Despite transient childhood, East Lyme senior finds roots in math, science

East Lyme — Having moved between towns and cities in Russia and China throughout his childhood, Mikhail Romanenko said that when his family suddenly decided to move to Connecticut, he thought it would be a move just like the rest.

“I had experience moving to China,” the now 17-year-old East Lyme High School senior said. “So I wasn’t scared about moving to a different country.”

But soon after starting his freshman year here, Romanenko said he realized his initial expectations were deeply mistaken.

“I was in a whole new environment, and I wasn’t prepared for it,” he said. “It was scary just to go to school ... being in a different culture, speaking in a different language, it was all scary. It was the roughest period of my life.”

Describing himself as shy and reserved after having been homeschooled most of his life due to his family’s constant moving, Romanenko said it wasn’t just the culture shock of relocating to a new country that threw him through a loop. He also barely knew how to speak English when he arrived.

“All I was thinking was how to understand. I was understanding just 20 percent of the speech,” he said.

But with a drive to do well in his new school, Romanenko said he made it his mission to master the language as quickly as possible.

Four years later, Romanenko is not only fluent in English but successfully has assimilated into his new life in America. He has made the honor roll every semester since starting at East Lyme High School, and has thrived in classes requiring a high level of English, including AP U.S. History and Civics.

Though he sometimes misses Russia and its food, Romanenko said he wants to stay in the United States, with plans to study physics and computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology next fall.

Described by his high school chemistry teacher Lori Singer as having an “innate drive” to do well in everything he takes part in, Singer said Romanenko not only has excelled in science and math, but has consistently achieved the highest scores in those subjects on his AP exams and class finals.

“I think he is super motivated and he has a laser focus. When he wants to learn something, he learns it,” Singer said. “What stood out to me about him is that in chemistry most kids just memorize the steps on how to do things. But he actually understood how and why things worked. He did phenomenally.”

Actively competing with his school’s Science Olympiad team, as well as the Math League, Romanenko also practices martial arts and takes part in his school’s chemistry, chess and physics clubs, the latter of which he founded last year.

Describing that club, Romanenko’s physics teacher Bradford Normand said, “Mikhail ran the club completely on his own. He would go through exams and find interesting problems and would talk to the group about how to solve them. ... It was a pretty rigorous club. There wasn’t a lot of downtime or play, like how some might imagine a physics club to be.”

“He is incredibly gifted,” Normand continued, while also explaining that Romanenko pushed himself to take advance level physics classes throughout his high school years, including courses at Connecticut College this year. “He has a real intuitive handle for things.”

Romanenko said he has always had an innate understanding of math since he was young. His parents, he said, were adamant that he learn the subject despite all the moving and being homeschooled.

“They would give me equations to solve every day,” he said. “And they always made sure I would do it, even if I didn’t want to or was being lazy.”

Describing math as “a language that can be understood universally,” Romanenko said that math, as well as science, has acted as a stabilizer in his ever-changing life.

Moving forward, Romanenko said he feels ready to turn a new leaf in college. In particular, he hopes to be more social, despite having made friends at East Lyme High School.

“I was exposed to the culture and life here and it changed me,” Romanenko said. He added he was thankful for his kind and supportive teachers at East Lyme High School. “It allowed me to become more social and more open — more open to speak a different language.”

“So now I want to be more outgoing in college,” he said. “I want to join clubs and meet people. I want a full college experience.”

“I’m ready for challenges,” he said. “And I am looking forward to a new beginning.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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