College Life in Wartime: Ukrainian Student Stories
Relief map illustration of Ukraine. (iStock)
RUSSO-UKRAINIAN FIGHTING WEIGHS HEAVILY ON FROST RESEARCH SCHOLARS WITH TIES TO THE WAR-TORN REGION
by nick wilson
The widespread devastation and emotional upheaval of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine have hit three Bailey College of Science and Mathematics students — Nika Bondar, Irina Ivchenko and Kseniya Krayeva — particularly hard.
I can make a bigger impact as a scientist, living in the U.S., rather than as a soldier, dying in Ukraine.
Chemistry and physics major and Frost Research Scholar
Each with family ties in the region, they’re faced with trying to concentrate on their studies, while worrying about family, friends and the future of Ukraine. All recipients of the Frost Research Scholarship, they’re working toward their Cal Poly degrees with objectives of giving back to the embattled region in various ways.
Each says their Cal Poly education will offer ways to help, directly or indirectly. Bondar, who's double majoring in chemistry and physics, spent early childhood years in Kyiv, Ukraine, before emigrating to California at age 12 with her parents and brother.
Nika, of Sunnyvale, California, where her parents and brother live, hopes to one day return home to rebuild Ukrainian infrastructure heavily damaged by the onslaught of artillery. "I can make a bigger impact as a scientist, living in the U.S., rather than as a soldier, dying in Ukraine," Bondar said.
I felt very impacted and emotional. I remember skipping a lab during the week the war began because I could not stop crying.
Biological sciences major and Frost Research Scholar
Nika keeps in regular contact with Ukrainian relatives. She recalls the destruction and loss of life during her youth as fighting took place in the eastern part of the Ukraine in 2014. Her grandparents relocated their home multiple times for refuge. The conflict was a precursor to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.
“If it were not for my love for science, I would choose to be on the battlefield, in Ukraine, protecting my home,” Bondar said. “It often gets difficult to resist that calling, and every day since this full-scale invasion started, I wake up, read the news, check on my surviving relatives and choose to stay in this country.”
Over the summer, Nika interned at Brookhaven National Laboratory and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland), where she researched nuclear energy, expertise that she hopes will be useful toward future rehabilitation.
“The Russians have destroyed a lot of the power stations in Ukraine,” Bondar said. “Throughout Ukrainian history, we’ve had to take back our country, rebuild and return things that were lost. Our resilience is a very Ukrainian trait. I don’t know how much of Ukraine will be left when I go back. But I hope to be able to help however I can.”
NIka previously spoke as part of a fundraising drive on the Cal Poly campus, organized with friends at the start of the war, and urges people to look into the various humanitarian ways that they can help.
I am planning to help in any way I can. If my degree provides a way for me to help, then I will use it.
Mathematics and physics major and Frost Research Scholar
Krayeva, a biological sciences major, has family roots that trace back to the former Soviet Union. Krayeva’s father grew up in what is now Ukraine, and her mother was raised in Russia, both attending university in the Moscow area.
Kseniya, of Novato, California, said that the war has evoked unsettled feelings: “Especially in the beginning, I felt very impacted and emotional. It was hard to imagine and read about the war going on. I remember skipping a lab during the week the war began because I could not stop crying.”
For Krayeva, the concern for family remains deep-seated and complicated with relatives in Ukraine and Belarus with whom she keeps in touch.
“I think people should understand how war seeps into every single part of life, even the things we take as normal day-to-day existence,” Kseniya said. “It's having to boil pots of water to take a warm shower. It’s broken windows that cannot be repaired and not simply being able to see a doctor on a whim. It's not being able to take a walk around the block.”
Krayeva said her grandmother has lost hot water, electricity and had windows broken by blasts. Krayeva strives to channel her energy “into working harder and doing better.”
Kseniya visited Belarus and Ukraine every summer until age 11, and she hopes to find ways to help the region, feeling lucky about her degree choice, focusing on cellular and molecular biology, and Frost program involvement: “I don't know if my degree will help directly, but I think it will give me the time and monetary opportunities to give back.”
Ivchenko, a double major in math and physics, was born in the U.S. after her parents and older brother moved from Luhansk, Ukraine in 2001. Ivchenko, of Campbell, California, said she has worried deeply about family in Ukraine, who have experienced bombings nearby and fled danger.
"Typically, we don’t ask our family members there much about the war besides how safe they are," Irina said. "If something happens, like a friend’s apartment being bombed, or someone dying, they let us know. We try to keep conversations as normal as we can. It brings everyone more comfort."
Ivchenko currently volunteers with a non-profit to pack humanitarian aid supplies to Ukraine, and she wants to help rebuild damaged Ukranian infrastructure and housing.
"I am planning to help in any way I can," Irina said. "If my degree provides a way for me to help, then I will use it."
Apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine, damaged during the Russo-Urkainian war. Bondar's grandparents lived in the building and survived the attack. (All photos courtesy of featured students.)