Ukrainian immigrant second Rhodes pick in two years
By David J. Craig
Clean, rich, and friendly. A fantasyland where people smile a lot and have very white teeth. That’s how Anastasia Piliavsky, with characteristic blitheness, describes her image of America before immigrating here from Ukraine almost 10 years ago.
Today, Piliavsky (CAS’04) has a perspective on her family’s move to Waltham, Mass., that she lacked at age 14. An awkward seventh grader who spoke almost no English, she endured endless mockery, she says, for “talking differently, dressing differently, and eating weird food.” But her family’s journey inspired in Piliavsky a curiosity about different cultures that bloomed at BU, where last May she graduated summa cum laude, with a double major in social anthropology and religion.
At age 23, Piliavsky now speaks six languages. She’s traveled the world and conducted research on indigenous cultures in India and Mongolia and a nunnery in Russia. “I have not seen anyone at Boston University,” says David Eckel, a College of Arts and Sciences religion professor, “who has been more eager to tackle difficult academic challenges or has shown more intellectual promise at such an early stage of her academic career.”
Indeed, Piliavsky recently was recognized as one of the brightest young scholars in the world. She is among 32 Americans, and 95 young men and women internationally, chosen this year to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, which includes full tuition and fees to Oxford University for two or three years and an annual stipend. She is the second Rhodes scholar BU has produced in as many years; Richard Malins (CAS’04), a native of Pearl City, Hawaii, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship last year and now is studying pharmacology at Oxford.
“The College of Arts and Sciences is very proud of Anastasia and happy for her success in this most competitive and prestigious of all student awards,” says Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey J. Henderson. “Rhodes Scholarships are given not only for outstanding intellect but also for unusual strength of character and potential for leadership, and Anastasia certainly has all of these. Like so many Rhodes scholars before her, she is sure to go on to a distinguished career.”
Piliavsky will enter Oxford next fall to pursue a master’s degree in social anthropology. She plans to continue a line of research she started last year as a BU senior, when she lived for six months in India’s Rajasthan region. She learned the language of the indigenous people known as untouchables, who have no rank in India’s caste system, and filmed a documentary about them. She plans to return this spring for an additional six months before attending Oxford.
Her overseas research distinguished Piliavsky as a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship, according to Jim Collins, a University Professor and a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering. He chaired this year’s BU committee that nominated current students and recent graduates for the award. “She’s a remarkably accomplished young individual,” he says, “who has very clearly done well in the classroom, but has actually taken her interests and gone out in the field to complete interesting projects. The strength of her character and her clear passion for intellectual pursuits came through in the committee’s conversations with her.”
Piliavsky attributes her academic success in part to her mentoring relationships with several BU professors, including Eckel, Frank Korom, a CAS assistant professor of religion and anthropology, and Parker Shipton, a CAS associate professor of anthropology. She says that when she took Eckel’s Buddhism course, for instance, he regularly stayed after class for hours to help her navigate Tibetan and Sanskrit writings that are essential to understanding Madhyamaka, a Buddhist philosophical tradition generally considered beyond the grasp of undergraduates but that she was determined to research.
“Professor Eckel taught me to be very precise in my work,” she says. “I believe that isn’t common in American education, because here you tend to be taught to think creatively but somewhat broadly, wildly, and carelessly.” Korom’s expertise on India and his accomplishments as a documentary filmmaker, meanwhile, meshed perfectly with Piliavsky’s interests. “As my thesis advisor, Professor Korom devoted an incredible amount of time to me,” she says, “and through sharing his knowledge, he taught me to love South Asia.”
But the most important factor in shaping Piliavsky’s academic interests, she says, was her family’s move from Odessa, Ukraine. Her parents, Alexander and Yelena Piliavsky, are professional painters who left the former Soviet state in part because they could not support themselves as artists there. They now live in an apartment in Mission Hill and still speak little English.
“My parents are passionate people, who always told me to pursue what I love, no matter whether I could profit from it,” says Piliavsky, who intends to teach at the college level and become a professional filmmaker. “When I was younger, I thought that would be sculpture. But the roots of who I am now are in my immigrant experience. I still remember arriving at JFK [ International Airport], and seeing for the first time such a wild collage of people. It was so exciting. . . . But it was difficult too, because I grew up fast. I was filling out my parents’ taxes for them when I was 14. We all sacrificed a lot, and now it feels good to be making something out of it.”