Ukrainian students find a home at UNI

Ukrainian students find a home at UNI

UNI Community embraces war refugees

Oleh Shtefanchuk grew up learning English watching the television show, “Gossip Girl” and knew someday that he wanted to visit New York City. When an opportunity arose to become a high school exchange student in the United States, he jumped at the chance.

“I found an exchange program called FLEX. You compete with thousands of other kids, so it’s pretty rare to get in.”

Cedar Falls illustration

While he didn’t land in the Big Apple, Oleh — who goes by the nickname “Odee” in the U.S. — enjoyed his junior year at WACO High School in Wayland, Iowa. He hung out with friends and played on the football team. Then, he had planned to return home to his country of Ukraine.

“My town is called Chernivtsi, which is in western Ukraine. It’s pretty far from what’s happening, but a bomb can drop anytime.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 forced Odee and six other Ukrainian exchange students in Iowa to extend their stays through their senior years of high school. After that, options were slim. Unable to return to their home country, they were stranded on the other side of the world, away from their parents, friends and families, who were stuck in the middle of the conflict.

Ukrainian students

“I try to text them every day to ask if everything is okay,” said student Olya Hinchak. “My hometown’s airport was bombed in the very beginning. There is still bombing from time to time, but it is a safer part of Ukraine.

In Iowa, the students’ host families began contacting higher education institutions throughout the state to see if anyone was willing to help. “I’m hoping that some college will come up and say ‘We’ve got these kids. Come. We’re going to take care of you,’” said host mom Alli Johnson.

While other schools in the state were sympathetic, it wasn’t until Johnson placed a call to the University of Northern Iowa that she actually received an offer of assistance.

UNI Chief of Staff and Ukrainian native Oksana Grybovych Hafermann, ’08, heard Johnson’s plea. “I need to follow up. I need to find out what exactly is happening, how many students do we have, what are the circumstances and situation. The next step — what do we do?”

Temporary Protective Status was the first item on a long to-do list.

It allows the students to remain in the United States and attend UNI at the price of in-state tuition. The students also qualified for several merit-based scholarships. “These young people are incredibly bright and remarkably resilient,” said Grybovych Hafermann.

In fall 2023, all seven exchange students — along with an eighth student who fled Ukraine with her family when the war began — became freshmen at the University of Northern Iowa. Though the reasons for their presence on the Cedar Falls campus may be sobering, all eight are eternally grateful that fate and good fortune led them to UNI.

“For the first time in a year and a half I feel welcome. It really does feel like a second home,” said Ulyana Karpliuk, majoring in psychology. “I’m very grateful UNI has given me an opportunity to study abroad. It’s always been a dream of mine.”

“People at UNI made me feel welcomed and happy to be here,” said Daria Gramotieieva, majoring in statistics & actuarial science and business analytics. “I got a lot of help from counselors, staff and students. Their impact convinced me that I made the right choice.”

“All the people I have met so far were very nice and easy to get along with,” said Lucya Shapovalova, majoring in marketing: advertising and digital media. “They seem to actually care and want to help me.”

Five of the students spent their first year of college living on the same floor of Bender Hall, where they could often be found conversing in their native tongue. Because of what they’ve been through, all the students share an undeniable bond.

“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,” said Pete Moris, director of University Relations. “But they’re also very typical college students.”

Odee is now majoring in finance and also considering a major in accounting.“My plans are to stay here for four years.”

ukrainian art show

through art

To kick off Family Weekend 2023, the UNI Gallery of Art hosted a special exhibition on campus featuring artwork by Waterloo native and Des Moines resident Scott Charles Ross. Through his artwork, Ross aims to raise awareness about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has given significant financial and personal support to the students. The event was a celebration of the students’ presence on campus, yet it was also an emotional time, given the reasons behind their enrollment.