Paulina Kulyavtsev is from Geneva, Illinois. She will be graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Physics and a Professional Masters in Health Physics by May 2022. She has an immense passion for mentorship and will always treasure the mentorship she has received from others during her life’s journey. Kulyavtsev aims to bring out the best in others by investing in their personal growth and making sure that everyone’s voices are heard.
During her time at Illinois Tech, she has been a Platoon Sergeant for the Army ROTC program, played for the Women’s Tennis Team, Head Student for Kung Fu/Hapkido, an Summer Student at Fermilab, Idea Shop Mentor, and a member of Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority, just to name a few.
Q: What do you think makes you, specifically, a good leader?
A: I think my responsibility as a leader is to be resilient and to help the people I lead grow. Resilience is important to me because it helps me bounce back from the inevitable mistakes leaders make. If I’m able to overcome the hurt of a mistake, and instead reframe it constructively as a learning experience, that mistake is now worth something. I think this was made very clear to me during a training exercise. I was leading a mission and miscalculated where my team was supposed to be. It quickly became clear to me that if I didn’t keep adapting to the situation, nothing would happen and the mission would be an epic fail. I had a group of eight students, sitting in the mud, looking at me. Everyone was waiting for my orders. Now, I might dislike being put in front of people I don’t know, and I’m not a fan of being the one telling everyone what to do. Especially not on a mission like this: it was something I had never done before in my life, had zero experience in. However, none of this was about ME. It was about taking the circumstances presented, taking care of my team, and getting us to the finish line. That’s when I figured out that the resilience I carried in my personal life, coming back from personal losses and standing up after being knocked over hard in fights at Kung Fu, that tenacity could be applied outward, to help lead others. If I refuse to give up, and approach the problem with a flexible mindset, ready and eager to change, then eventually some change I make, some adaptation will stick. Something has to shift. So for me, I am aware of my shortcomings as a leader. But with resilience, I think I’ve done much to overcome them.
Q: What do you think is vital for anyone to be a good leader?
A: I think you have to keep learning and keep growing. Learning empathy, resilience and balance is super important. Finding a balance with your empathy specifically is also super important. As a leader, one should have the empathy to understand what is going on with those you are working with- in my opinion, if something goes wrong, a leader should let their emotions step back and not take it personally and first try to understand why something happened. For example, I’ve run a training event and had a student just stand up and leave, no preamble. After following up with them, I learned that they had felt embarrassed and did not want to look bad in front of their peers with their class performance. Situations like these have taught me that empathy first allows one to understand what is really going on with the people you are leading. Empathy can turn an issue into a learning experience that allows that individual to grow. The balance comes in when empathy gets in the way of effectively completing what needs to be done. While I can seek an understanding why someone I am working with is struggling, and help them grow from it to the best of my ability, at the end of the day work must be completed and standards maintained. The balance of empathy, growth, and completion of the project is a necessity for a leader.
Q: What would you say is an event or time in your life that you feel really turned you into a leader?
A: I think I’m still working on feeling like a leader. ROTC gave me a lot of that opportunity. I feel like a leader the most when I’m doing mentorship or behind the scenes work. When I am able to provide someone the opportunity to learn and grow. When I am able to facilitate and event or training that lets others lead.
Q: In what ways has Leadership Academy specifically helped you become a better leader? What has the academy meant to you?
A: The Leadership Academy has provided a combination of a constructive, supportive environment and hands-on training. Mainly what I have learned has come from my peers: I think we challenge each other to think in new ways. When we do discussion at the big table in the Tower, I like to look around and see everyone thinking so hard, carefully placing their words in this theoretical scenario we are presented with. And everyone does it differently: some Scholars step up to the spotlight, fervently arguing their points. Others are more contemplative, “quiet.” I like to see how everyone leads and share their voice differently. The Academy has given me some of my closest friends at school. They are people that I can trust and turn to for advice, no matter how big or small.
Q: What’s a piece of advice you wish someone else had given you when you went through a hard time?
A: I’ve often gone to people for advice in hard times, and have been given many substantial and well-formed suggestions. However, I haven’t always understood what they meant until years later. While I may be resilient and quick to react, the advice I have needed to hear has taken me years to process. If I had to summarize, I’d say, “ take a breath and forgive yourself for the mistakes it took to get where you are, be grateful for the lessons you have been taught and for those who have taken the time to teach you, and to keep pushing forward.” I get stuck in my head a lot, thinking about the past or what I could have done differently. I also tend to be hypercritical of myself. It’s always been easier for me to support others than to support myself. Taking a second to simply exist and appreciate how I’ve gotten to where I am would have helped me on so many rough nights. Thinking about the people who I’ve gotten to share time with helps me appreciate what I’ve learned and forgive myself for not always knowing what I need to know: as long as I can learn from others and work together, I must be doing alright. As long as there is something to learn, everything will be okay.
Q: What’s one thing about you that makes you, you?
A: Probably my curiosity. I think one of my cornerstones of who I am is that curiosity pushes my drive for wanting to learn more and understand. Curiosity is my greatest strength and it compliments perfectly with my greatest flaw: I will be forever curious to explore and start new things, but it feels impossible for me to decisively finish something. I think this hunger for active learning, coupled with the flight from one subject to another, defines me.