On Friday, Jan. 13, the University’s first Renée Crown Professors in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) were formally recognized. Heidi Hehnly, associate professor of biology, is the Renée Crown Honors Professor in the Sciences and Mathematics, and Karin…
Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream During a Time of War
The bomb that exploded outside of Kyiv, Ukraine, in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2022, abruptly ended Alina Ovcharenko’s slumber. But even before that moment, her sleep was anything but sound that night.
Rumors of an impending war between Russia and Ukraine had been everywhere, and the thought of her beloved homeland being invaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin was too much for Ovcharenko to bear.
As it turns out, Ovcharenko correctly predicted when the widescale war, that rages on nearly a year later, would begin. She spent that restless night tossing and turning, unable to remain asleep as a dream of Putin sending troops into Ukraine haunted her thoughts.
Then, the bombs started falling around 6 a.m., and Ovcharenko’s life forever changed.
“I can’t even explain the feeling I had when I woke up and heard the bombs. It was the worst morning of my life. It was something you can’t believe. You’re thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s war in my country.’ That first morning, it was like when you lose someone close to you. Your brain couldn’t process what was happening,” says Ovcharenko, who is in her second semester as a master’s student in the Newhouse School’s advertising program.
After the bombs went off, Ovcharenko and her family hurriedly packed up what belongings they could carry with them, rounded up other family members who lived nearby and spent two weeks in a village outside of Kyiv.
But they never felt safe there, especially with the rampant speculation that Putin planned on surrounding Kyiv in an attempt to quickly destroy the capital city and demoralize the spirit of the Ukrainian people with an overwhelming show of force.
So Ovcharenko, her mother, her 6-year-old niece, and any other female family members—Ukraine announced martial law soon after the war began and issued a travel ban for all men between the ages of 18 and 60, which meant Ovcharenko’s brother, father and uncle stayed behind—packed up their belongings, again, and embarked on a grueling 30-hour trek from Ukraine to Germany, where Ovcharenko and her family sought refuge with a family friend.
Ovcharenko thought she would feel a sense of relief leaving her war-torn country. She was wrong.
“When we left Ukraine, I thought I would feel calmer, but as we were leaving, I didn’t want to leave. I felt so bad leaving my home, I just wanted to go back, but it wasn’t my decision,” says Ovcharenko, who finally returned to her home in May after several months as a refugee.
Despite persistent issues with electricity and the water supply—residents of the apartment complex where Ovcharenko’s mother lives often endure eight-plus hours a day with no electricity and water scarcity—when Ovcharenko arrived back in Kyiv, she was impressed by the resiliency displayed by her fellow Ukrainians.
“Ukrainians are very brave. Despite the war efforts, restaurants, coffee shops and cinemas are still open. People are living their lives. There were more air raid sirens [going off] and it wasn’t a normal life, but we tried to live a normal life, tried spending time outside. There are still some very difficult days when Russia is bombing Kyiv, but people are doing their best,” says Ovcharenko, whose brother, uncle and several high school classmates are serving in the military.
Fulfilling a Lifetime Dream During a Time of War
At this point, with her beloved Ukraine ravaged by war, it’s fair to wonder how Ovcharenko wound up at the Newhouse School, working on her master’s degree in advertising.
Studying abroad, specifically in the United States, had been her dream since she was 14 years old, when the walls of her childhood bedroom were adorned with photos of the New York City skyline, and her favorite movie was “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“I thought studying abroad would be a life-changing experience. Syracuse University had a top communications school, and it was close to New York City, so I just went for it,” says Ovcharenko, who earned an undergraduate degree in journalism back in Ukraine.
Ovcharenko admits it seemed like an unrealistic dream, but in 2021 she applied to five American universities, including Syracuse, and anxiously awaited word on her academic future.
Fast-forward to March of 2022, and Newhouse held a call with its new students, an open forum where they could ask questions of James Tsao, department chair of the advertising program, and Ed Russell, associate professor of advertising.
The next day, when Newhouse Dean Mark Lodato and Joel Kaplan, Newhouse’s associate dean of graduate programs, heard of the hardships Ovcharenko survived just to earn acceptance into the University, they felt compelled to do whatever it took to help Ovcharenko realize her dreams, Russell says.
“Alina’s story really resonated with all of us. We realized this was wrong and we didn’t want to let this [Alina not coming to campus] happen. James, Joel and Mark were instrumental in making this happen. Plus, we have incredible alumni who didn’t even need to hear all of the details. Once they heard there was this incredible Ukrainian student who wanted to come here, they all helped to make this happen. I couldn’t be prouder of what Alina has done,” Russell says while fighting back tears.
Adjusting to Life in America
When Russell picked Ovcharenko up after her flight landed at Syracuse Hancock International Airport, the two had a few errands to run. One was typical of most new University students: a stop at Target to furnish her apartment. The other? For her first meal in this country, Ovcharenko longed for American fast food, so they planned a trip to McDonald’s.
Things nearly unraveled for Ovcharenko at Target. Ovcharenko’s most valuable possession is also the one that allows her to freely travel around the world, and her eventual ticket home: her passport.
When she was on the run with her family in Germany, Ovcharenko constantly was checking to make sure she had her passport on her. And yet, in her first 24 hours in Syracuse, Ovcharenko did the unthinkable: she lost her passport at Target.
The two frantically paced up and down the aisles, searching for the passport. They ransacked Russell’s car, hoping it had fallen between the seats. Alas, it was gone.
Dejected, Russell took Ovcharenko to McDonald’s, but as you can imagine, Ovcharenko wasn’t able to enjoy her meal. Until she got a notification on Instagram.
A Manlius police officer sent her a direct message that her passport had been found in Target, and he offered to come to McDonald’s to reunite Ovcharenko with her passport.
Tears of relief followed.
That weekend, Ovcharenko fulfilled another dream, spending two days sightseeing in New York City.
Heading into her second semester in the advertising program, Ovcharenko is settling into her home away from home. She is active in the Ukrainian Club at Syracuse University, which allows her to feel connected to her home and her heritage, and she is thriving in the classroom.
But she still wakes up every day with a sense of dread, not knowing how long the war will continue to destroy the country she loves so much.
“I am fulfilling my dreams, living and studying in the United States because of the kindness of people I’d never met in Syracuse. Since the war started, I really haven’t had a chance to feel happy about pursuing my dreams. Sometimes it’s not even difficult, it’s impossible to be happy when war is occurring back home,” says Ovcharenko, who plans on returning to Ukraine after her degree is finished.
“War made me lose hope that there are good people out there. Being here has made me realize there are still good people out there, people who are willing to help out Ukrainians,” she says.