“How is your family in Ukraine doing?”
It’s the most-asked question for graduate students Arsen Martyshchuk and Nina Klimenkova, who arrived at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga last month for the start of fall semester.
They’re starting their respective master’s programs as the first recipients of the UTC Global Response Assistantship, having made their way from their respective hometowns to Chattanooga with help from UTC, the U.S. State Department and several other organizations, including the Ukrainian government.
“These students have been through a lot, but they are dedicated not only to helping rebuild their country after the war but also being campus ambassadors. They are sure to learn a lot in their graduate programs, but our campus community will most certainly more from them,” said Takeo Suzuki, executive director of the UTC Global Center for Education.
The UTC program will equip the students for the vast reconstruction necessary in their devastated home country, Suzuki said.
Martyshchuk, 23, is pursuing the Master of Public Administration degree in the Department of Political Science and Public Service.
He plans to return to his hometown after earning his master’s degree and work in local government.
“My goal is to work hard and then get back to Ukraine and make things better,” he said. “If things go well and the war is over.”
Klimenkova, 21, is pursuing an MBA in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business.
“It’s hard to predict the future now but helping to rebuild the country is what I would like to do,” she said.
The program—one of only a few graduate programs for Ukrainian students in the U.S. and the only one in Tennessee—provides full tuition, room and board, and a $600 monthly stipend for the students, both of whose families are still in war-torn Ukraine.
So when people ask how their families are doing, it strikes them as kind, but it’s also tough to answer sometimes.
They both speak to their families every day, typically in the morning because of the seven-hour time difference. But safety is precarious and relative for most Ukrainians since the Russian invasion in late February.
“They’re really excited I’m here,” said Martyshchuk, who is from a rural village near the border of Poland that has been spared from much of the violence. They’re a little sad but they knew I wanted it, so they’re happy for me.”
It’s a little harder for Klimenkova, whose hometown near the port city of Odessa has been ravaged during the war, but her parents are still proud and supportive.
“Since the war started I realized just how strong my family and this has made us stronger because it’s a really difficult time,” she said.
“It’s not very safe in the south of Ukraine. There are constant air attacks but they’re doing ok. They support me in every decision.”
Born and raised in a rural Hutsul village in western Ukraine, Martyshchuk earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts in the capital of Kyiv. He fled the city when the Russian bombardment began on Feb. 24 and headed back to his hometown.
“It was hard emotionally and mentally, but I can’t really complain because my region is relatively safe. I’ve seen a few rocket attacks.
“My family and I have assisted with helping Romanian and European partners with humanitarian aid coming into the country since we’re in a border region…My grandfather (Vasyl Konishchuk) is the only man in my family to carry a gun. But he’s on safeguarding duty, not fighting. But even at 60, he is physically stronger than me. It’s safe, but that’s relative. Anything can happen at any second.”
Born in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, Klimenkova moved to the small town of Voznesensk at the age of 7. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Taras Shevchenko National University in the capital Kyiv. She was living there when Russia invaded Ukraine.
“On Feb. 24, I was in Kyiv and the first missile fell at a distance of 800 meters (about half a mile) from our house. It was 5 a.m. and I will never forget that terrifying sound. The next day, my relatives and I decided to leave Kyiv because Russian troops started to besiege the city.
“Under constant threats of aerial attacks, we went to a small town in the south of Ukraine where my grandparents live. Unfortunately, in a week’s time, the Russian occupants pushed forward and attacked this town also. The fights took place right on my street and we were forced to sit in the basement for two days. The bridges were blown up and my area was cut off from the city center…Thanks to our brave authorities and army forces, the enemy lost their position and got a fierce rebuff. However, looting is still a problem and civilian targets are attacked to this day, although on a lower scale.”
Arsen Martyshchuk, left, and Nina Klimenkova began immersing themselves in the UTC culture at the International Student Welcome during Welcome Week.