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Ukrainian exchange student forges ahead amid change, uncertainty

Grad with grit: Tetiana Trech

Northview — A year ago, Tetiana Trach was making plans to leave her family in their hometown of Borshchiv, in southwestern Ukraine, to spend her senior year in the U.S. as an exchange student. 

She wanted to see the world, she said, and didn’t want to wait until after graduation. “And it’s America,” she said, her English skills fluent. “I wanted something more. I wanted to experience American high school.”

But since Feb. 24, when Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, the Northview High senior has had more than school on her mind. She’s now trying to determine not when to return home, but whether she should. 

And she recognizes that the home she would return to likely will not be the country where she grew up. That her home country is likely not safe for her to return to.

What is happening there, she said, makes no sense to her.

“I still can’t completely believe what’s going on,” she said. Yet the reality of it has increased her pride in her homeland. 

“I didn’t realize how much I love my country until this happened. And when I see how united my people are, this emotional drive, this passion … I am just so proud.”

Tetiana – front row fourth from left – also participated on the school’s wrestling team (courtesy)

Where is Home?

Tetiana has grown up aware of the Russian dispute over Ukraine’s independence; it’s long been part of life in her country, she said. Even news of a Russian buildup of troops on the Eastern border months before the February invasion did not cause overwhelming alarm, she recalled.

She was doing homework the night of Feb. 24 when she got a text from her wrestling coach. He was sorry her country had been invaded, he wrote, and asked if there was anything he could do.

A bit of Americana: Tetiana was on Northview’s cheer team this year (courtesy)

“I checked the news and saw bombing in Kyiv, which was very shocking to me. It’s the capital, and it’s in the center of Ukraine.”

She texted her mother, then called when there was no response. It was the middle of the night in Ukraine and the family had been sleeping. “I said ‘Mom, wake up. Our country is being bombed.’” Then Tetiana texted other exchange students from Ukraine, with whom she had established a group chat for general support.

Three days later, with bombing getting closer to Borshchiv, her parents and 10-year-old brother fled. “They could see rockets flying overhead,” Tetiana said. “It’s scary because you can maybe run away (from Russian soldiers) if they come to your city, but you can’t do anything to stop rockets.”

They are now trying to become settled in Germany, and her father, a builder, and mother, who previously worked in a kindergarten classroom, are looking for work.

Tetiana said she no longer is up at night worrying about their safety, but she still has family and friends in Ukraine. Her 87-year-old great-grandmother who lived with them chose to stay behind, and she and the family cat, Murko, are being looked after by nearby family members. A handful of cousins, uncles and aunts live within about 30 minutes of one another.

As for her hometown, so far “it’s fine, it’s not touched by Russians,” she said, “but my friends say they can hear the (air raid) sirens all day. And that is very stressful for them. … it’s hard psychologically for them to hear the sound telling them something is wrong.”

Tetiana Trach, left, with brother Viktor, 10; mother, Luidmyla; and father, Serhii, at a restaurant in their town of Borshchiv, Ukraine, shortly before she came to the U.S. for her senior year of high school (courtesy)

Mapping a New Path

Tetiana was originally scheduled to return to Ukraine on May 25, NHS graduation day. She said the exchange student program coordinators at ASSE International are trying to determine what options are available for staying in the U.S. for a time if that is what students and their families prefer.

Given the situation there now, she already has visited a couple colleges here in the U.S. She plans to pursue a career in political science and international relations. 

“If I reunite with (her family) in Germany, it would be at least a year before I could start college there because I don’t speak German,” Tetiana said. “I miss my family so much, but I don’t want to lose a year. I want to go to college right away.” 

She said she has appreciated words of support from counselors, teachers and classmates, as well as from her host mother, Priscilla Hansma. She’s especially grateful when people ask her about her family and her country.

“I’m glad that people pay some interest, ask questions; this is really important. I’m also glad that they know Ukraine is an independent country, and that we are ready to fight for our independence.”

As for the future, Tetiana said, “Even before the war I thought I would like to work in government here in the U.S., but now I think I would like to go back to Ukraine. I want to make big changes.”

‘I didn’t realize how much I love my country until this happened. And when I see how united my people are, this emotional drive, this passion … I am just so proud.’

– Tetiana Trech, exchange student from Ukraine

Counselor Mike Kapustka recognizes the unique challenges faced by any foreign exchange student: having to adapt to a new culture, make new friends and keep up good grades, all while having no family or other well-known support nearby.

Then add war breaking out back home. Realizing you may never be able to go back to it, at least as it was before you left. That friends or family could be harmed, or worse.

“Tetiana is so grounded, she is so mature, she has such a great perspective,” Kapustka said. “There’s just a calmness about her. She’s very independent as well. She’s amazing, just navigating through this and looking toward her future.”

Wrestling coach Charlie Wells agreed. 

“All I can say is she’s got two awesome parents,” Wells said. “They raised that lady to be something very special.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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