'Living two different lives:' A student from Ukraine reflects on a year of war

Sofiia TarasiukPhoto/Ashley McCabe

Sofiia Tarasiuk

When Russian missiles began exploding in Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022, Sofiia Tarasiuk, MBA'24, was on the verge of finishing her undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Ukraine. Even though the tensions between Ukraine and Russia had been escalating for some time, she and her classmates were stunned to find their country at war. 

A year later, the 21-year-old is a second-semester MBA candidate at Brandeis International Business School, thanks to the Peace Scholarship, a program established last year to aid graduate business students from countries beset by conflict. Her road to Brandeis took her through a volunteer position in Lithuania, a return trip to Ukraine to say goodbye to family and friends and collect her university diploma, and finally to Poland, where she caught a flight from Warsaw to the U.S.

Tarasiuk is all too aware of her good fortune, to be pursuing her graduate degree safe from the daily bombings, blackouts, and supply shortages large parts of Ukraine have experienced over the past year. But she is left with an ambivalence about living outside of her home while it is under siege.

“As a student here in the U.S. there are a lot of opportunities for studying and enjoying the best years of your life when you’re young,” she said. “But I can’t do that 100 percent fully. My family, my friends, Ukraine; they are always on my mind. It’s like living two different lives.”

On the one year anniversary of the invasion, Tarasiuk is joining other Ukrainian students around the world in memorializing students who didn’t live to graduate from university. “Unissued Diplomas” will involve Ukrainian students at more than 45 universities posting photos and stories to honor 36 of their peers who lost their lives since the fighting began. Tarasiuk will be posting the photographs and stories in the International Business School March 2, where they will be on view through March 11.

Tarasiuk shared her thoughts on her studies, the dramatic changes in her life over the past year, and her hopes for the future in a conversation with BrandeisNOW:

It’s hard to imagine everything you’ve been through in the past year. What was it like, leaving Ukraine during a war to come here to Brandeis?

I wish I could have visited the U.S. under different circumstances, but when I got the Peace Scholarship, I was so happy, because not everyone can have this kind of opportunity.

When my plane lifted off in Warsaw, I didn’t feel that I’d miss my previous life at that moment— I was just thinking about my future. When I arrived, everything was new and I got a lot of support. It was amazing to me that people from across the world were asking me about my family. People were showing their support — one student from India even put a photo of protests in Ukraine on his computer. 

At the end of the semester, one professor even wrote me a letter in the Ukrainian language. At this point, I really feel that Brandeis is my new little family. 

How are you doing now after that initial arrival period?

It’s much harder now because I miss home a lot, and I’m thinking about the time when I can return. This has been the longest time I’ve experienced without my family and friends. I want to hug them, to talk to them. Of course I can talk to them thanks to technology, but it’s not the same as in person.

It was particularly hard in November when my father was having problems with his health. Being so far away and knowing you can’t help, you can only offer words of support, is the worst feeling ever. You can do nothing. My morning starts with reading news about Ukraine, and when you get some bad news, it’s really hard. 

Has your family been safe through the past year?

My family is living in western Ukraine, close to Poland, but also close to [Russian ally] Belarus. I’m so glad we don’t have active attacks in my city, but it’s very hard for people who live there, always anticipating that something can happen. My parents always have some things gathered together so that they can grab it and leave.

With everything else that you are managing on a personal level, how have you found studying in the U.S. and at Brandeis?

In Ukraine, I had a lot of different classes at a time - nine or ten -  while here, four or five is the max. Here you also learn more from case studies than from theoretical things. Professors take an interest in every student. I would really like to bring many of these practices to my country one day. My university in Ukraine is trying to change their own system and has actually been in touch with me to hear about how I’m learning here.

I like that we have a lot of group projects; it enables us to learn different skills. We also get support preparing for our career — I even have a career coach. And that’s helpful, because in Ukraine, my first job found me, but here I’m applying for different internships and it’s competitive.

My concentration is in marketing, but I’m also studying subjects that aren’t so closely related. I only have two years at Brandeis, and I want to experience as much as I can.

What are your hopes for Ukraine now?

I think all Ukrainians try to be optimistic. We wish the war to end as soon as possible, but we know it’s a problem that can’t be solved quickly. This optimism helps us in such moments, even when the news is all terrible. We are inspired when we read stories about volunteers all over the country who are trying to do something to make the day of our victory closer. We also see we have strong support from other countries, and we see we are not alone in this war. It makes us feel that there will be a day when we’ll hear those words that we want to hear, that the war has ended.

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