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From Ukraine to Uncasville: Ukrainian Seniors Share Their Journey at Saint Bernard School

Posted on May 16, 2024 in: School News

From Ukraine to Uncasville: Ukrainian Seniors Share Their Journey at Saint Bernard School

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
— Jeremiah 29:11

 

Two years ago as Russia invaded their country, three Ukrainian high school students could hardly have imagined that the path God set for them would lead to a Catholic school in Uncasville, Connecticut — 4,750 miles away. 

It is here, at Saint Bernard School, where the trio of international seniors whose story begins half a world away in war-torn Ukraine will take part in an especially meaningful graduation this May.

The seniors — Nikita Shovkomud and Roman Shalyha, both 18, and Uliana Pokutnia, 17 — have been welcomed into the Saint Bernard family, and are extremely grateful not only for getting the chance to learn in an American high school, but also experience life in a way that’s much different from their peers.

But their thoughts often return to their homes in Ukraine — and the family they’ve left behind. The war is close to these students even though they are thousands of miles from the combat.

“Just yesterday, a missile hit near my brother’s house,” Nikita said. “A five-minute walk.”

Saint Bernard opened its doors to seven Ukrainian students in 2022-23, partnering with Apex International Partners to help the high school students continue their studies in the United States.

The school waived all tuition and fees for the students, who initially stayed in an AIEP dormitory in Derby, Connecticut over the summer until they were matched with host families from the Saint Bernard School community. There are also two Ukrainian juniors and a freshmen taking classes at the school. 

“While the war in Ukraine is one of many crises in the world today, the opportunity to help children who have escaped from war continue their education could not be ignored,” Donald Macrino, Head of School at Saint Bernard School, said.

Nikita hails from Odesa, a large port city along the Black Sea. He began distance learning during COVID-19 and resumed taking online courses when Russia invaded the country in February of 2022. 

“It was a long travel for me,” to get to the States, he said. Nikita and his brother journeyed to the neighboring country of Georgia to do some skiing just two days before Russia invaded.

After several months in Europe including Italy and Portugal, he made the decision to travel alone to America to finish high school, with a plan to attend college perhaps in Europe to be closer to his family. Now, he’s set on going to college here – an easier route, he said.

Nikita was on St. Bernard’s varsity soccer team and the track and field team. He also took part in debate club both years. His future is bright — he’s been accepted to Drexel, Temple, Syracuse and Stonybrook.

“It would be nicer and better to spend another four years here,” he said. “Hopefully, something will change and I’ll be able to go back.”

He’s torn, he said, between returning to Ukraine to help rebuild there but also the desire to pursue his own career and interests.

“But I want to meet in the middle to do something that’s good for me, that I want to do, but can also be helpful for my country,” he said.

All three stay in touch with their family in Ukraine on a regular basis by phone and through email and social media. 

“I text them a lot and call them sometimes,” Uliana said. “They’re seven hours ahead of us, so by the time I come home from school, they’re asleep.” 

Roman calls his mother in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv every day, he said.

A couple of months before Russia invaded, he left his parents and a younger brother to come to the states and continue his education, first in Wisconsin and then at Saint Bernard. Coming to Saint Bernard was an easy choice.

“I believe Saint Bernard was a much better opportunity for me with the amount of clubs, honor societies,” he said. “I’m really grateful because the school offered me a full scholarship.”

He laments the unpredictable situation in Ukraine.

“We never know what’s going to happen. When the war started, everyone believed it would end in two to three weeks because of sanctions,” he said “That didn’t happen. There have been a lot of casualties, both Russian and Ukrainian.”

Roman’s heart is set on studying pharmacology, likely here in the U.S. as well. UConn and Stonybrook were the top finalists on his college list.

This will be the second time Roman has graduated high school. The first was last summer, when he returned to his home country for a commencement there to mark completing 11 years of school, as is typical in Ukraine.

Uliana’s home is Kremenchuk, an industrial city in central Ukraine. 

“The other day I was talking to my parents on the phone, and heard explosions in the background,” she said. 

It was the summer of 2022 when she and her parents agreed it was safer and more effective to study in the U.S., in a classroom, rather than take online courses in Ukraine. 

“Power goes off, no classes,” she said. “We decided it’s better for me to move somewhere. I looked at some other schools, and St. Bernard was the most appealing to me.”

She traveled to Florida with her host family last year for spring break. Uliana also had the opportunity to return home last winter for a visit with her family, including two older siblings.

She’s been accepted to colleges here — UConn and Quinnipiac — and is undecided on a major. 

“I’d like to stay here, but it all depends on money. Education is really expensive here,” she said. 

She also was involved in cross-country, soccer and indoor and outdoor track at St. Bernard and is in the math honor society with Roman.

Uliana made the adjustment to classes in the United States after a challenging first year. 

“Last year when I came, I didn’t really understand what it all means,” she said. “I’m getting a good education but I also think in Ukraine it is strong, but because of COVID and the war it is more difficult to adapt.” 

The seniors have soaked up American culture, which they said has some pretty stark differences from their home country. 

For Uliana, it’s unusual how often Americans eat fast food.

“My mom used to cook for me every day. I was kind of spoiled,” she said. “In Ukraine I would get fast food once in two months and it would be a very happy day.” 

What Ukrainian foods might someone from the U.S. like?

“Of course everyone will say borscht,” Nikita said. Another is plov, a dish of beef and rice that proved to be a big hit with Nikita’s host family.

“I like how Americans like different cultures and like to try everything.”

What would he bring back to his family in Odesa?

“Mostly barbecue,” he said.

Attending Mass locally has a different feeling for the students as well. Here, there’s more opportunity to contemplate the Gospel message. Churches here, they said, are less ornate, simpler.

“Everything is more relaxed here,” Uliana said. “I feel here people are closer to the bishop and are more open.”

It’s also amazing to live with a U.S. host family, she said. 

“Our families are really far away, and it’s good to have someone that can support us at any moment, and they’re always here for us,” she said. “We’ve all been accepted. Sometimes it might be difficult because of the culture differences, but kids are really nice here and everyone accepted us and helped us any time we needed it.”

The graduates are amazed at the willingness of strangers to offer help when needed. Saint Bernard School, they said, fosters that giving spirit.

“You’re coming from another country, you don’t know people here and they don’t know you,” Nikita said. “They’re still helping you as their neighbor. It’s really awesome.”

The school has become an integral part of their lives as well.

“I think I’ve changed a lot as a person,” Roman said. “My values changed. How I view the world around me and other people around me, that’s a huge change.”

By Ryan Blessing


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From Ukraine to Uncasville: Ukrainian Seniors Share Their Journey at Saint Bernard School
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” — Jeremiah 29:11   Two years ago as Russia invaded their country, three Ukrainian high school students could hardly have imagined that the path God set for them would lead to a Catholic school in Uncasville, Connecticut — 4,750 miles away.  It is here, at Saint Bernard School, where the trio of international seniors whose story begins half a world away in war-torn Ukraine will take part in an especi...

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