S asha celebrated his 20th birthday on July 12. When he's not busy studying for his Linguistics degree, he's either playing cards with the guys or going out with his girlfriend -- dinner and a movie or maybe just clubbing. As a part-time job, he's a bartender where the tips are good.<P> In a lot of ways, Sasha is like many of us: hard at work, hard at play and trying to find a nice balance. But I wouldn't be telling you his story if there weren't a key difference that sets him apart.<P> When Sasha passes by beggars in the street, he can't just turn the other way, but tossing some change won't clear his conscience. Unlike the rest of us, there is no guarantee that wherever he goes or whatever he does, everything will work out.<P> He knows this because he's witnessed millions of cases where it never does.<P> He knows this because he doesn't attend Penn, Penn State or even the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.<P> He knows this because he lives in the Russian city of Perm and goes to the university there. And because of this simple distinguishing factor of location, Sasha's entire outlook on his future is vastly different from ours.<P> Russia is a country in serious trouble that runs deeper than sunken submarines. But as it lacks the glamour of tax plans and Medicare, its news rarely reaches our ears.<P> Here are a few figures to chew on:<P> Russia recently has undergone an unprecedented decrease in population for an industrialized country -- from 148 million three years ago to 145 million today. While we debate the pros and cons of RU486, Russia has the world's highest abortion rate -- two out of every three pregnancies end this way.<P> Russian men have Europe's highest mortality rate, with a life expectancy less than 60 years. Two out of every three working-age men who die do so from alcohol-related causes. Russian men are four times as likely as American men to commit suicide.<P> Most startling -- and most revealing -- 40 percent of Russians live below the poverty line. Teachers in the United States may be underpaid, but they do not make $40 a month like their Russian counterparts.<P> We here at Penn operate on a nice, comfortable assumption that regardless of career choice, be it Internet start-up or nonprofit organization, we will make ends meet. While we fret at info sessions or career fairs that we may end up making -- perish the thought -- under $30,000 in our first year, we know that life will be just fine. By virtue of our degree alone, our odds of winning the lottery are better than ever going hungry or homeless.<P> Given a choice, Sasha would like to follow his passion and work in linguistics. Making that choice, however, resigns him to a life of abject poverty. If he wants to afford the simply luxury of buying his girlfriend flowers, he must continue to work wherever he can find it -- currently, behind a bar.<P> Our peers across the globe are living in a different world. For them, the choices are not between Cancun and Jamaica for spring break. They may never even take a plane ride in their entire life, while most of us simply hop on the Internet to get a ticket home for Thanksgiving.<P> Maybe these are just minor quibbles and obvious differences as a result of my being from the wealthiest country in the world. On the other hand, it's pretty amazing to stop and think about how much better off we are -- not because we're smarter, not because we work harder, not because we deserve it. Just because we live in the United States.<P> That others aren't as lucky doesn't mean we owe it to follow a Mother Theresa life. It does mean we owe it to our peers to recognize the advantages we have and not waste them. Because at the end of the day, every child still deserves a future -- sadly enough, few in Sasha's country actually have one.<P> Be grateful for the endless opportunities and comforts that lay ahead of you regardless of what you choose, whether that be investment banker or janitor. For every one of you, there are 50 Sashas who would give it all up in a heartbeat just to have a chance.<P> This is the message he asked me to send.<P>Comments powered by Disqus
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