In our lifetime we all will achieve numerous accomplishments, often improving the quality of life of others through vision. However, what about receiving a full-ride scholarship to a very prestigious southern university which has won five NCAA Division I football championships in the last nine years? Or better yet, saving the lives of no less than seven individuals? However, this article is not about these accomplishments; it is a very remarkable and compelling love story. Meet Patrick Stifter.
Patrick was working one summer as a lifeguard in a Kansas City, Missouri, water park. At the beginning of the summer he was joined by a fellow lifeguard Yelyzaveta (Liza for short) who was visiting from the Ukraine via a “work and travel program.” Like many love stories, they did not get off to a good start, as Patrick relates: “Our first interaction ever was on a 100+ degree day, and I had just dumped out the water cooler to go refill it, right as Liza was on her way to refill her bottle after spending 2 hours standing in the sun. She said something along the lines of ‘I needed water!’ to which I replied, ‘Well, there’s a whole pool full of it right there.’ The flat delivery didn’t come across well, and Eastern Europeans aren’t accustomed to sarcasm.”
Soon that would all change. During their last week together they started spending time together . . . serious time. There was one problem, however. Liza’s visa was expiring, and she would have to return to Kiev, Ukraine. Likewise, Patrick was headed off to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to study at the home of the Crimson Tide, the University of Alabama. But Patrick was a man on a mission and no distance was far enough to keep him from Liza. He visited her multiple times in Kiev, as she was not allowed to visit him. The obvious answer was obtaining a new visa, a very daunting task according to Patrick: “It turns out that’s like, really, hard without a lawyer. We did all the paperwork and filing on our own. We were denied one student visa and one tourist visa. After over a year of perpetual waiting and failing, it seemed as if we would never be able to live on the same continent legally. We simply couldn’t prove to the United States embassy that Liza was not attempting to illegally stay in the United States. Those were the most stressful times of my life, and it was challenging to stay focused at school.”
Patrick’s persistence was unfailing, and he would not give up on the love story that IS himself and Liza. During the spring semester of his sophomore year, they finally succeeded getting her a visa to study English language classes at the University of Alabama. This news, as Patrick relates, was life-changing. “Waking up to the text ‘VISA FOR LIZA!’ was an enormous moment in my life. We were approved for this visa because Liza was, at the time, a Masters student in philology, and the U.S. government decided this was a legitimate visa and study option. After Liza took six months of language classes, we decided her English was good enough to enter the community college down the street from Bama. Over the next two years she completed her second degree, an associate’s in business management, graduating summa cum laude. Things kept being great, and so 3.5 years after we met, I proposed and we were married on July 6th, 2018! On Wednesday, September 26, 2018, we filed a 206 page application that is the first step in getting her a green card, and later, citizenship.”
And Patrick and Liza had one other important quality in common: life-saving. The water park they worked at, Oceans of Fun, employs about 150 lifeguards every year because of the 440,000 guests that visit every summer. As a result, the risk of drowning was very real as Patrick states: “ . . . the area I worked at for the two summers I was a lifeguard was supposed to be a family-friendly area, where kids and adults could both have fun. Many times children would go down the slides when their parents weren’t looking and instantly go underwater, drowning. It can be a really scary thing to witness, and I had seven official water rescues due to this, and dozens of other minor rescues. Liza had a handful of saves as well.”
And Liza deserves an assist for Patrick’s pursuit of a career in optometry. After obtaining a full ride scholarship to the University of Alabama and watching them win two more national championships, he considered the possibility of medical school, a decision influenced by the powerful force lifeguarding had been for him. From that point, however, he wandered through the journey, constantly changing majors. “Once every semester until I was a second semester sophomore–computer science, to business, to geology (I really had no idea what I was doing at this point), to political science pre-law, and finally political science pre-optometry. The final switch, with optometry school in mind, was due to Liza. After she moved to Alabama for me, we had to go to a lot of doctors for various things that had gone untreated in Ukraine, as their healthcare situation is truly bleak. Spending time with all the doctors that were changing Liza’s life as their job really moved me, and I knew I wanted to ultimately end up in the health care field. I had been kidding myself by attempting to enter any other field. I shadowed a dentist and an optometrist, and it became an easy choice from there. Optometrists really get to know their patients, and the gift of sight is really powerful. Not to mention the work/life balance they get to enjoy. I couldn’t be more excited about where I am headed, and the fact I took the long road to get here after all of those field of study changes just makes me more sure about my choice.”
And he’s glad he chose UMSL. “My classmates are fantastic. I’ve loved getting to know everyone. Two of the big reasons I chose UMSL were the small class sizes and the family feel, and I was right in following my gut on those things. I couldn’t be more excited to spend four years with these people. We all get along really well, and I love that the family feel is encouraged and promoted by the school.” The feeling is mutual. In a story that would translate very well to the big screen, we are very proud to welcome Patrick Stifter – and Liza – to the UMSL family.