But the small town of Niceville, Fla. proved too sharp a contrast to Gassiy’s big city lifestyle in Saint Petersburg. After one semester in 2004, Gassiy headed home with no plans of returning to the United States.
Yet today, Gassiy is immersed in life as a student at UC Merced. His decision to give the country another try — first in Southern California, then Napa — paved his way to the University of California’s 10th campus.
Gassiy, a junior with a management  major and political science minor, sees a future of infinite possibilities. His UC Merced education is one important step. The campus's intimate atmosphere is providing him with opportunities he wouldn't find elsewhere.
“I believe it’s much better that this school has 5,000 to 6,000 students,” Gassiy said. “The professors do help you achieve your goals.”
An international student placement agent persuaded Gassiy to return to the U.S. by assuring him there was more to see.
Gassiy landed in Southern California. He lived with several host families — including a professional Santa Claus — and cultivated friendships with other Russians. He adjusted to the California lifestyle and spent time swimming, snowboarding and playing soccer.
After two years in high school, Gassiy moved to Napa because his grades were slipping a bit. His mother, an honorary lawyer in Russia, thought a smaller community would provide fewer distractions.
Gassiy graduated from Justin-Siena High School in Napa, and thought about European colleges before applying to public and private universities in the U.S.
Over time, Gassiy narrowed his options to the University of California system. His first choice was UC Merced, even though he had reservations about the small campus.
“I was not too sure at the beginning,” Gassiy said. But he settled into college life and an apartment, which he now shares with another Russian student at UC Merced.
Gassiy made friends and learned about Arab, Indian and other cultures through the students he met on campus. He joined several clubs and served as the chief communications officer for the Business Society  his freshman year.
Gassiy, who often travels to Los Angeles and other places on the weekend, said UC Merced has helped sharpen his interests. He sees a future with multiple careers, and believes UC Merced classes are giving him a good start.
Small-class sizes and the accessibility of professors are definite assets, he said. Gassiy also values the academic foundation and real-life experience that many professors bring to the classroom.
“You cannot just be book smart,” he said. “You have to know everything else.”
Gassiy hopes to complete his degree in 2014 and pursue a Master of Business Administration, probably on the East Coast. After that, he might try himself in the corporate world or start building a business empire.
Russian politics are another option, but he doesn’t want to be hemmed in by any specific long-range plans.
“You can’t plan life like that,” Gassiy said. “There are so many opportunities that could come up.”
He does want to follow in some of the footsteps of his mother, Marina, a hard worker who loves her job.
“I don’t want to be a lawyer," Gassiy said, "but I do want to be like my mother in that way."