For a student and journalist, the United States is her home, but Ukraine is her heritage.
For nearly eight years, Regina Zilbermints has dedicated a week of her summers to translate for Russian children attending a Des Moines-area camp for kids who hope to be adopted.
The experience gives the University of Iowa junior a chance to practice her Russian. But it also lets her reflect on the life she has built since moving as a young child from Ukraine to the United States.
At Iowa, she’s developed her passions for journalism and politics, intent on understanding and providing tools for social change. “In order for people to change things, they need to be informed about them,” Zilbermints says. “Ideally, that will be my job, to make sure they are.”
Zilbermints was born in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city. Her family applied to emigrate under the Soviet Union—when they often had to hide their Jewish heritage—but finally secured permission after the Soviet government collapsed.
The family moved to Chicago for four months, then settled in Des Moines, where Zilbermints’s parents began working as engineers in the Russian branch of a multinational turbomachinery controls corporation.
Over the years, Zilbermints continued to speak Russian with her parents and younger sister, Anna, while she assimilated to American life. She became an American citizen in the sixth grade.
“I had lived most of my life in the U.S. It was my home, and Ukraine was my heritage,” she says. “I don't think the two are contradictory, or even as difficult to balance as some people say. They are just two different parts of my life.”
Her interest in writing blossomed during high school, and she set out to study journalism and political science when she enrolled at The University of Iowa in fall 2007.
She joined The Daily Iowan staff in August 2008 after a stint campaigning for Barack Obama during the Iowa Caucus season. Zilbermints was one of a group of interns in the campaign’s Iowa City office.
She experienced the highlight—and the most nerve-racking event—of the job on her last day, when she drove a 10-person van behind Obama’s Suburban from downtown Des Moines to the airport.
“I was just picturing myself rear-ending him,” she says. “It was an amazing time, because at that point, no one thought Obama had any chance of even getting the nomination.”
Zilbermints’s Daily Iowan career has been eclectic—she’s covered the courts and police beats, filed general assignments pieces, and served as a metro editor during summer 2009. She’s also active in Mock Trial and is an avid horseback rider.
Each summer, Zilbermints works with Camp Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps place older, adoptable children in Iowa homes. Roughly 10 to 15 children come to Des Moines every year, and all have been adopted after their visits. In addition, many of the children who were adopted end up becoming interpreters for the camp.
“Camp Hope is a wonderful organization,” Zilbermints says. “I was lucky in that I was able to move here with my parents, but there are so many kids that didn't get that chance.”
Zilbermints would like to combine her experiences in the United States with her Ukrainian heritage by working for an English-language paper in her native country.
“I want to go back,” she says. “One, it’s just a beautiful place. Two, I want to see all the places my parents have told me about. And even more than that, I want to see how it's changed. Clearly this former Soviet country has changed a lot since 1993 when we left, and I want to see that.”
Story by Ashton Shurson; photo by Tom Jorgensen
December 14, 2009