“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.”