I had the good fortune of meeting Victoria Chentsova ’19 during First Days this past fall and immediately recognized that she was not a typical first year. While she was certainly nervous – it was her first time ever in the continental United States – she emanated an aura of confidence and reassurance. Hailing from Saipan, a small island halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines, she is now a beloved member of the women’s varsity swim team, possibly a soon-to-be founder of a new a capella group and, most importantly, an amazing friend.
You hail far from Williamstown. What brought you all the way here?
My step-dad went here, and that’s how I knew about it. I guess just probably the fact that it’s so different from Saipan. But, at the same time, it’s different in ways I wanted it to be different and the same in the ways I was looking for it to be the same. [For example], the small-town feel and small school and very tight-knit community, which is a lot like Saipan. But at the same time, now I’m in New England. The weather is completely different, culturally it’s really different. I get the new cultural experience without having to step too far out of my comfort zone. Actually, the weather was a pretty big part of it: to have four seasons was something like, “why not try it out?”
You saw snow for the first time ever here at the College, right?
Yeah! One morning in October it snowed a little bit and I was like, “Oh my god what the hell is going on?!” So I ran outside with my friend and we were like, “What the hell is this?” Then a few weeks later when it snowed again was the first time I had ever actually played with snow. That’ll probably be the last time for this year because it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to snow again.
What are some of the biggest cultural differences you’ve seen?
I’d like to say that back home and here are pretty similar, which they are, but there are still a few big differences. Because it’s so small back home, we don’t have people that commute in and out [of Saipan]. Everybody that’s there is stuck there. You know everyone on the island, and it’s not just getting to know other students your age. You also know adults, you know kids, you babysit, and everybody is somehow connected. In Saipan when you go to the beach and you see strangers, they offer you food and it’s completely okay to sit and eat with them. We don’t have “stranger danger” at home like the same way it is here. One of the cultural differences I realized was in common language. I had a mini-crisis when I came to school wearing ‘flip-flops’ but called them slippers. So many people called me out on calling [them] slippers! But that’s what we call them in Saipan, well that and Zoris, but no one would take me seriously if I called them Zoris.
You grew up in a much different part of the world than most kids at the College. Did you have any opportunities to travel to different countries and experience other cultures?
Oh yeah, we went to Japan a lot. Not just Tokyo, but the Osaka and Kyoto areas because that’s where a lot of my friends’ families are from. Of course, we’ve been to Tokyo a couple times, just because it’s Tokyo and when you go to Japan you should go to Tokyo if you can, but also a lot of different places in Japan. And also [South Korea] as well as a lot of other neighboring countries in the Pacific islands, like Guam and Palau.
And you love Guam, right?
Ah, no! So the rivalry between Saipan and Guam is almost like Boston and New York. Within the Pacific, Saipan and Guam are so similar, and the people are the same – they’re both Chamorro, the native people – but Guam was adopted into the U.S. before World War One and we were brought into the U.S. after World War Two, so Guam is much more Americanized than Saipan. People on Saipan always say that Guam’s Chamorro culture is really diluted, then people from Guam say, “Well, we have malls and you guys don’t, so…” But when it comes to the Pacific Islands against the rest of the world, like in competitions, then Guam and Saipan are really, really close.
You always compete in swimming against Guam, right?
Yeah, so when it’s just us, it’s a huge rivalry. But when it’s us in the Pacific Games, the Micronesia Games, or World Championships or something, then Guam and Saipan almost merge into one team. We always hang out together and stay at the same hotels.
You represented Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands at swimming World Championships. What was that like?
Yeah! It’s kind of funny, because for us, it’s not really a meet where we think about placing. To us, meets like Micronesia Games, the Oceania Championships and Pacific Games are more important and more serious, so we’ll taper for those meets rather than World’s. For World’s, we go more for the experience and representing our country, to show, “Hey, we might have like five swimmers but they can kind of swim!” It was a lot of fun. I got to see a lot of new places and traveled to places I otherwise never would have gone to, especially because our federation puts a lot of focus on getting involved with cultural things there. Like, in Spain, we went and saw the Sagrada Família and a lot of other famous places in Barcelona and Spain. That was for World’s in 2013. World’s were in Shanghai in 2011, then 2012 was in Istanbul, then 2013 in Barcelona, 2014 in Qatar, and 2015 in Kazan. A lot of really random places. It’s a lot of fun, and you get to know a lot of people, which is cool.
Who did you get to meet?
Because we all stay in the same places, you get to see a lot of famous people. I’ve seen people like [American competitive swimmers] Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian. [Giggles and blushes.] I actually swam in a lane with Ryan Lochte for warm down once. It was so embarrassing! There weren’t many lanes that were empty, so I jumped in a lane with him, but I didn’t know it was him. I remember he was going really fast and I was swimming in front of him and I was like, “oh my gosh I’m going so slow I should move out of this guy’s way.” So I stopped on the wall and was going to let him pass and he did the absolute slowest flip turn ever, and then stopped. And I thought, “what the hell is this guy doing?” I was going to let him pass… And the I saw the name Lochte on his cap and I was like, “I’m dead, I can’t even breathe right now.” I freaked out so hard.
I know you want to start an a capella group here on campus. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Oh my god. My WOOLF [Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First years] leader and I had been talking about it a lot over WOOLF. We want to start an a capella group called “Flockapella” and sing only Waka Flocka songs. I think it’d be really dope. I don’t think I would actually be a part of it, but I would love to get it started. But also, I would want Kanye songs to be in there too because that would be really cool.
You were also on a Korean reality TV show once. What was that like?
I’m going to kill whoever told you about that! It’s so embarrassing! A lot of Korean TV shows come to Saipan and bring really, really famous Korean celebrities. So there’s this band called TVXQ, which is like the One Direction of Korea, and there’s this one guy whose name is Changmin, and he was featured in this show called Cool Kiz on the Block. They take a celebrity and make them play sports against a group of people that actually play that sport. So they had a special episode of the show where they came to Saipan to play ping pong against the Saipan ping pong team, because apparently we have a ping pong team. And that was most of the episode, but then at the end they had other celebrities playing sports against local teams. So there was like basketball and soccer, and then there was swimming. My friend’s mom is Korean and knew someone at the show, so she recommended me, her daughter and her husband for the swimming part of the show. [So] we swam against these celebrities. We did it in a random resort pool with no lane lines, and the first time they filmed it the people filming complained that we had beaten the celebrities by too much because the celebrities were really, really slow. So they asked us to slow down and just make it look like we were splashing a lot, so we did. It was so embarrassing! A bunch of people came up to me after the episode, like tourists would come up to me and be like, “Are you that person from the TV show?!” and I would be like “Oh my god no, how the hell did you see that!?” It was on TV and a ton of people saw it.