Students escaping war in Ukraine continue studies at U of T

Schools and colleges across Canada are welcoming Ukrainian students, including the University of Toronto. Dilshad Burman speaks with two students about continuing their education in Canada as the conflict rages on in their home country.

By Dilshad Burman

The start of the new school year could also possibly mean the beginning of a new life in Canada for some students, as schools and universities across the country welcome those from Ukraine whose studies were interrupted when Russia invaded the country earlier this year.

Since the war began, the University of Toronto has welcomed approximately 170 Ukranian exchange students for the summer and fall terms.

Danylo Bohdanets, 18, is a political science student who was studying international law at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University in Ukraine before his education came to an abrupt halt in February.

“Missiles are flying, rockets are striking and Russian troops are everywhere and that’s really scary honestly,” he says.

Bohdanets says for the first week, he was in a state of shock, unable to process what was happening.

“At first, I couldn’t understand anything … but after that week I started to think more and more that my education is interrupted,” he says. “I was feeling depressed because I knew it can’t be like this. I’m 18 years old, I need to study, I need to succeed in my life.”

Apart from the chance to continue his education, Bohdanets says the chance to come to Canada offered a critical escape to safety.

“My father is [in Ukraine] and I am scared for his life and I don’t want him to be scared for my life. He is doing everything possible, he is fighting in Ukraine, he is defending my country and … he’s trying to protect me but it’s much easier when I am here,” he says.

The same is true for biology student Mariia Cherednychenko, 21, who came to Toronto in May through a special exchange program between the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science and the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (KMA).

“The only feeling I remember straight away is constant fear,” she says about the first days of the war. “Some people got used to the state of war very quickly, but I could not stop shaking. I couldn’t take off my clothes because I was always thinking that I will have to run, I will have to hide and [I didn’t’ want to do that] wearing my pyjamas.”

“I only stopped shaking once we left Ukraine.”

Tuition fees have been waived for admitted Ukrainian exchange students at University of Toronto and scholarships are also available.

“A $3.2 million donation by the Temerty Foundation and a million dollar matching funds donation by the community are used to help these students,” explains Hyojin Cho, Learning Abroad Advisor & Manager at the university’s Centre for International Experience.

She says usually, exchange students must be from U of T’s partner institutions, but Ukranian students from any post-secondary institution as long as they have Ukrainian citizenship.

“We are happy to assist our Ukranian students in continuing their studies during this difficult time. Many people within the U of T community, including professors, staff members and students have been pitching in to help. We hope the students feel supported within our U of T community,” says Cho.

Cherednychenko says she does feel that support and has been able to continue her studies somewhat seamlessly. She continues to take online classes at KMA and some course credits from U of T can be transferred to her Ukrainian diploma.

“So I don’t have to re-do my degree because I am entering my last year, so it would be very bad if I couldn’t do that,” she explains.

She adds that she is impressed with the quality of education at the university, but mostly, she’s impressed with Canadians.

“This feeling of equality, of total respect, it’s just wonderful. I was very surprised by how these multicultural people peacefully live together,” she says.

Bohdanets says he has also been settling in well, has joined the soccer team and feels a great deal of support within the U of T community. However he was initially worried about picking up where he left off in Ukraine.

“That’s the main thing I was worried about — if I come here would I be able to continue studying what I like, would I be able to study what I studied back in Ukraine?” he says. “But I am not worried now because everything that I needed is here.”

“They’re doing everything possible to make me feel welcome here, to make me feel like I’m at home.”

Given the chance, Bohdanets says he would like to transfer to U of T and settle in Canada with his family.

“I really miss my family, but I can do nothing. I’m really trying my best to do something here, to live here, to make my life a bit better,” he says. “I don’t have anything here, but when I succeed here, then I’ll do something for sure, I’ll try to bring them here to make them safe.”

As for Cherednychenko, she says the support she has received from the faculty and student body is heartening, but the prospect of staying in Canada remains a question mark.

“I can’t answer that question because I love my country very much. Home is home,” she says. “There always is some feeling of guilt because I left and many people didn’t leave. I am standing here in peace and many people are hiding in bomb shelters, are losing their children, their parents.”

“Sometimes I feel very responsible that I left and I’m not helping.”

“But then I thought by studying here, I gain this experience I see how the world can exist peacefully, I see what improvements we can make in our educational system and I think that … I am going to gain more experience to be a really useful citizen in my country.”

While news from her family suggests things are getting somewhat better, as of right now, there is no safe space to return to.

“I live near an important military object and it already was targeted three times by missiles and I don’t feel safe in my house,” she says.

She considers herself lucky that none of her relatives were hurt or killed in the conflict, but many others have been lost. She urges people to continue supporting Ukraine, even though the war is no longer making headlines.

“The war is not over. The war is still going and people are still dying.”

“I haven’t heard from my first school love who is now on the front, he is fighting for my safety, for my future. I am losing my friends, we are losing our peers,” she says.

“I just want people to remember this and not to be indifferent.”

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