Before graduating from Southern in December, music performance alum Georgii Zaitsev was an international student from Tula, Russia. He had lived in Russia for the majority of his life, changing schools three times and practicing under five different piano teachers.
At age 5, Zaitsev said he began attending a music school. Courses he took there included music theory, music history, choir and specialized classes for piano. After completing the required courses, Zaitsev graduated from the music school and was accepted to a music college, another level of music education, before entering a university. He was close to finishing music college when the opportunity to come to the United States arose.
“I always wanted to come to America,” Zaitsev said. “Since I was 12, it was one of my dreams. I didn’t expect for it to happen that quickly.”
Zaitsev’s father, an executive director of the Hope Channel in Russia, worked closely with a pastor who helped connect Zaitsev with the admissions office at Southern. Zaitsev said he sent his application and videos of his piano playing, and excitement grew on both ends as Southern worked toward admitting him as an international student.
“It took a while for me to pass language exams, and then to figure out how I was supposed to pass the ACT,” Zaitsev said. “Getting an American visa was also challenging, but God is good. After working on the fulfillment of that goal for about a year and a half, I came to the United States in 2018.”
Even though Zaitsev already knew a lot about American culture, he said everything was still extremely new to him. There was a language barrier that took time to climb as well. However, Zaitsev said he took the challenge head-on, facing each day with the hope that everything was going to work out the way God intended.
“It was hard having no friends at first or making friends that turned out to be superficial,” Zaitsev said. “It was challenging for me because I would see people have friends they previously made from their academies or camps. It was also a struggle not fully understanding what people said or not getting jokes.”
Zaitsev said he first connected with other students on a choir tour to California in 2019.
“I got really close to the others on that trip,” Zaitsev said. “And since that time, I have stayed close with them, and I am very grateful for those amazing friendships.”
Zaitsev said he also grew close to his professors.
“My piano professor, Dr. Cooper, is not just a professor or my dean; he was here for me for any issue I had, academic or personal. He was extremely kind and caring and still is. I’m extremely grateful for him,” Zaitsev said. “… Dr. Kibble, the choir director, gave me a lot of opportunities to grow. She challenged me and always believed in me. Her support and love mean a lot to me.”
Zaitsev was in the middle of his junior year at Southern when COVID-19 hit. He said he was at a crossroads when deciding if he should stay close to Southern or go home to Russia. According to Zaitsev, the university strongly encouraged international students to leave since there was no foreseeable end to the pandemic, so he went home. He said he was content with his decision, and his family welcomed him with warm open arms.
Zaitsev hoped to come back for the Fall 2020 semester, but he wasn’t able to do so.
“It was an interesting time. I got a little depressed and basically didn’t practice piano at all,” Zaitsev said. “I had high hopes and was praying a lot for God to help me figure out the issues and circumstances in my life to help me come back to Southern and graduate.”
At the start of the Winter 2021 semester, Zaitsev was able to return to Southern and start his senior year.
Zaitsev said he didn’t come to Southern with an idea of what he wanted to do after he graduated. He came to do what he loved: playing piano. As of last November, he said he had plans to move to New York and take advantage of Optional Practical Training, which would give him an opportunity to work for a year and explore his degree in the real world. Zaitsev said he wants to teach kids and play for whoever wants him to.
“Playing piano makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing; I’m fulfilling my calling,” Zaitsev said. “… I like music in many ways — analyzing music, song writing or producing music. But playing piano makes me feel like home because it’s something I have been doing since I was born. It’s a part of me that I’m ready to share with anyone who wants to take part in that.”