Graduation coming soon amid war in Ukraine: How BU is helping Ukrainian students

By Alexandra Castro
Boston University News Service

With graduation around the corner, Veronika Mykhailo’s (CAS ‘22) time to stay in the U.S. with a student visa has shortened, and going back to Ukraine is no longer an option.

Veronika Mykhailo (CAS ‘22). Courtesy Photo. 

Mykhailo was talking on the phone with a friend when the explosion of a bomb lit up the sky in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and the city where she was born. As soon as she hung up the phone, she started reading text messages from people asking her if she was okay. She wasn’t aware, but when she started reading the news, she realized Russia was attacking Ukraine.

After the initial shock subsided, concern about the future sat in — for her country, for her family, for her friends, and for herself. She is graduating from Boston University this spring with a double major in art history and architectural studies. At 15, her parents sent her abroad to a boarding school — the same one her younger sister is attending now — so she’s been living in Boston for the last seven years.

“Most of my friends are going to schools in America or schools somewhere abroad, so their families are in Ukraine,” Mykhailo said. “A lot of my classmates reached out to me asking about how my family is doing because they are also in the same position as I am. They are not there.”

During World War II, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union (USSR), and the majority of the war was fought on Ukrainian land, killing millions of people. Ukraine was one of the scenes of the Holocaust. The Ukrainians fought together with the USSR army against the Nazis and managed to expel them from the country. 

Mykhailo grew up hearing stories about WWII, either at school or at home. She listened to stories from her grandparents who fought to defend their country.

“We grew up listening to how important it is that we live in peace,” Mykhailo said. “And for me, that peace, after that horrific war, was something that was going to stay forever. I never expected this to happen from them, from the people we fought with side-by-side.”

On the day the invasion began, Mykhailo had an exam and classes to attend, but she emailed her professors to let them know she was not going, that she could not handle it at the time. She was in shock for two days, and she said that she could not even cry because she did not have time to process the situation.

“I think no one expected this to happen,” she said. “We didn’t expect the full-blown scale of what is happening right now. I wake up to the news of buildings being attacked by rockets and people fighting on the streets, and it’s a lot — it’s war, civilians are hurt.”

Over 4,000 miles away in Ukraine, her dad drove her brothers out to the western part of the country. While her mom, her grandma, and her cousins stayed in the city, sheltering in a house they had on the outskirts of Kyiv. Mykhailo said the phone data is slow and the WiFi cuts off, so she is always checking to see if her family gets her messages. Most of her childhood friends are sleeping in subway stations. 

“They are moving so fast, so you don’t know where you are safe anymore, and you don’t know if you can leave,” she said. “Maybe later, but not right now, because it is dangerous to drive anywhere right now. My family doesn’t sleep. They tried to go to the grocery store today and they didn’t have enough food. “

In the weeks since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, a part of Mykhailo’s family stayed in Ukraine, and the other part managed to leave for another country in Europe. She said many of her classmates are fighting in the war; people in her city, including women, are picking up guns and standing in the streets to fight.

“It’s really scary,” she said. “I know that my people, historically, would never give up. Historically, [my] people would rather die than give up. Partially, it’s terrifying, but partially, I know that he never expected that much of a resistance and he [Vladimir Putin] got it. People are going to fight until the end, and people are going to do everything possible to defend what is ours. ” 

With graduation coming soon, Mykhailo has an upcoming appointment scheduled with the International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO). They will guide her through the application process for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which will allow her to stay in the U.S. longer.

According to Jeanne E. Kelley, managing director of the ISSO at BU, there have been a number of BU offices that have reached out to students from Ukraine to remind them of various support services on campus. 

“Each student’s situation is different, so central support offices are responding to individual inquiries to connect them to the office on campus best equipped to assist them, depending on their specific needs and requests,” Kelley said. “As always, the Dean of Students Office is assisting students as well. We will certainly let students know if any provisions are published in the Federal Register and help them consider any immigration-related options. “

According to Colin Riley, Executive Director of Media Relations at BU, there are 16 students with addresses in Ukraine.

“All Ukrainians in the United States prior to March 1, 2022, received Temporary Protected Status (TPS) last month, which allows them to remain in the U.S. for at least 18 months,” Riley said. “TPS obviates the need for OPT authorization for any seniors, but those individuals should check with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to ensure they are covered by TPS.” 

Though the war continues, Mykhailo said that it is empowering to see the world respond in the way it has.

“I do think that even if people can’t do things military-wise for us, the amount of awareness they bring and the number of countries that never stick together are staying together now,” she said. “That to me is a big sign that maybe we still have some hope.”

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