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Immigrant Teen Has Little, Except Tons of Talent To Go Far

By Fred Dickey

Sept. 14, 2015

In American lore, this is where it starts: The storyline of the child of a struggling immigrant family becoming the embodiment of the American Dream, and whose achievements make the entire family proud. It is a staple of the American legend that’s drifting toward cliché status in our social lexicon.

But those who have a need to sneer at such things would have a hard time explaining Sergiy Chemodanov.

Sergiy is a 17-year-old high school senior and computer whiz. He’s a kid, but in terms of gigibytes and gigaflops (Google gave me those) he’s middle-aged. However old he is, I’m in awe. If I try to maneuver a computer outside my well-worn groove, it’s like trying to parallel park an 18-wheeler.

Sergiy is tall, slim, fair haired and handsome. If I were a winsome lass at San Marcos High School, I’d keep an eye on him, because the guy is going to make a mark. (Oops! Is that sexist?...Only to those never young.)

Sergiy arrived a decade ago from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine with his single mom, Zhanna. He knew a few words of English, but was thrown into an immersion pool in first grade with a smattering of ESL help. However, by second grade, he was fluent in English, and without an accent.

“At first, I was embarrassed with all the kids staring at me, but that didn’t last. I learned English mainly by talking to friends, listening to other people's conversations, and just from kids telling me things.”

That demonstrates a couple of things: That children have the mental suppleness to learn English quickly from their day-to-day environment, but if that environment does not include everyday English, then the learning is dragged out. It also says that Sergiy was a bright child.

Sergiy now has command of four languages: Russian, Ukrainian, English, and of late, Mandarin Chinese, in which he says he is “reasonably fluent.”

Mandarin Chinese? That would be like a Cessna pilot jumping into the cockpit of a Boeing 777.


Sergiy is more than just a smart kid. Were he not, I’d be writing about something else, because, thankfully, there are a lot of those. What attracts me is his character and maturity. Those qualities are not so plentiful in his age group (or in any other, I fairly add).

“I started using computers when I was very young. Just playing games. I sort of graduated from games, but back then, it was fascinating how you could just get into another world through a screen. I thought that was pretty cool.”

In just the past six months he has created two websites and two apps. (“Apps” are programs that are far more complex than websites.)

A year ago, Sergiy and a school pal, Alexander Katson, went into business and put together a beginning instructional on computer programming for middle school kids. It was a 16-session summer class for $200.

The class was successful, so they decided to offer it free to kids who probably couldn’t come up with the $200.

“We went and talked to the Boys and Girls Club of San Marcos. We're like, ‘Hey, we got this programming class. We'd like to bring it to your kids to teach them free of charge.’ We started doing it last summer, about once a week. A lot of them actually didn't own computers. A lot of times, the session had an overflow of kids. By the end of the course, they were able to do a lot of (elementary) programming.”

The experience created in him an awareness of public service. “I guess I didn't realize it until then that I definitely want to help people, and it's a good feeling.”

Arriving in the U.S., the two things Sergiy looked forward to were a car and a house of their own, because people in Ukraine commonly live in those ugly Soviet-built concrete apartment houses.

“When we came here, we were on the freeway, and I see all these cars, I was like--I can't believe that this existed."

Over the 10 years they’ve been here, the car has become a reality, but the family is still in an apartment. Even though it’s much nicer than the one they left, the dream is yet unfilled.

Sergiy never knew his father who, he is told, was an engineer and also an alcoholic. He left the family while Sergiy was a baby and never reappeared.

Would you like to find him someday?

“I’ve lived my life without him, so I don't really feel the need to do that. Never met him, never spoke to him, don't know really anything of him.”I think it's ... I don't know. I don't really feel the incline that I want to fi

Sergey has found a surrogate father in Martin [English spelling] Prado whom he calls dad and leaves the “step” off. Martin works two full time jobs to support the family of four. Still, his combined income is underpowered for more than cautious living in expensive North County.

Sergiy’s mother was a geology graduate in the old country. Once here, she worked in low-pay jobs while scrimping and studying to earn a master’s degree in accounting, which she recently accomplished.

The hopes for Sergiy and his family have not quite happened in the way that the immigrant can be forgiven for anticipating. They are hard-working folks who ask for nothing they don’t earn and live quietly and modestly.

Does that bother a young guy who goes to a school where a lot of his peers have nice cars and don’t have to beg dad for gas money?

He doesn’t even have to think about an answer. “It's okay. Just because someone else's situation is better than yours, doesn't mean you should feel any kind of jealousy towards them.

“Growing up, I was always dreaming of ‘Ooh, I want a house. I want this kind of video game system.’ It hasn’t happened. I thought, ‘Oh, in a few years, we're going to have a nice house, and we're going to have all this cool stuff, crazy backyard, and trampolines.

“I always imagined these wild dreams, right? It didn't really happen that way, but that's okay. It's no one's fault. My parents are working as hard as they can, and I admire that. We have what we need, nothing much more. But there’s love in the house.”

Zhanna, says of her only son: “We are very proud of him. He's a nice boy. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. He does sport. His grades are very good. He's always helping with his younger sister, Bethany. He's nine years older than her, and he was babysitting her ever since she was born.”

Sergiy has the matter-of-factness of the technical mind. As his mother says, he’s an excellent student, but asked to name his weakest subject, he pauses.

“I don’t know. Nothing comes to mind. I guess my writing could be improved.”

So could mine, Sergiy.

His answer is not arrogance. It’s just that I asked a question, and he answered it. The problem-solving mind in action.

Sergiy plans to major in computer science in college and then become a software engineer. Eventually, he’d like to become an entrepreneur and become immodestly rich.

This young man may someday become a big deal in the computer industry. Don’t bet against it. But if what he has done in his youth is any indication, it’s a sure-thing bet that whatever he does, he will find a way to contribute. That you can program.

Fred Dickey's email is

His website is

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