Persistence provides path to UMN for Fulbright scholar from Ukraine

December 7, 2022

Roman Tyshchenko arrived at the University of Minnesota from Ukraine in August 2022. He told us about his dreams for the future and what he wants people to know about Ukraine.

Why did you want to study in the U.S.?

Ever since my undergraduate years at my Ukrainian university, I have been thinking about getting a master's degree abroad as I always loved talking with foreigners and I just felt more productive in a multicultural environment. It was not an easy journey, as between the first application I sent to a foreign university and my actual arrival in the U.S., there were years of rejections, lessons learned, hesitations, and hard work.

When in September 2021 I finally received the letter starting with "Dear Roman, we are glad to inform you..." from the Fulbright Ukraine office, I was very happy that all my efforts finally paid off. However, little did I know what awaited me in the following year. The unprovoked full-scale invasion in Ukraine that Russia started on February 24, after 8 years of the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, has changed the lives of every Ukrainian, including me. 

How did the war affect you?

I was lucky enough to not be directly affected by the war, unlike many of my friends and colleagues who lost their homes, loved ones, and jobs, let alone the mental trauma that many Ukrainians are going through. Yet, it was not how I imagined my international education experience would start. 

Instead of sharing the excitement of an upcoming adventure and spending more time with my friends and relatives before starting a 2-year program in the U.S. like other international students (including the ones from Russia), I had to flee my home in Kyiv and move to the west of Ukraine for two months, not even being sure whether I’d have a chance to pack any of my belongings. Luckily, in July, I had a chance to have a short trip to see my family in central east Ukraine, even though I was “welcomed” by a Russian missile that hit an oil depot near my hometown two hours after my arrival.

Thinking of the challenges I went through to make it to the U.S., I realize how tiny they were, even though I felt very stressed back then. The U.S. Embassy moved to Poland, so it was impossible to get an American visa in Ukraine; Ukrainian male students were not allowed to leave the country unless they had a student visa and a student ID; all the flights from Ukraine were canceled; and many smaller things made my plans uncertain till the last minute. 

Luckily, I had all the support from the Fulbright Ukraine office, the University of Minnesota’s Youth Development Leadership team (YDL), and International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). I will always remember how Deborah Moore from YDL was re-writing my acceptance letter to meet the requirements of the Ukrainian authorities for a millionth time while being on the plane to her vacation destination and Paula Baker from ISSS helped me to get my student ID and deliver it all the way to Ukraine. Even though I wasn’t sure if I’d eventually make it to the University of Minnesota, I felt welcome there from the very first interaction with its people. 

Why are you studying youth development leadership?

After obtaining my bachelor’s and first master’s degree in International Business in Ukraine and having some internships in tobacco companies, I realized it wasn’t the field I wanted to devote myself to. 

In February 2018, when I was halfway through my master’s degree, I happened to get a job with America House Kyiv, a U.S. State Department-funded center focused on cultural exchanges, discussions, and learning opportunities for Americans and Ukrainians. I will not exaggerate when I say that this place changed my life and defined my whole career — working together with like-minded people who supported me in finding my passions and growing as a professional, I learned a lot more than I did during the six years at the university. At America House, we ran youth-focused events and programs, focusing on different issues like human rights, anti-corruption, and public diplomacy. It was a pleasure to wake up to do that, but back then I didn’t realize I worked in youth development or even know such a field existed — it was just a cool job.

Roman and the Ukrainian-Danish Youth House team
Roman with the Ukrainian-Danish Youth House team 

In my two next jobs — first with a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor and then the Ukrainian-Danish Youth House (UDYH) — my career path finally crystallized into the youth development field. In my latest role before coming to Minnesota, I worked on creating a physical and virtual platform for young Ukrainians and Danes to interact with and learn from each other, promoting democracy across borders. It was the most challenging job I have ever had as it was impacted both by COVID-19 and Russia’s war, but it also added more confidence to me in what I want to do — my time at the UDYH only strengthened my desire to work on youth programming in different capacities.

As I did not have any academic background in youth work, I decided it was time to fix it if I wanted to develop my career in this field. And here Fulbright was an obvious choice for me — not only is the U.S. a leader in youth development, but also the American education system is perfect for people who change their career paths as interdisciplinarity is one of its key features. I realized that there were not so many degree programs in youth development around the U.S., and after a little research and consultations with the Fulbright office, I focused on the University of Minnesota, also considering the University of Florida, the University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois in Chicago as my back-up options. With this being said, I am happy that everything worked out and I became a proud Gopher!

What do you hope to do with your degree?

Even though Russia’s war against Ukraine has altered my career aspirations, I still want to continue working to help youth succeed in post-war Ukraine in any needed capacity.

One of the possible directions is promoting international exchange for Ukrainians, both inbound and outbound. I want to work on designing and implementing leadership and academic exchange programs to let more young Ukrainians share their experience and lessons learned during the war as well as find inspiration and insights to rebuild Ukraine.

Another path I am considering is in the area of career and professional development for youth. Over the past nine months, many young Ukrainians have not only lost their jobs but also experienced significant disruptions in their education. Thus, I would like to create more opportunities for Ukrainian youth to be more competitive in the job market, find their true passions, or change their fields more easily, if needed.

Roman painting on a canvas, which so far says "democ"
Roman at the youth festival in Lviv

What is it like being far from home while the fighting continues?

Even though I am very happy about my current university and location, I can’t say I feel completely comfortable here. Of course, one of the reasons is being an international student — all of us had to move to a different country and adjust to new traditions and lifestyles. But in my case, this sense of discomfort is amplified by the Russian full-scale war against Ukraine.

In addition to adjusting to new life in the Twin Cities and studying, I wake up every morning to read the news from Ukraine and check if my family and friends are safe. And in the past month, the news I read every morning has been only getting worse and worse, with the blackouts and disruptions in data connection and water supply all around Ukraine. Being so far away from home, I try at least to educate people in the U.S. about what is happening in Ukraine now and what Ukraine looks like despite the war.

For example, in November at the Humphrey School, my friends — Fulbright students from Georgia — and I organized an event to raise awareness about Russia’s invasions in Ukraine and Georgia. We think it’s important to talk about Russian war crimes as they have affected millions of people and Russia should be held responsible for that.

Living in the U.S., I already realized that many people here use the wrong spellings for Ukrainian toponyms without understanding why it is a big deal. First of all, it is important to remember that Ukraine doesn’t have an article “the” in its name. In the Soviet times, Russians referred to Ukraine as “the Ukraine” considering it to be a part of the country and not an independent state. But luckily those times are in the past, and Ukraine is a sovereign country. Similarly, I explain to people that it is only correct to say Kyiv, Odesa, Dnipro and not “Kiev”, “Odessa”, “Dnieper”, etc. because they are Ukrainian cities and their names should be translated from Ukrainian and not Russian.

People ask me a lot about the current situation in Ukraine, and I am always happy to answer to the extent I can. I personally know people who were directly affected by the Russian war — whose house was destroyed by a Russian missile or who were fleeing Mariupol under shelling and not knowing if they’ll make it. Everything that Russia is doing is documented and I am sure that they will pay for everything after the victory of Ukraine, even though the tragic memories and losses will be engraved in our history forever. 

However, I also want people to know about Ukraine’s other sides — developed, progressive, cultured, and resilient. I hope that soon anyone who ever uses Grammarly will know that it was developed in Ukraine. Anyone who will listen to the Carol of the Bells will know that it was based on a Ukrainian original song “Shchedryk” written by our composer Mykola Leontovych. Anyone who thinks that ordinary people have no power in the modern world will remember Ukrainians who are not afraid of guns or Russian tanks.

Roman wrapped in a Ukrainian flag