LAND O'LAKES — Gleb Barkovskiy has spent the last six years bridging the divide between his Russian origins and his American future. Like a chameleon, he has adapted to his environment, cavorting with the privileged classmates who taught him how to talk to girls and dress like a typical teenager, then turning into his quieter, colder counterpart when home for summer break.
"You can't be a warm, friendly American when you are in Russia," he said. "They will eat you alive."
Gleb, 17, came to this country when he was just 11. He was short for his age, sporting chubby cheeks, a toothy grin and an unfettered persistence to achieve his version of the American dream. He is well on his way, becoming the 2013 class valedictorian at Academy at the Lakes, and landing a full ride at Bucknell University where he plans to study international business.
"He has a capacity for work that I've rarely seen; an optimism and belief in the American dream that's refreshing," said Debbie Pitcairn, associate director of College Counseling at Academy at the Lakes.
Gleb is also the first student of the Renaissance Project to graduate high school, a reality that hasn't sunk in for Eric Wilson, who serves as president of the small nonprofit and guardian for four Russian students the organization sponsors.
Wilson has watched Gleb grow from a small boy to young man. He has taken him for haircuts, to the dentist and helped steer him through social situations that can trip up any teenager.
"I think it will hit me when he comes back and packs up the rest of his stuff," Wilson said in the days before Gleb returned to Russia for summer break. "For both of us, it's a new journey."
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A sequence of hard knocks, golden opportunities and sheer drive is what spirited Gleb from Russia to Florida.
An avid history buff, Gleb traces his journey back to the Siege of Leningrad. His grandfather was just a teen when the Germans surrounded the city, literally starving its inhabitants.
"My grandfather enlisted in the Russian Navy solely for the food rations, rising to the rank of admiral over 30 years," Gleb said.
Gleb's father followed suit, becoming an officer on a nuclear submarine during the cold war. He retired with honors and a modest pension.
Then the Soviet Union splintered.
"After the fall came rapid development and privatization," Gleb said. "Some got richer. Some got poorer. The benefits of being a Russian soldier vanished."
While his mother, Ludmilla, worked at a corporate bank, his father Audrey Barkovskiy drove a taxi to make ends meet.
It was in that cab that he struck up a friendly conversation with an American woman there to interview potential scholarship candidates for a college preparatory school in Coconut Creek, Fla.
You need to meet my son, he told her.
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Gleb Barkovskiy started his life in a two-bedroom flat overlooking a skyline dominated by golden domed cathedrals and famous museums.
St. Petersburg was a cultural gem with a sordid underbelly, the air often damp from the cold winds blowing across the Baltic Sea. The people were colder.
"There was alcoholism, domestic abuse, frequent homicides, homeless people," Gleb said. "I saw all that as a child walking the streets. ... I had seen the Hollywood movies of a better life in America, but I thought I would graduate from a Russian university, and I worked for that."
Learning came easy. And when it didn't, Gleb hunkered down.
He was the perfect scholarship candidate.
At first his mother was against it. Gleb was so young, and the United States was a world away.
But her husband was equally staunch.
"He was determined to get me out of the country," Gleb said. "He had everything in order, all the interviews and acceptance into the program, when we finally told her. She couldn't say no."
Gleb had been in the country for about six months when Wilson met him. Wilson had been hired as caretaker for a passel of spirited Russian boys ranging from 9 to 12 who were attending North Broward Preparatory School and living off campus.
It was a little crazy at times, the boys arguing in Russian and forming alliances, Gleb said, like the characters in Lord of the Flies.
Gleb was a machine, studying so much that Wilson would hide his books on weekends and order him out of the house to play.
"The first year was amazing in the sense that we were in America and everything," Gleb said. "But we were without our families, our food, our culture."
About a year later, the economy tanked and the program was cancelled.
"We felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us," Gleb said.
In 2009 the boys were sent home to Russia. Except for Gleb. He was granted a scholarship and moved into a school dorm while Wilson scrambled to bring the other boys back.
"I had gone to Russia. I saw where they had been living," Wilson said. "Two of the boys were living in a house with no running water."
Just when Wilson thought he had exhausted all avenues, he got a call. Mark Heller, a former colleague and director at Academy at the Lakes in Land O'Lakes was looking to hire a science teacher.
"I told him what I was doing, what I had been going through, he asked me, 'How do we get these boys to the Academy?'" Wilson said.
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During the 2010-11 school year, Gleb joined Daniil Shcherbinin, 15, and Max Stepanets, 17 at Academy at the Lakes. Once again, he proved himself academically, earning the highest score on Advanced Placement exams, gaining acceptance into the National Honor Society and learning to play the violin.
Wilson taught at the school and worked side jobs to start the Renaissance Project to support their stay and bring Max's younger brother to the school. People in the community pitched in, offering dental, orthodontic and hair salon services, plus food and clothing. Others provided airfare as well as the use of a handyman's special, 4-bedroom farmhouse for $500 a month within walking distance of the academy, which provided scholarships.
The program has benefited the Russian students and the school alike, said Academy at the Lakes director Mark Heller.
"Gleb and his cohorts made us better, and they learned something about America and Americans and the power of an individual to make a difference to others by giving to others," he said. "I think he (Gleb) has a different world view. And his work ethic and the quality of work has inspired other students to work harder."
And while Gleb soared in the classroom, it was on the football field that he finally found camaraderie.
"He's funny and smart," said Gleb's best American friend and teammate, John Mesropian, 17. "He doesn't understand American high school very well. So I had to help him with that, like how to talk to girls or teachers."
A couple of weeks ago Gleb's mother stood by her son at his commencement. Gleb translated as she thanked those who had taken him into their hearts and homes. In the days after graduation, Wilson, Gleb and his mom spent a couple of rainy days in Pennsylvania touring Bucknell.
"Lewisburg is such a wonderful little town. The campus is beautiful," Wilson said, recalling watching Gleb dance in the drizzle, yelling, "I made it here!"