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Ukrainian exchange students discuss their Notre Dame semester

| Wednesday, December 7, 2022

In August, 10 students embarked on a long journey taking them from the Eastern Europe to the middle of Indiana.

Olha Droniak, a junior from Ivano-Frankivsk, a town about two hours away from Lviv, recalled being very excited about arriving at Notre Dame, but very exhausted by the travel. 

“Because of the war, we don’t have flights, and the sky is closed,” Droniak explained. The group took a 10-hour bus ride into Poland, then flew from Poland to Germany, Germany to Chicago and finally Chicago to South Bend.

This semester, the University of Notre Dame hosted 10 exchange students from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), which is located in Lviv in Western Ukraine. Notre Dame and UCU have an almost 20-year old partnership, and University President Fr. John Jenkins announced the addition of the exchange program last May.

Droniak, like other undergraduate exchange students, lives in a dorm on campus. Droniak lives with Sofiia Kyba, a senior exchange student from Lviv, in Howard Hall. Kyba and Droniak said they love Howard and the dorm community on campus. 

“Although Howard is one of the oldest dorms on campus, as far as I know, I’ve found it very cozy. I like that it’s not so big, so it’s easier to get to know people,” Kyba said.

Olena Tsyhankova, also senior from Lviv, lives in Lewis Hall. Because of a combination of the pandemic and the war, Tsyhankova said that this is her first “normal” semester at university. 

“I never lived in a dorm before, and now I have five roommates,” Tsyhankova said. “But also because of those roommates, the experience is awesome. We are all friends now.”

Though they are all different majors, the undergraduate Ukrainian students are taking classes at Notre Dame suited to their academic interests. Tsyhankova, for example, is a cultural studies major at UCU, and she focuses on art and religious studies. She is currently preparing for finals for classes like Asian Spirituality and Drawing. Tsyhankova is also involved in Archery and Outing Club and conducting research on the new religious movement in the U.S.

Kyba is studying Business Analytics at UCU and taking classes related to both finance and computer science at Notre Dame. Her most notable memory from the semester, though, was the first football game.

“I knew that everyone was looking forward to football games . . . and I was like: ‘Why are you so excited?’ But when the first game happened, that was unforgettable,” Kyba explained.

Droniak said that the semester has flown by, as she has stayed busy with her political science courses and meeting Notre Dame students. 

“I’m very happy that now I’m in this community of good people. I feel that when I communicate with American students and professors, I gain a lot of positive energy from that,” Droniak said.

However, even though they have all enjoyed their time at Notre Dame, the war in Ukraine looms over their head.

“Home doesn’t really feel like home . . . Since [Feb. 24], it’s just been weird to be home,” Tsyhankova said.

On Feb. 24, the day Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Tsyhankova tried to escape Ukraine on foot with her mother, brother and dog. They got caught in a stampede after a group of students tried to push on the border gate and a frenzy ensued. Tsyhankova said that she knows some people died in the stampede, although her family escaped and started walking back to their home.

“From 3 p.m. to 4 a.m., we were walking in one direction, and from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., we were walking in another direction [until] some men picked us up and brought us to the bus station,” Tsyhankova said. Her family then spent four months with her godmother in Spain, and then Tsyhankova attended summer school in Croatia. She returned to Ukraine for a month before leaving for Notre Dame.

“I wake up every day being really scared that something happened to my family, so that’s the scariest part because you don’t know when or under what conditions you will see them again,” Tsyhankova said.

Kyba said the hardest part of moving away from Ukraine during the war is not having information on what’s happening. She recalled a time in October when she woke up at 5 a.m. to a bunch of texts from her friends asking each other if they were alright. 

“That was a massive attack, and I couldn’t reach my family because the connection was bad. And I was just sitting near my room and trying to call my parents to find out whether they are okay,” Kyba said.

Droniak noted that due to the war, many young adults had to grow up fast.

“War makes all Ukranians adults very soon. Children and young people have to be very responsible for their families, and they have to be proactive citizens.” Droniak said and expressed how she has appreciated the opportunity to just be a student at Notre Dame.

The Ukrainian Society of Notre Dame hosted a panel discussion in September where five UCU students spoke about their experiences in Ukraine. Droniak and Kyba both spoke and were touched by how many people were curious about their lives.

“I was surprised that people were really interested in us, and I just realized, another time, that people here care about that,” Kyba said.

Droniak also urged Notre Dame students to continue caring about the war, even as the invasion enters its ninth month.

“[Don’t] be indifferent to problems that are outside your country,” she added.

Droniak emphasized how thankful she was for the opportunity and her intentions heading back home.

“We all are grateful to the administration of Notre Dame that they gave us this opportunity, and we will use this knowledge to the best of our abilities to rebuild Ukraine after the war,” Droniak said.

Contact Katie Muchnik at [email protected]

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