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A Season of Celebration : Education: Diana Kononenko has come far to realize her dream--attending UCLA. Her triumph over great odds, though, is but one of many this June.

June 28, 1995|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With her right hand pressed firmly into the soft cement at Universal Studios, Diana Kononenko smiles uncomfortably into the hum and chatter of video and still cameras. She and 15 other high school graduates are being immortalized, Hollywood style.

The students are recipients of $2,500 scholarships awarded by the Discover a Star Foundation at Universal.

They have overcome great odds, which isn't always the case. Throughout the year, we mourn those of our young tragically lost along the way. And each year, it seems we mourn a little more. But as late June approaches, we enter a season of celebration.

These 16 graduates are symbols of tomorrow. Their stories serve as symbols of hope and courage. Their faces and names reflect a variety of ethnicities, but there is no such difference in the imprints they have made with their hands--and with their hearts.

Rasheen Smith will graduate from Cleveland High School in Reseda on Thursday. As a youngster, he was shuffled from place to place, left largely to fend for himself. He often would show up at friends' homes in time for dinner. Other times, he just wouldn't eat.

Rasheen attended five elementary schools until his grandmother took him in, bringing stability to his life. He graduates with a 3.8 grade-point average and will attend UC Berkeley this fall.

Some of the students have come great distances. Toan Nguyen's journey from Vietnam began when his father, an officer in the Democratic Southern Vietnamese regime, escaped from a prison camp. Because his father could not afford the necessary boat fees to evacuate his entire family, he took only Toan, his oldest son. They hid in a battered boat with 40 others, surviving on rainwater. When there was no more rain, they were forced to drink the rainwater that had collected in the bottom of the boat--mixed with oil and urine--until Greek merchants "arrived like angels."

Toan graduates from Benjamin Franklin High School in Los Angeles, where he has worked part-time as a janitor, ranked 27th in a class of more than 600. He will attend UC Irvine in the fall.

Erick Garcia was born in Mexico and came to the United States with his parents, who were migrant farm workers, when he was in the second grade. His mother now works on-call at a garment factory, his father is a machine operator.

In addition to excelling at Sylmar High School, Erick has worked up to 31 hours a week to help support his family. He graduates with a 4.1 grade-point average, will attend UCLA and hopes to become a teacher. In many ways, he already is.

But no one came from as far away as Diana Kononenko. As the 18-year-old wipes the wet cement from her hands, she says she cannot believe that she is so close to her dream, represented by four letters she first heard as a child in the Ukraine: UCLA.

"Not Stanford," she says, "not Harvard. In the Ukraine, UCLA is the best."

In April, 1992, Diana, her parents and grandmother gathered at a train station in Kiev, where friends and relatives stood in the cold to see them off. Her parents had told most people they were moving to Russia, afraid that if it became known they were en route to the United States, they would be killed before they could board an airplane in Moscow.

As they were waiting for the train, an elderly woman named Ella approached Diana and placed a tiny toy bird in her hands. She said it would protect her and give her courage. "May the wings of this bird," she said, "help you fly."

*

For Diana, coming to the United States meant leaving behind anti-Semitism in the Ukraine. It meant escaping the food lines, headaches and sickness that seemed to paralyze her after the disaster at Chernobyl, 60 miles away.

Her parents were hesitant about leaving their homeland even as they stepped onto the train. Both disabled, they were uncertain how they would survive in another country. As a child, Diana's mother, Faina Golodovskaya, 56, spent eight years in a body cast after being struck by tuberculosis. The right arm and leg of her father, Georgiy Kononenko, 51, are partially paralyzed, the result of a childhood head injury.

It was her maternal grandmother, Brokha Dekhtyar, now 79, who was certain enough for all of them. She had no doubt that in the United States there was a better life for them and especially for Diana, then 15. It was for Diana--her future--that the family came.

"It was impossible to live there anymore. There was so much anti-Semitism," Dekhtyar says through an interpreter. "Diana would not be able to go to college or get a job because she is Jewish."

Dekhtyar brought with her few reminders of the Ukraine, a few photographs and a pair of ruby earrings her mother gave to her as a wedding gift. She wears them every day. Dekhtyar says she needs no reminders of the past, preferring instead to look ahead and weigh the future through Diana's success.

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