For years, families and students have left Ukraine and Russia and ended up in California with the hopes of achieving the best education possible. Now scores of students and recent graduates with close ties to both nations are grappling with how to keep on track with their studies and careers while Russian troops continue to bombard Kiev and unleash the largest military campaign since World War II.
In reaction, history courses taught in high schools and colleges across the state have been slowed down to focus on the invasion unfolding a world away. But for some students, the crisis hits much closer to home.
When 18-year-old Rina Pecherskaya began her freshman year at the University of California San Diego, she did not expect a war to break out in a country only 50 kilometers away from her hometown of Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
Amid the rise of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Pecherskaya has shifted her focus from her cognitive science degree to worrying about the safety of her family and friends in both Russia and Ukraine, as Russian troops launch a bloody assault aimed at soldiers and civilians and the Russian economy faces serious instability in the face of sanctions from the United States and other countries.
“It’s been tough, definitely,” Pecherskaya said. “It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind about the whole situation. And to just keep caring about schoolwork when you know that something so terrible is happening.”
While social media once provided a potential break for Pecherskaya, it became a source of critical information for her on Feb. 24.
“The very first time I heard about (the conflict) was from social media,” Pecherskaya said. “On Feb. 24, like early morning in Russia and kind of 8 p.m. here (in San Diego), I got a text from my mom, saying that, ‘Well, the war has started.’
“It’s kind of hard to imagine, kind of surreal to imagine, that I will ever get such (a) text ever in my life,” Pecherskaya said.
Now, Pecherskaya struggles with remaining focused on her studies as the conflict in Ukraine dominates not only her mind but also her social media feeds.
“For the past few days, I definitely have not been productive. I feel sad,” Pecherskaya said. “But it’s just hard to start my work. It’s really hard not to think about all of that, especially when all the news updates. All this social media, it’s just like, you cannot even go to TikTok to relax because all of the videos are about that. You can’t go on Instagram because all stories are about that. You cannot just browse Twitter because Twitter is all about that. There’s no escape. There’s no place to just relax. Even YouTube. Nothing.”
Pecherskaya added that her family has close friends in Ukraine who are trying to leave the country.
“We’re just trying to keep them safe because we care about these people. And it’s just horrible,” Pecherskaya said. “I also have friends in Ukraine who (are) the age to get drafted. And, honestly, I don’t know what happened to one of my friends because he’s not answering my texts or calls, and I’m just scared.”
Leading Pecherskaya’s list of concerns is news about sweeping economic sanctions being imposed against Russia. “The sanctions don’t affect the people who make decisions,” she said. “Just normal people like me, my family. And it just makes the whole economic situation in Russia so much worse. Literally, so many people lost so much money. My family had to convert all of the rubles to dollars and euros just to have something.
“That’s just very hard. I don’t think that’s just a good way to stop the war. Because the sanctions do not actually make all those people in charge think about what they’ve done. It just makes life for people who did nothing worse and that makes me so confused and angry, to be honest.”
Pecherskaya said she wants the public to understand what she and others like her are going through right now.
“I think I would just want people to just realize that it’s a very complicated conflict, and there’s no right way to actually understand what could be done,” Pecherskaya said. “It’s just very hard to understand what is true right now with all the propaganda, both Russian and Western. It’s really hard to understand what is really going on, without knowing people who are actually there and who can just say what exactly is happening because they see it, they feel it.”
Ultimately, Pecherskaya said, she just wants a resolution that can keep her loved ones safe.
“I just hope the war doesn’t escalate more and gets resolved in the coming days,” she said. “I don’t think it will happen that quickly, but I just really hope so. I don’t want my friends to kill each other. That is so wrong.”
Like Pecherskaya, Alice Yanovsky sees reminders of the war everywhere she looks — from Facebook posts to TikTok videos. Over the past week, Yanovsky has watched horrors unfold in her family’s homeland of Ukraine, where the largest cities are facing daily bombing raids and civilians are being gunned down.
“I am truly horrified by the events occurring in Ukraine right now,” Yanovsky said. “My heart hurts thinking about my friends and family who are stuck hiding in their homes, bomb shelters and subways. They have nowhere else to go.”
Yanovsky was born in Los Angeles and her parents are from Kiev, Ukraine. She recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, with a minor in Russian language. Her parents left Ukraine following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, believing that the United States could offer their children better futures.
“Education was always really important for my family,” Yanovsky said. “My parents left right after the Soviet Union fell, and the economic situation was really, really bad back then. My mom was working as a nurse and her paycheck was enough to get a banana and pay for my brother’s kindergarten.”
Twenty-five years later, Yanovsky is planning on attending the University of Southern California in August to earn a doctorate in cancer immunology. However, her attention has recently shifted to maintaining contact with her loved ones in Ukraine.
“I am finding it hard to focus on school,” she said. “Enjoying regular things feels wrong, knowing my family and friends have not slept for the past few days and are suffering.”
Yanovsky added that many of her family members are remaining in the capital city of Kiev.
“Most of them don’t have anywhere else to go. A lot of them are in Kiev or nearby, so they’re too far away from any of the borders. All the transport is stopped, no taxis are going, people are running out of gas … So they’re hiding at home.”
Pecherskaya explained that colleges must provide greater attention to the Russia-Ukraine War, adding that the world must continue to share the news about Ukraine.
“I believe (colleges) should shine light on the conflict that’s been happening for the past eight years,” she said. “It’s important to learn from this situation and make sure we understand what is taking place right now.”
Megan Tagami is a junior studying political science and public affairs at the University of California Los Angeles and an intern with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.
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