UNI turns dreams to degrees for eight Ukrainian students

UNI turns dreams to degrees for eight Ukrainian students

Eight Ukrainian students in Panther gear

When eight Ukrainian high school exchange students found themselves stranded in the United States and unable to return to their home country, the options for the future were slim. The students came to Iowa in summer 2021 to complete their junior years of high school. When war broke out in Ukraine, their stays in the U.S. were extended through the end of their senior years of high school. 

What would happen after that was uncertain.

The students’ host families began contacting private and public higher education institutions throughout Iowa to see if anyone was willing to help. “I’m hoping that some college will come up and say ‘We got these kids. Come. We’re going to take care of you,'” host mom Alli Johnson told WHO-TV this past March.

The University of Northern Iowa answered the call. 

"We've had many wonderful people at UNI facilitating this process at every step of the way,” said Pete Moris, director of University Relations. “Kristi Marchesani and her team in International Relations and Admissions really got the ball rolling. Then Kristin Woods in Enrollment Management and Student Success stepped in. And in terms of working with the host families on finding potential scholarship dollars, Dan Breitbach from the UNI Foundation really stepped up.

“I would also mention the behind-the-scenes work of our Chief of Staff, Oksana Grybovych Hafermann,” Moris continued. “She is a Ukrainian native who has been a valuable conduit between the institution, the students and their host families from the very beginning. She’s also been our liaison with state and federal offices throughout the process. Many have offered their support as we continue to guide the students through an ongoing complexity of legal processes.”

“This is a very unique situation,” said Marchesani, director of International Recruitment & Admission. “The leaders in our state and here at the University of Northern Iowa saw a group in need.”

Still, challenges are ahead, with each student accountable for at least $10,000 for every year of college. The Ukrainian economy has suffered, their families back home have no money, and as exchange students, the group is unable to get loans. 

“These young people are incredibly bright and remarkably resilient,” said Grybovych Hafermann. “I am grateful for Alli and Brock Johnson, Alli’s mother Mary Curley and Representative Sue Cahill for their support, advocacy and persistence in exploring every possible avenue to help these students find a way to attend college, and continue to be amazed by the outpouring of support from across the state.”

While the students have qualified for several scholarships, they are looking forward to finding jobs on campus or in the community to help cover the costs. The UNI Foundation is also working to identify donors to help supplement some of the remaining costs of tuition, books, and room and board. 

“All the people I have met so far were very nice and easy to get along with,” said Lucya Shapovalova, one of the students. “They seem to actually care and want to help me. When we were working in smaller groups during the orientation recently, all the other students were fun to be around and I was able to make some friends.”

“I am eagerly looking forward to facing new academic challenges and gaining broad knowledge in my chosen field of study,” said Ulyana Karplyuk, another student. “I'm also excited about meeting peers who share similar interests, values and hobbies as me. I think UNI will provide a perfect environment for me to do that.”

The UNI Art Gallery is even in the mix, with plans to host a special exhibition on campus Sept. 29 - Oct. 1. The exhibit will feature works created by Scott Charles Ross, a Waterloo native now living in Des Moines. Ross has given significant financial and personal support to the students.

"They are some impressive young people for all they've been through, for what their families have been through, for what their country has been through," Moris said. "But they're also very typical of incoming college students."

The students are also looking forward to a performance by the Kyiv Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, which is scheduled for March 10.

The Ukrainian exchange students join more than 150 international students from nearly 70 countries.

Support the Ukrainian students.