Worker.