Dayton student went from no school, to school star

Turkan Tashtan, who moved to the U.S. from Russia at age 8, was named valedictorian

At 8 years old, Turkan Tashtan had never attended school, and was moving from Russia to the United States, where she would have to learn the English language and American culture from scratch.

Ten years later, she is the 2017 valedictorian of Dayton’s Ponitz Career Technology Center, is headed to the University of Dayton on scholarship, wants to be an attorney and is about to take her real estate exam after finishing those classes at Sinclair.

“She’s going to succeed in whatever she does, because she’s very conscientious,” said Amy Richardson, the business pathway teacher at Ponitz. “You just don’t see many kids like her. She’s extremely mature for that age.”

Tashtan and her family were among thousands of Turkish people able to move to the United States last decade amid strained relations with Russia. She said the family decided to move when she was 5 or 6, so her father decided not to send her to Russian schools.

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But it was a two-year process with heavy paperwork, blood testing and waiting, so they didn’t get to the United States until just after she turned 8. They settled in Lancaster, Pa., where her first school struggled with where to place her, eventually putting her in second grade.

“When I started school, it was really rough because I didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language,” Tashtan said. “Even things that people who come from a foreign country know — like math, because it’s not different in another language — I didn’t know because I had never attended school.”

But Tashtan said she started to pick up English pretty quickly, and by the time her family moved to Dayton for her fifth-grade year, she no longer was considered an English as a Second Language student.

“I tried really hard, and I think the reason was not mainly to be a good student, but to be accepted and be part of the group,” she said. “I just wanted … to understand what they were saying and doing. I didn’t want to be left out all the time.”

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She started here at a Horizon charter school, but said she felt distracted being around so many other Turkish students again. She spent her middle school years at Dayton’s Kiser School, and said two summer efforts made a big difference.

With a library very close to home, she spent the summer after seventh grade reading dozens of books, which helped her reading ability jump again. After eighth grade she participated in a summer law program at UD, which helped inspire her desire to be a lawyer.

But at Ponitz CTC, she wasn’t sure which career pathway she wanted to study, since law wasn’t an option. She started in her father’s footsteps with engineering before realizing “I’m not a real hands-on person who likes building things.”

After she switched to the business track, she credited Richardson for helping her take off.

“They were doing a Business Professionals of America competition, and my teacher said, why don’t you do it?” Tashtan said. “I said I had just started, but she said, ‘I believe in you, you’ve got this, you’re a smart girl.’ ”

That led to one marketing project, and this year she did another project where she had to create a business plan for a nonprofit that included brochures, personal outreach and fundraising. Now she plans to major in marketing at UD.

She said another teacher, David Andrews, encouraged her even as she was leaving his engineering path. As Ponitz’s internship coordinator, he set Tashtan up with job-shadow opportunities with the school district’s attorney, and with a local law firm.

“Turkan is very much a go-getter. If I gave her a project, she went above and beyond my expectations,” said Richardson, who taught Tashtan accounting, management, entrepreneurship and other classes. “I was there to help her along the way with questions, but I was basically a facilitator.”

Tashtan showed that she was a self-starter by taking the required 120 hours of real estate education at Sinclair after Richardson brought in a speaker on the topic. She hopes to take the state licensure exam this summer.

“If I do pass, hopefully, and I start working with somebody, I was planning on doing it part time during college,” she said.

She has been involved with other activities, volunteering back at Kiser to help young students with math and English, working with nonprofits, and holding a cashier job at Walmart.

But the fast-talking, upbeat valedictorian’s long-term goal is to be a lawyer. She joked about getting in frequent debates as early as middle school, and Richardson said Tashtan is comfortable as a leader and a talker.

“The law? I love it, I have a passion for it. I think maybe in the future I would like to mix it up with business – I want to put it all together, use all of it,” she said. “I want to help people and make a difference, and I think the best way to do that is to have that law degree.

“(Graduating) is a really good feeling,” she said. “I’m really excited, but at the same time, I’m like, OK, what’s next?”

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