Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Magazine
Mariya Golotyuk may not be a typical Army ROTC cadet, but as a hardworking immigrant determined to make a better life for herself and her children, she is what the United States is all about.
As a child of four in the Soviet Union, she was selected for the Olympic School for Acrobatics and competed all over Eastern Europe doing “flips and handstands in (her) sleep” while living first with her grandmother and later in a Soviet School for Sport dormitory. Then, when she was 13, an injury during practice left her in a hospital bed for five months. Doctors forbade further acrobatics, so she turned to tennis and academics.
Golotyuk lived in “ugly block housing built by the state” in Kramatorsk, Ukraine — a “small, gray Soviet town polluted with factory soot.” When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and Ukraine gained its independence, she had to go from speaking Russian to Ukrainian practically overnight to later qualify for a degree in math and physics at the Technical University of Kiev.
“Just one day we woke up and Russian literature was like a foreign literature,” Golotuyuk remembered, comparing Ukrainian to a cross between Russian and Polish, which, as the child of a Russian mother and Polish-Czech father, she also speaks, along with Czech. “All the languages are pretty close. If you speak slowly, you can kind of figure out what it is.”
She’s also fluent in German and English, although she didn’t learn English until a few years ago when she moved to the States to coach tennis at Trinity College in San Antonio. Texas, however, with its heat and wide-open plains, was a drastic change for Golotyuk, who was used to cosmopolitan, forested Europe, so she looked for a compromise.
Today, the single mother of two young boys is not only a U.S. citizen with degrees in economics and accounting from the University of Maryland, College Park, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in accounting. In addition, Golotyuk is a sergeant in the Maryland National Guard and her cadet battalion’s commander.
She also happens to be the highest ranked cadet in the nation.
“In ROTC, I started last year,” she recalled. “I went as enlisted in the National Guard and liked it a lot. It was really unusual for me when I heard that the military here is open for females, where in my country it is quite different. As a female you can actually move yourself forward into a leadership position, which is what I was looking for.
“ROTC worked perfectly for me. I looked at it while I was undergrad, but I … didn’t have my citizenship. I had to wait five years. That’s why I joined as enlisted, just to see how it is, what it is. I got to basic (training) and loved it. The discipline was there already,” she continued.
Unlike many of her fellow cadets (who entered the University of Maryland as freshmen with ROTC scholarships), as a graduate student, Golotyuk will be commissioned with only two years of ROTC under her belt. She was concerned with fitting in and getting up to speed when she joined the battalion in 2010, so despite her full-time job and graduate classes, she signed up for as many activities as she could.
The color guard team, she explained, helped her give back to ROTC and the university, and she gained a big-picture understanding of what the military is about. While on the Ranger Challenge team (a military skills competition for cadets) she was able to bond with fellow cadets and hone her skills.
So when Golotyuk attended Cadet Command’s four-week Leader Development and Assessment Course over the summer (crammed between two summer sessions of classes), she was looking to do something similar, to take advantage of every opportunity she was offered.
“Don’t just do whatever’s asked,” she said. “Just being a part of this group for the whole year last year and the opportunities – they give you stuff, but they don’t push it really into you. … And they’re kind of ‘OK, you can do this.’ There’s so many things that they crowd the table with just for you to reach out and take it.
“When I went to LDAC, I figured out how much (more) we were prepared compared to all the other schools. We were doing extra land navigation courses, and all that stuff. I wanted to do as much as possible.”
Cadets, her ROTC commander, Lt. Col. Sam Cook, explained, are evaluated at the end of their junior years based on grade point averages, different leadership positions, physical fitness scores and land navigation and other military tasks from LDAC. Golotyuk knew her individual scores from each event, but Cadet Command had to compile the scores of about 5,643 cadets over several sessions of LDAC, so the rankings weren’t available until late September. Golotyuk was shocked to discover she came out on top.
“I came here and Lt. Col. Cook was looking at the paper, smiling all the way,” she remembered. (Forty percent of Maryland’s graduating class of cadets ranked in the top 20 percent of all cadets, qualifying as distinguished military graduates.) “He’s like, ‘Well, congratulations. Number one.’ I almost fell out of the chair. I was like ‘Oh my God. What is he saying?’ I had a long day of work that day. It actually did take me a couple days to take it in. ‘Really? How did that happen? Oh my God.’ I was surprised. I was sitting at the table like ‘Oh, OK. Nice. Nice,’ thinking about my schoolwork, work … and then people (who were in LDAC with you) start texting you because the results are published in other schools.
“They all started texting me: ‘Congratulations!’
“‘Thank you! Thank you!’ It was exciting. That week was really busy.”
As the highest-ranked cadet, Golotyuk was almost guaranteed her branch of choice, military intelligence. At press time, however, she was unsure if she would be able to change her original National Guard contract to an active-duty contract. She wants to, though. It’s her way of repaying the nation that has given her so much.
“I got to this country – I invested a lot of time working in U.S.,” she said. “I saw it give back to me, like right away. I spent a lot of time in my country. I competed for Soviet Union and I competed for (Ukraine). I did a lot of stuff, and then at the end of the day, they kick you out without even saying ‘Thank You.’
“When I got here, I wasn’t even planning to stay. But things worked out for me. People offered me to stay. They say, ‘We like the way you work. We need the skills. We need that.’ I went to school. I applied. I got a scholarship. From the givebacks that I got here, without having anything, that was my giveback. … This is my way of saying ‘Thank you.’”