Ukrainian students excited to begin studies at UChicago

Incoming first-year College students settle into summer classes on campus, life in U.S.

Editor’s note: Due to privacy and safety concerns, only the students’ first names are shown in the following story.

When the Russian army invaded Ukraine in late February, a humanitarian crisis began that has impacted the lives of millions.

As part of a comprehensive effort to support students impacted by the war in Ukraine, the University of Chicago announced in March that it would provide full-tuition scholarships for prospective undergraduate students affected by the invasion.

Affected students who were admitted to the University prior to the invasion saw their lives disrupted, too, and a College-wide effort enabled students to begin studying on campus ahead of Autumn Quarter.

Incoming first-year students Illia and Yaroslav, who both grew up in eastern Ukraine, took UChicago classes this summer. They discussed growing up in Ukraine, their respective journeys to America, and what they are looking forward to at UChicago.


As a teenager, Illia entered an English Olympiad competition to test his skills. Unbeknownst to him, the competition was meant to recruit students for the Future Leaders Exchange, a highly competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of State.

His strong performance earned him a spot in the program. He attended high school for one year in rural Woodhull, Illinois, about 40 miles from the Iowa border, then returned to Ukraine to complete his diploma.

“When I went to the U.S., I saw the educational system, and I really liked its flexibility,” he said. “So from that time, I was searching and considering options both worldwide and in the U.S. But when I found UChicago, it suited 100% of what I was asking for.”

Having completed high school and applied to the University of Chicago. Just two months after he was accepted, Russian troops entered and occupied his hometown of Severodonetsk.

It wasn’t the first time Illia experienced war firsthand. At the age of 10 years in 2014, he witnessed the first stage of the current war, when his family fled their hometown, which was occupied at that time, as well.

“I consider it a really fast growing up, just seeing the rounds of conflict,” he said. “My parents tried to do everything so we didn’t experience all of the atrocities. They framed fleeing the city as an occasional trip. I knew it was not, but they helped me deal with the situation.”

This February, Illia sensed danger as the Russian invasion began to materialize, and he evacuated to western Ukraine. Two days after Illia left, as his family was sheltering in a nearby school, their apartment was destroyed in a bombing.

“I was considering this little time in between high school and college as a time to relax and to figure out what I want to do, and I was forced to experience a little death,” he said. “And now when I graduate, I have really no place to go. I kind of have to start from scratch. I had some sort of attachment to my things and stuff like that, but now I guess I'm free of all that.”

Illia has already completed courses in computer science and behavioral neuroscience this summer at UChicago. His academic interests lie in the science of neurons and mapping them using digital systems. He envisions studying cognitive science or neuroscience, as well as computer science in the College.

As he settles into the “demanding, but rewarding” workload at UChicago, he said he is starting to feel more comfortable in his new environment.

“Downtown Chicago was huge; it was cool. It was pretty unusual for me to see all these gatherings of people when back in Ukraine during war, people, the streets are kind of empty, so this was a completely different experience,” he said.

“As the school year starts, I’m most excited to meet new people and make new friends. I met two friends already, and it's been really good here.”


Yaroslav was born in Luhansk, Ukraine—the same region as Illia—and his experience growing up was also marked by memories of war.

When Russian forces invaded his hometown in 2014, his family fled to western Ukraine. Months later, his parents informed him that their home in Luhansk had been destroyed by a missile attack.

“I didn’t really realize what [losing the house] meant, I thought it was nothing major,” Yaroslav said. “I was a child. I didn’t know how hard it was to get your own house, and it didn’t make much of an impact on me back then.”

Years later, it became clear that he would need to leave Luhansk to attain a universally recognized high school diploma from unoccupied territory. In 2019, he returned to western Ukraine to complete his high school studies.

He took a gap year in Warsaw, Poland, starting in October 2021, hoping to leave Ukraine and simplify the process of entering a university in the U.S. He pulled together his admission application for UChicago in just a few weeks and was accepted.

“I was so excited when they [the admissions department] told [me] I could start school in June,” he said. “I was really down emotionally because the war had expanded, and I needed a change of environment and an escape from my daily routine after being alone in Poland.”

UChicago appealed to Yaroslav, in particular, due to its location in a major city and emphasis on academic freedom.

“It had all of these opportunities to search for what I want to do and explore everything,” he said. “Because of all of my experiences, I follow freedom in every aspect of my life. In the occupied part of Ukraine, freedom was limited, even freedom of movement. UChicago offers freedom to do whatever I want, whether it’s creative writing or neurobiology.”

Yaroslav is settling into life in Chicago and said he is still considering what he wants to study in the College. His academic interests include political science and finance, but for now, he said he is content to see where his college experience takes him once autumn quarter starts.

 “I’m just looking forward to meeting new people. It will be nice to meet people who will stick around for four years,” he said. “I am not sure what it’s going to be like, but I am very excited for the start of college. It should be fun.”

A version of this story was originally published on the UChicago College website.