When she was younger, Shelby Doren would google, "What do Russian women look like?" She lived a happy American life, but it felt incomplete. There was a hole in her story, and now Siena is helping to fill it.
Bullies on the school bus can be particularly cruel, and Doren was often a target. She didn't stand out from the small town crowd in any obvious way. But in the small town of Greenville, NY everyone seemed to know the part of her life she couldn't remember.
"Go back to Russia you communist." "You're a KGB spy, aren't you?" Or, the one that hurt the most, "You're a terrorist." The taunts were ignorant and mean-spirited, and they made Doren feel uneasy about her past. She wanted to understand it, not hide from it. That would take time.
Doren was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia, near the border of Kazakhstan, and given the name Valentina Sergeevna Kicilova. Her biological mother was raising several other children and couldn't afford one more mouth to feed, or at least that's the assumption from the orphanage. Truth is, no one really knows. Doren was left on the steps of a hospital, only a few weeks old, and severely malnourished. After several months recovering in the hospital, she was moved to an orphanage. Back in New York, Doren's parents had decided to adopt. An agency connected them with the orphanage in Chelyabinsk, but there was competition for the two-year-old girl named Valentina.
A Russian family was also interested in adopting the girl, and native families are almost always given preference. However, the hospital had misdiagnosed Doren's condition. Both prospective families were told the little girl would likely need a kidney transplant. The Russian family backed off. Undeterred, Doren's parents flew to Russia to pick up their new daughter and named her Shelby Valentina. As it turns out, her kidneys were fine.
But what if Doren had gone home with the Russian family? What if her biological mother had never abandoned her? Growing up, Doren often played out those scenarios, especially on the school bus. She felt her history was unfairly demonized, but she didn't have the knowledge or the skills to defend it.
"I’ve always had this identity crisis… am I Russian enough? I wanted to create a balance."
It's why she looked up images of Russian women as a girl. It's why she decided to learn to speak Russian. It's why she came to Siena to study political science, with a particular interest in Russian international relations. It's why she's applying for a Fulbright.
"Being at Siena has renewed and enhanced my passion for serving others. It has inspired me to look toward a career path that integrates service with politics, like at my current internship with the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA). They are a nonprofit think tank, presenting foreign policy issues in a comprehensive manner so that the average American can understand foreign policy and learn to care about it."
Shelby Doren '22
Doren is spending her summer in Washington, D.C. through Siena's Washington Semester Program. A great deal of her research focuses on Russia, particularly the post-Soviet era. She hopes to get a double master's, perhaps at King's College in London, in global politics and Russian politics. But after Siena, and before graduate school... there's a place she needs to see.
Doren is applying for a Fulbright. She'd like to spend the year after next in Russia teaching English in a classroom. If that doesn't work out, she's also applying to the Peace Corps. There may be an opportunity to serve along the border of Russia.
Doren has never had any desire to meet her biological mother. She would like to see the orphanage and visit Chelyabinsk, but she has no interest in chasing her past. Instead, she wants to explore her full identity, and it's an identity that has now been shaped by the Franciscan spirit. She doesn't want to just visit Russia, she wants to make a difference when she gets there.