War prevented an exchange student from returning home. She’s now on the dean’s list and plans to transfer to WMU.
The Timothy J. Nelson Innovation Center is Anastasiia Hrukach’s favorite place on NMC's campus. “I love how modern it is, how light and open it is,” she says. “I’m in the Innovation Center ninety-nine percent of the time if I don’t have my classes.
Anastasiia Hrukach has so completely adopted Traverse City as her home that she tries to use her palm, as Michiganders do, to show the location of her native Ukrainian city, Chernihiv.
“But it doesn’t work,” she says with a laugh, dropping her hand in her lap as she sits in the Hawk Owl Cafe on NMC’s main campus, separated by 5,000 miles and nearly two years from Chernihiv and her family.
Hrukach arrived in Traverse City in fall 2021 for a year as an exchange student at Traverse City Central High School. She was supposed to reunite with her parents and younger brother Nikita in Ukraine in May 2022.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Dual-enrolled at NMC and Traverse City Central High School
Runs with Traverse City Track Club
Member of TC Central cross-country, cheerleading and tennis teams
Named to NMC Dean's List and plans to attend Western Michigan University in fall 2023
Located on main highway to capital, Kyiv
Russia invaded Feb. 24, 2022
United Nations estimates 8,231 civilians killed
Parents and brother, 9, moved to grandparents' more rural home
But Hrukach’s plans changed on February 24, 2022, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Chernihiv, located near the border on the main highway a few hours north of the capital, Kyiv, was one of the first cities attacked. Hrukach, 17, had to figure out how to cope with an unimaginable reality. “People didn’t believe, to the last day, that the war would start,” says Hrukach, who had known fighting between Russia and Ukraine for half her life, dating back to 2014. Despite the eight intervening years of conflict, mostly in eastern Ukraine, no one had foreseen an all-out war. So the news her host mother broke that February morning was shocking as well as frightening.
In those first days, both of her parents’ workplaces were bombed as was a neighbor’s house. Her family fled to a shelter. To prevent a Russian advance on the capital, Ukraine bombed a key bridge between Chernihiv and Kyiv, isolating the city. Hrukach worried if her family would have enough food. Power was limited and unreliable, so she could only communicate by text.
Quickly, however, her parents and brother moved to her grandparents’ home in a safer village outside Chernihiv. Power improved enough that she could make phone and video calls. And with the help of those in her new hometown, including host parents Erin and Dean Bowles, the Traverse City Track Club and NMC, she created a coping strategy.
“Keeping myself busy helped me the most,” says Hrukach. “I do read news. I also know the best for me, and the best I can do is just get an education.”
She’s well on her way. Hrukach took most of her senior year classes as a dual-enrolled student at NMC. She made the dean’s list for her high grade point average and earned 24 credits in subjects including English, psychology, contemporary social dilemmas and chemistry. She loved the in-person classes and NMC's faculty.
“The best I can do is just get an education."
– Anastasiia Hrukach
“Everyone wants to help you. You can text your professor and they will help you,” she says.
Chemistry instructor Mary Jo Elliott is one of her favorites. “She explained it in a way that I loved. She is keeping us on track,” Hrukach says, adding that the course requires 20 hours of homework a week.
Thanks to Elliott’s influence as well as the Bowleses (both engineers), Hrukach is leaning towards a degree in chemical engineering.
Dual-enrollment also was financially advantageous for Hrukach. In Ukraine, school goes only to 11th grade, so back home she would have been in college, which is mostly free to citizens. In the U.S. on a student visa, she’ll have to pay for tuition herself. She waged an all-out effort to get a scholarship, applying to 57 U.S. colleges and universities. She plans to attend Western Michigan University, which has offered her a full scholarship to its honors college. Combining her dual-enrolled credits with an Advanced Placement calculus course at Central, she could start at WMU with a full year already completed.
Sports and outdoor activities round out Hrukach’s life in Traverse City, another change for her. She was born with a heart condition and doctors prevented her from much activity until she was 12 and outgrew her condition. Here, host dad Dean Bowles introduced her to running. Wednesday evening runs with the Traverse City Track Club became a weekly ritual, and she’s competed in events like the Frozen Foot 5K and St. Patrick’s Day fun run. She enjoys her fellow runners as much as the running.
“I felt like a part of the community,” she says.
The track club led to joining the Trojan cross-country squad. Her host mother introduced her to tennis, and she went on to earn the number one singles slot on the Trojan junior varsity tennis team. In between those seasons she even tried cheerleading for the boy’s basketball team.
“Getting out of your comfort zone is sometimes the best thing to do.”
“After cheerleading, I really changed. That got me out there,” Hrukach says. “It taught me how to smile.” In Ukraine, people don’t show their teeth when they smile, so it was a change her family noticed right away, and one that she marvels at now herself, a visible evidence of how much has happened since she arrived in Traverse City. Prior to her exchange experience, she had never left Ukraine and never been on a plane.
“Getting out of your comfort zone is sometimes the best thing to do,” she says. “Being connected to people, and being part of some community, some outside support and people you trust, that’s what helps you most in life.”
Her visa requires that she return to Ukraine for at least two years. But for the time being, with no end in sight to the war and the scholarship awaiting at WMU, her home will be in Traverse City, at the tip of the pinky finger, with the Bowleses. “I will stay here until the war finishes,” she says. “Maybe one day I will do something for my country.” N
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