It’s Oct. 9, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. Polina Shemanova spikes the volleyball. In one swift move, she solidifies a record of 1,701 kills and breaks the previous record of 1,698 career kills held by fellow Syracuse University player Dana Fiume ‘01. But there was a time when Shemanova felt confused while playing the game she loves most.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shemanova arrived in Central New York in 2017 for her first year at Syracuse University. Though she had been learning English since second grade and was privately tutored in the language as she prepared for college, there was still a challenging adjustment period—from volleyball vocabulary to salutations.
“The first month [in the U.S.] was the biggest culture shock,” she says. The casual greeting “how are you” was especially confusing.
“When I was a freshman, it was more people being super curious, asking ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what’s your cultural background?’” she says. “I enjoyed the curiosity of other people that sparked right away when you tell them your background. It took me like a month to realize, oh shoot, [how are you] is just a greeting.”
When deciding on her higher education, Shemanova says the ability of Syracuse University student athletes to confidently speak in front of audiences drew her to the school. As an undergraduate, Shemanova majored in communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and linguistic studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.
After graduation, she wanted to continue her volleyball career while nursing an interest in sports media. The Newhouse School was the perfect fit.
“Anytime that we have current athletes in our program, it is a great opportunity for the other students to really learn more about being a college athlete, not only how to interact with the mass media, but to better understand what college athletes go through on an everyday basis,” says Olivia Stomski, director of Newhouse’s Sports Media Center.
Stomski and Shemanova, who’s majoring in broadcast and digital journalism, first met through a Zoom call and have built a strong connection over Shemanova’s time at Newhouse.
“She’s so positive,” Stomski says. “Her energy is absolutely contagious. The time that I was able to spend with her and our relationship was very much built on her enthusiasm and interest in becoming a grad student here at Newhouse.”
Shemanova’s life is drastically different from her time as an undergraduate. She has days where she’ll wake up at 4 a.m., workout at 5 a.m., and then attend classes from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Balancing athletics with graduate-level academics has left the student athlete with little spare time in her schedule, but “I love it to death,” she says.
“All the hours I’ve spent at Newhouse are what make me the person I want to be,” she says. “It’s completely worth it being busy. Time management is everything.”
Shemanova is organized and ambitious, while also uplifting those around her.
“When you’re around Polina and even if you’re not interacting with her, one of the things that really sets her apart is that she does her best to bring out the best in others,” Stomski says.
Shemanova recognizes her innate curiosity as an international student, and how that increases her awareness as a journalist. She covered a story on immigrants attending the Northside Learning Center, which offers free English language classes to refugees and immigrants, as well as a story on a woman from Somalia who recently opened up a restaurant in Syracuse.
While building her broadcast journalism skills in classes, Shemanova reflects on the prestige of Newhouse’s faculty.
“The fact that someone can learn from a professional still in the industry is amazing,” she says. “Newhouse never sleeps.”
As for the future, Shemanova wants to play volleyball professionally. If that doesn’t work out, she would “love to develop my career in the news world,” she says, while being a color commentator for volleyball on the side.
Whatever Shemanova does, Stomski won’t be shocked.
“If you told me that she was the president of a network or you told me that she was the leading analyst for the Olympics, nothing would surprise me when it comes to what she’s capable of doing.”
Nico Horning is a first-year student in the broadcast and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.