You get used to the missile attacks and bombings eventually, Bohdana Yakobchuk says. After leaving Ukraine to study at Notre Dame this fall, though, she noticed the sound of planes flying over campus startled her. During her first few days on campus, she was scared by fireworks and the sound of firetrucks blasting their sirens as they raced out of the Notre Dame Fire Department, less than a quarter mile from her room in Johnson Family Hall.
Yakobchuk is one of 10 women (most men ages 18-60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine in case they are called to serve) from the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv studying as exchange students at Notre Dame this semester. Notre Dame, like many other universities, launched the program this year in light of the Russo-Ukrainian War, expanding an 18-year partnership between UCU and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.
Yakobchuk, 20, knew the university was testing its emergency notification system on Sept. 28. She didn’t know J-Fam was also holding a fire drill.
The second-year student maintains it didn’t provoke a severe response; it was more a shot of adrenaline than panic. Though for a moment the alarm and other “triggering” sounds transported her back to the beginning of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, when she and her friends from UCU were walking back from the supermarket in Lviv.
“(The air sirens) sound very scary when you’re outside because usually there are a couple of sirens behind you,” Yakobchuk says, “and they kind of resonate because they’re not completely in unison.”
It’s normal, fellow exchange student Kristina Bohdanova says, to feel on edge away from home. The 30-year-old medical doctor obtaining her master’s in clinical psychology says the mental well-being of people who leave their troubled homelands is often worse than of those who stay behind. When Yakobchuk thinks of her parents still living outside Rivne, a city of almost 250,000 people less than 100 miles from the Belarusian border, she deals with “survivor’s guilt.”
As a result of Russia’s attacks on energy facilities ahead of winter, her family is only allowed to use electricity eight hours per day. Even though they go the other ⅔ of the day without water or heat, they tell her they’re doing OK.
Yakobchuk knows it’s beneficial that she’s in the United States acquiring skills and sharing her story — she participated in a panel hosted on campus titled “Voices from Ukraine” with several of the exchange students in late September — and not taking up resources currently scarce in her homeland. Yet, she still feels “a need to come back.”
“It’s almost like a self-sabotage thing,” she says, “because of the guilt that you feel, that you want to be back there and you want to be further traumatized and feel worse than you do now.”
“IT’S STILL FEBRUARY”
Yakobchuk, like many of her friends, tried to ignore the possibility of war in the months and weeks leading up to the invasion. When it was time to return to school at the end of winter vacation, however, her mother gave her a sheet listing the numbers of all the family’s friends abroad and also handed over some euros in case she and her friends were forced to flee to Western Europe.
As a historian (currently wrapping up her PhD dissertation), Solomiia Rozlutska was “70% sure” war would break out given Russia’s pattern of aggression since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. For two weeks leading up to the invasion, she went to the grocery store every day, also packing an emergency bag with lighters, matches and two small knives.
Bohdanova was much more reluctant to pack her own emergency bag, even as friends in the armed forces stationed in Mariupol — which would become the site of a humanitarian nightmare before the city fell to Russia in May — were told to evacuate their families.
“We were really oppressing this thought,” Bohdanova says of the threat of war, but it became almost impossible to ignore on Feb. 21, when Russian president Vladimir Putin approved a bill recognizing territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country as independent states. Iryna Skrypnyk, currently studying at Notre Dame Law School, remembers driving that day from UCU back to her home outside Ivano-Frankivsk, wondering if she’d make the two-hour trip home alive.
Similar dates in the leadup to the war are relatively easy for the women to recall. After Russia officially invaded the country on Feb. 24, though, the next few months became a blur of sheltering, volunteering and, eventually, taking online classes.
“A lot of people say that it’s still like the 24th,” Bohdanova says. “It’s still February.”
Rozlutska remembers her mother, a military nurse, reporting to the local military hospital and not being allowed to return that night. They lived near Lviv’s airport, a presumed target, so Rozlutska was forced to move to a tiny one-room flat. She spent most of her time there in front of her computer, frantically fulfilling her role in the university’s international office by looking for academic institutions to take UCU students who had fled to countries like Hungary and Spain.
Yakobchuk, who stayed in her dorm in Lviv for about a month-and-a-half, got used to sleeping in her clothes and waking up to the sound of air sirens. She and roommates would then run down five flights of stairs to get to their shelter — they were often among the first to arrive, she says, even though they had to travel the longest to get there — eventually bringing her laptop so she could remain productive. It was disorienting, though, with no routine to cling to.
“If you wake up at 3 a.m. and then sit in the shelter until 6 a.m.,” she says, “you don’t really remember that it was night because you go to sleep again.”
Yakobchuk’s mother didn’t want her to return home. There’s no shelter in their village outside Rivne, which sits close to an airport and power station. Yakobchuk can see a chemical plant — another potential Russian target — from her bedroom window. It was hard being away from family, though, and relatives fleeing Kyiv had also moved in.
The first day she was back, she felt the vibrations of an oil plant being bombed about nine miles away, going outside with her father to watch the bright, “thick” orange fire. While taking online class the next morning, she watched a band of thick, black smoke blow across her window.
It was personally much scarier, she says, when she saw a piece of a missile exploding in the sky while working next to the window. Yakobchuk’s parents were away from home, visiting her uncle in the military while he was on a one-week rotation in Rivne. She gathered her relatives in the center of the house, away from the glass windows.
“They were intercepted almost right above our house,” Yakobchuk says of the missiles, which she later learned were likely aimed at the chemical plant, “(so the) sound was extremely overwhelming.”
She and all the fellow exchange students have friends with even more harrowing stories. While fleeing the country’s main port city of Odessa, Yakobchuk says a male friend took a job interview on the road. The interviewers nervously asked if the interview could proceed when they saw the city of Uman being actively bombarded in the background.
Bohdanovia is originally from Zaporizhia, a heavily targeted southeastern city and the capital of one of the four territories Putin claimed to annex illegally in late September. Some of her friends stationed in Mariupol were released in prisoner exchanges after the city fell to Russia in May following months of bitter fighting. Four of her friends — three men and one woman — are still believed to be in Russian captivity.
Bohdanova knows her female friend in captivity is alive. She helped the mother get a visa to leave the country, but she now refuses to leave until her daughter returns.
“I’ve been through hell,” she told Bohdanova, “but it’s still better than where (my daughter) is.”
“It really hurts to think about this,” Bohdanova says.
For others, though, there seemed little choice but to flee. Olenka Tsyhankova, currently living in Lewis Hall, remembers asking her mother what they were supposed to do on Feb. 24.
“She was so lost,” Tsyhankova says. “That’s really, really scary, when you realize that your own parent doesn’t know what to do.”
Two or three days into the war, Tsyhankova’s father dropped her, her mother and her 13-year-old brother about 20 kilometers from the border — as close as he could go — before they began their trek to the border around 3 p.m. Like many members in the mass migration, Tsyhankova was carrying the family dog. Several people ditched their suitcases in exhaustion on the side of the road.
When they got to the border around 4 a.m., they weren’t allowed to cross. They were told the computer system required to process them was down.
Tsyhankova recalls being sandwiched between 500 people and two rows of buildings. Students from India and several African countries — many of whom encountered racial discrimination as they attempted to leave the country, per reports — tried breaking through a gate. When armed personnel fired into the air, Tsyhankova and her family narrowly avoided the resulting stampede, squeezing into what she thinks was likely a small yard or tiny soccer field.
Since they were unable to cross, Tsyhankova and her family had to return to a town where her father could pick them up. When the rest of her family fell asleep at a railway station, she found the bus they needed to take. Her father picked them up around 10 a.m. Tsyhankova hadn’t slept.
A few days later, Tsyhankova’s mother found a bus that could take them to Poland. It had taken a week to flee the country, but it had felt like “seven years.” The family spent another week traveling to Spain via train, settling with Tsyhankova’s godmother outside Tarragona, about fifty miles south of Barcelona.
Eventually, her mother decided to return to Ukraine with her brother. Tsyhankova went to summer school in Croatia before applying to study abroad across several English-speaking countries. In July, she found out she was going to Notre Dame.
A “GOLDEN” OPPORTUNITY
“It is a miracle we are here,” says fellow exchange student Olha Droniak.
With no flights in or out of Ukraine, post offices out of operation and the Ukrainian embassy shut down, the process to obtain visas and travel across the Atlantic to the United States was no easy feat. However, after 12 hours on a bus across the Ukrainian-Polish border and multiple flights, the ten exchange students arrived in South Bend, Indiana.
The program is described by third-year Olha Tolmachova as a “golden academic opportunity” created to broaden students’ intellectual horizons and better equip them with the resources to help rebuild their country. “I hope I’ll pay off all of my knowledge to my country as soon as we win the war,” says Tolmachova.
Second-year Daryna Tkachenko echoes this sentiment. “It’s really important to bring the knowledge you gain back because we really need that human capital,” she says. “We are going to have to get back on our feet after this.”
Most of the students say they see their studies in the context of the war.
“I know that Ukraine requires not only doctors to heal wounds or just architects to rebuild houses,” says Skrypnyk, who’s taking classes at Notre Dame Law to help complete her master’s in human rights law, “but also lawyers who can rebuild the country as a whole. I see that (as a) a great motivation to come back home and make our beautiful country flourish.”
While working in hospitals as a student in her home province and then as an army paramedic for a year in Mariupol, Bohdanova realized the Ukrainian medical system was unequipped to deal with soldiers struggling with PTSD after battling pro-Russian separatists in the east since 2014, prompting her desire to study clinical psychology at UCU.
After the invasion, Bohdanova found a project that would allow her to provide “psychological first-aid” to soldiers, doctors and displaced people. She and several classmates eventually founded “Saving Ukraine,” an organization which offers training events to “promote resilience and help people understand what’s happening to them because of this acute stress.”
Then, there’s the opportunity to share their stories in what Bohdanova calls an “informational war.”
Tolmachova, a political science student, says that she greatly enjoys facilitating these kinds of discussions. “I wish more people asked questions about the war directly because a lot of Westerners and Americans are afraid to ask (us questions) because they’re afraid of hurting us,” she says. “But the thing is that we are here to spread the news and raise awareness about the ongoing issues and the war.”
She appreciates the willingness of students and faculty at Notre Dame who do seek to engage in discussions about the war. “I really adore the attitude (professors) show toward me as a student, and also as a Ukrainian student,” Tolmachova says. “Since it’s a political science major, we have plenty of conversations from different perspectives. That’s really a golden opportunity to not only have an academic dispute but also to gather some connections.”
With the semester midpoint under their belts, UCU students recount both the academic and social discrepancies they have observed during their time studying in America so far. Tkachenko notes, “The cultural shock is crazy and life here is just so, so different from Ukraine and just Europe in general, so it feels like a blessing to experience all of this.”
Tkachenko, one of the three exchange students living in Lewis Hall this semester, pointed to dorm life as one of the biggest differences from traditional Ukrainian universities. “Dorm life in America is crazy different,” Tkachenko says. “In Europe I’d say you are just studying, living (at university), but here it’s like a whole thing. It’s really fun, to be fair. I feel like you’re not going to experience this anywhere else other than in America.”
Other exchange students concurred, highlighting the more “thematic” approach to residential life, e.g. Lewis “chicks” as the dorm mascot. Additional discrepancies include the sheer size of the Notre Dame community (approximately eight times as large as UCU), the emphasis placed on attending office hours, the approach to religious life and, of course, the importance of college football.
Tkachenko, a sociology major, has also discovered that students in the U.S. seem to socialize differently, too, noting that in Europe, circles tend to be smaller, comprised of five to six close connections. Friendships at Notre Dame tend to be more expansive. “The way socialization works here is just different. It’s not bad or good — it’s just unusual. And kind of fun because you do get to meet tons of cool people and broaden your social capital.”
Also living in Lewis, Tsyhankova has enjoyed having (five) roommates for the first time in her life. One of them lives in South Bend, so Tsyhankova has been able to tailgate with the family and have dinner at their house. It’s nice to have something that feels like family, she says, when your sense of home “completely disappears.”
“I sort of learned to get attached not to places, but to relationships that I have with people, because it’s better that way,” she says. “It does feel like the worst year of my life, but it’s also the best year of my life.”
A TASTE OF HOME
The students have not only immersed themselves in the quintessential American college culture but also have been able to educate Notre Dame students about their country’s culture.
“We plan to cook Ukrainian dishes in other dorms. We want to choose one national dish and invite everyone who’s interested,” Droniak says. “We have something similar to dumplings, but with different fillings — not meat, but potatoes and cheese — and we also have a soup called borscht made from beet roots.”
“In some ways,” Skrypnyk says, “it feels like home” when members of the group are able to hold movie nights or make dinner together.
Senior Maryna Chuma, a proud Ukrainian American and co-president of the Ukraine Club, loves making connections and finding mutual contacts with several of the exchange students.
It’s a major reason why the club has created biweekly meetings for bilingual students “to be surrounded by the language, not just talking about the war.”
“I really want to make these relationships last more than just a semester,” Chuma says.
There’s plenty of uncertainty about what comes next. Tolmachova cites “fear for tomorrow” as a common emotion. She grew up in the eastern part of Ukraine, which has been occupied since 2014. Her grandparents and cousins still reside there, but connection with them remains cut off due to the absence of a cell signal. Tolmachova’s parents are located in Kyiv, where they are relatively safe in comparison, but awful things still happen, she says.
“I’m a bit scared because here, in the United States, I’m completely alone,” she says. “I can rely on myself and that’s it. The adult life starts really early.”
Tolmachova, like many of the exchange students, does not immediately plan to go back to Ukraine when the semester ends and student visas expire in mid-December. Instead, many plan to extend their stays, opting to study at different universities in the United States. Yakobchuk and Tsyhankova are hoping their research with professors might help them stay at Notre Dame. Rozlutska and Bohdanova are headed back.
Given their limited time, exchange students decided to embark on a multicity trip during fall break. Beginning in Chicago, the students visited the Ukrainian National Museum and Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, dined at authentic Ukrainian restaurants and stayed in Ukrainian village — a neighborhood near the west side of Chicago. After a small taste of home, students ventured to New York for an East Coast “travel spree,” also stopping in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
For Droniak, who has never been to the U.S. before, visiting New York has been a long-held dream. “It was hard to believe that ‘wow I’m here and I achieved it by my own efforts and studying,’ so I was proud of myself that I had the opportunity to study in the U.S. because not a lot of Ukrainians have a chance to study here,” she says.
Next semester, Notre Dame expects 20 new exchange students from UCU, an opportunity current exchange participants implore fellow Ukrainians to capitalize on.
“If anyone who is going to read this would take a piece of advice, then it would be to go on exchange and try new things,” says Tkachenko. “I think it’s really important to step out of your comfort zone during your student years because that’s the time when you grow the most and exchange is a great way to do it.”
Home, though, constantly remains on their minds.
“I’m still mentally in Ukraine with my family,” Tsyhankova says, “but I’m physically here and I’m trying to experience Notre Dame as much as I can.”