Russian Natalia Chugunova, a Southwestern Michigan College part-time biology professor, became a U.S. citizen July 16 along with her husband and daughter.
The president’s desk in the White House Oval Office appears behind Natalia and Leonid in a photograph from the naturalization ceremony.
That’s because their ceremony capping a six-month process took place at Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids.
Eighty citizens were naturalized from 33 countries.
Hugh W. Brenneman Jr., federal magistrate judge for U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, presided.
Leo manages Three Rivers Health’s laboratory.
Chugunova, who completed medical school in Russia in 1996, grew up in President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg, the second-largest city after Moscow and the northernmost city in the world with a population exceeding 1 million.
The former Leningrad, a major European cultural center with more than 5 million inhabitants, is home to one of the largest art museums in the world and a major port on the Baltic Sea.
Chugunova, who lives in Constantine, wears a cluster of identification badges around her neck to teach at four campuses, including Ivy Tech in Elkhart and South Bend, Ind.
This summer Chugunova taught on SMC’s Dowagiac campus, but fall semester, beginning Sept. 2, she returns to the newly-renovated Niles Campus.
Chugunova previously lived in Topeka, Ind., near Shipshewana in LaGrange County.
She joined SMC two years ago and has taught for four.
This August afternoon she and her children, Alexandra, 17, who automatically became an American citizen with her parents, and U.S.-born Victor, 8, are bound for Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan.
“The beach is a favorite Russian pastime,” she said. “I take books so I can read.”
“My husband’s parents moved here first” 20 years ago, Chugunova said. “It was much easier to get Green Cards in the ’90s” pre-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We moved here in December ’98,” she said.
Green Cards, received in 2008, extend residency to someone granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.
As proof of that status, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues Green Cards.
“In Russia, I have a degree in medicine,” Chugunova said, “but I don’t have a license to practice here. I wanted to be a physician, but the ’90s, as you know, was not a good time economically in Russia.”
The 15-republic Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, spurring conversion of the world’s largest state-controlled economy to market orientation.
“All health care was government-owned. They paid hardly anything to health care workers,” she said. “My husband and I graduated medical school and stayed in Russia two more years. He worked for Johnson & Johnson as a sales rep. My husband’s parents moved to northern Indiana, to Ligonier,” the City of Murals in Noble County. “They had friends here because my father-in-law was a Rotarian in Russia. They’re both engineers.”
“You can take (six-year) medical school entrance exams immediately after high school,” Chugunova said. “There were five applicants for each spot. It’s very competitive because education is free, plus they pay you a stipend.”
Her younger brother and older sister also finished medical school.
Her mom is a retired physician, her dad a university professor for 54 years who’s happy a child followed him into teaching.
Chugunova watches tensions between the United States and Russia since Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down in eastern Ukraine July 17, killing all 298 on board, from an unusual perspective.
“We don’t believe anything,” she said. “Not the news from Russia, not the news from here. I haven’t heard any truth yet. I teach science. I need evidence. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are friendly to me personally and to Russia.”
“We went back four years ago and two years ago and it was good,” Chugunova said. “At this point in time I think it would be difficult because of the tensions.”
The naturalization process included being interviewed and taking a 100-question civics exam in Detroit.
Citizenship offers “more freedom,” she said. “I would have been reluctant to say anything before I had U.S. citizenship.”
Also contributing to tensions is National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, staying in Russia through July 2017.
Snowden made international news in 2013 by revealing details of NSA phone and Internet surveillance programs.
“You don’t know what a police state is,” Chugunova said. “It’s kind of disturbing, but at the same time you feel more secure. If they know who to monitor, it’s not a bad thing.”
“I usually tell people unhappy with immigrants coming to ‘take our jobs,’ ‘So you’re 100-percent Native American?’ They shut up.”
“I very much like teaching for SMC,” she said. “It’s a great school.”