Scholarship and Service
Air Force ROTC cadet preps for an international career
By McKenzie Harris
Nearly 15 years ago, Florida State University senior Tetiana Panina and her family emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. to pursue a better life.
“As a first-generation immigrant, the U.S. has given me educational and financial opportunities I couldn’t access in my native country,” said Panina, who is pursuing a major in Russian language and minor in computer science. “I’m beyond grateful for this, and I want to do something meaningful to allow future generations to enjoy these freedoms and opportunities.”
The Ukrainian-led revolution in 2014 and the Russian invasion that followed were stark reminders of the stability and opportunity some take for granted in the West. Panina sought the chance to serve her new homeland by joining FSU’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, or AFROTC, as a cadet during her first year at the university, said Robert Romanchuk, associate professor of Slavic and associate chair for undergraduate studies in the FSU Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics.
The great changes ushered in by the revolution also inspired Panina to devote herself to the study of Russian and Ukranian languages, cultures, politics and history, Romanchuk explained.
“As a first-generation immigrant, the U.S. has given me educational and financial opportunities I couldn’t access in my native country.”
— Tetiana Panina
Panina hadn’t previously considered joining the military but soon found herself thriving in the structured training culture. And while she originally joined to give back to the country that had provided her so much, Panina quickly saw AFROTC could unlock considerable career choices.
Former professor of aerospace studies Air Force Capt. David Miller suggested studying Russian could open the door for meaningful opportunities. After changing majors, Panina realized her Russian and Ukrainian languages and cultural knowledge are the foundation for her immediate and long-term goals.
“Upon arriving at college, I had no intention of pursuing language studies,” Panina said. “After Capt. Miller’s suggestion, I realized dual-language literacy, especially in a critical language like Russian, is indispensable in cultural, academic and professional contexts. Learning an additional language gives you access to an entirely new world of literature, music, people, history and more.”
In 2017, Panina was a finalist for FSU’s Presidential Scholars program and earned the Air Force Critical Language Scholarship. In 2020, she was selected for the Outstanding Undergraduate Student Award from the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, the Project Global Officer Summer Study Abroad Scholarship, and the prestigious Boren Scholarship.
“Tetiana is an exceptional student, cadet and leader, and she fully embraces and personifies Air Force core values,” said assistant professor of aerospace studies and operations officer Air Force Capt. Drew Dutcher. “She has proven extremely adept in both her leadership and followership abilities, and her drive, dedication, and commitment to academics and AFROTC is unparalleled.”
After graduation and commissioning as an active duty second lieutenant in the Air Force this spring, Panina hopes to join the U.S. intelligence community and work in Eastern Europe. Her long-term career goals include becoming an attaché for American embassies in Ukraine or Russia. While on active duty, she aims to pursue bachelor’s degrees in computer science and psychology and a master’s degree in Russian.
“Tetiana is very responsible about what she says and does. She measures her words carefully before she speaks and the consequences before she acts,” Romanchuk said. “This sense of responsibility to language and action makes her a good scholar; she doesn’t engage in leaps of logic or faith, and her conclusions are limited to what can be proven on the basis of evidence.”
McKenzie Harris is pursuing a master’s in Media/Communication Studies. She earned a bachelor’s in English with a concentration in Editing, Writing and Media in May 2020.