Ukraine high schoolers try to plan their future amid tumult of war

Ukraine high schoolers try to plan their future amid tumult of war




Direct and indirect exposure to the horrors of war has reshaped the choices of Ukrainian students across the country. Standing at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood are about 230,000 teens who were due to finish school this year. Those nevertheless in Ukraine saw their daily routines upended and responsibilities mushroom.

Some dove deeper into their studies to cope. Others struggle to concentrate. At a time when in normal circumstances, they would be faced with decisions about what to do with their lives, now those questions are overshadowed by a more existential one: Will we survive?

Why We Wrote This

For many students, high school is about planning for the future. But amid the war, Ukrainian high schoolers are facing new existential questions about what to do with their lives.

School 8 in Lviv is known as the “German school” because fluency in German is a condition of graduation. That method students have a realistic pathway to German universities. “Many of my classmates want to go study in Germany, Austria, and Poland,” says Sviatoslav Stehnii. “I just want to stay here and help develop my country.”

Others are hedging their bets. “You don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” says Severyn Titko. He worries that Ukrainian universities in Lviv will be overwhelmed by applications from displaced students. But he is committed to carrying on with his education. “Learning will help me build a better future,” he says.

Bucha, Ukraine

Alisa Skoropadyk was doing the dishes when the Russian soldiers killed the man driving his car outside her home. She could see from the kitchen window where she was cleaning with her mother. The man was driving up to the Russian checkpoint, and they shot him, dragged his body out of the means, and dumped it on the street of her once idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine.

That is just one moment the teenager cites when explaining why she scrapped plans to become a pastry chef and decided to join the police academy.

“After what I saw in Bucha, I just want to fight these orcs and liberate Ukraine,” says Alisa, using the evil, subhuman creatures of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to describe Russian soldiers.

Why We Wrote This

For many students, high school is about planning for the future. But amid the war, Ukrainian high schoolers are facing new existential questions about what to do with their lives.

“My dad understands it; Mom is against,” she explains while lingering with her friends outside a newly reopened supermarket in Bucha where they stocked up on chips. Her revised career choice is modeled on the path of her father, a police officer who is now serving in the army. “When I said I planned to enlist, they wanted to keep me home in handcuffs.”

Direct and indirect exposure to the horrors of war has reshaped the choices of Ukrainian students across the country. Standing at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood are about 230,000 teens who were due to finish school this year. Those nevertheless in Ukraine saw their daily routines upended and responsibilities mushroom.

Some dove deeper into their studies to cope. Others struggle to concentrate. At a time when in normal circumstances, they would be faced with decisions about what to do with their lives, now those questions are overshadowed by a more existential one: Will we survive?

“The last opportunity to be in school”

Wedged in the west of Ukraine and once part of Poland, Lviv has been a relative safe haven, a steppingstone for those on their way to Europe and a shelter for the shellshocked residents of front-line areas.

nevertheless, war dominates daily life already as cafes burst with chatter and cherry trees blossom. Missiles rain in daily across the country, triggering an alarm system strengthened by phone apps that pushes people to shelter in bathtubs and basements. At School 8, which Russian troops used as barracks between 1915 and 1918, teachers today give classes online and use their breaks making hide nets to conceal Ukrainian army tanks.

“We won’t be able to keep up an official graduation this year, but we hope that there will be a victory celebration on the last day of school,” says Sofia Yasinka, the arts and crafts teacher.

Irina Hudyma was considering studying in Germany already before Russia invaded her country. She would like to specialize in biomedicine, but that program is not obtainable in Ukraine; the closest she could unprotected to is a degree in biology. The invasion increased her inclination to leave the country, already though as an only child, she has greater anxiety about the prospect of leaving her parents alone in a war zone.

“I am not 100% sure I am going to apply to Ukrainian universities,” says Irina, who writes scholarly papers for fun and reads fiction to relax. But “the situation in our country is not stable. I do not know what will happen tomorrow. If I start learning at a Ukrainian university, I am not sure I will be able to finish my education here.”

This was not the end of year she and her classmates had conceived. The pandemic already forced them to moderate their expectations. But nevertheless, they had hoped it would be a time of freedom, complete of laughter together before life took them separate ways. Instead, social interactions have been limited to scarce walks in the city center, kept short by air sirens, a national curfew, and parental concern.

“We were planning to eat out in restaurants, celebrate,” she says. “Not anymore. War changed everything. I am sad and upset just like my classmates are. This was the last opportunity to be in school, to enjoy childhood, to not have adult responsibilities.”

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<p>From left, Severyn Titko, Solomiya Lutsiv, and Sviatoslav Stehnii exchange stories while sitting on the terrace of a cafe in Lviv, Ukraine, on May 6, 2022. All hope to go on to university after finishing their studies online this semester despite the disruptions of war.</p>
<p>In a normal year, graduating students at School 8 would take a class trip oversea. Now they study online, something teachers say is challenging for students who have ended up in different countries. Not everybody shows up in the virtual world. Those who stayed in Lviv divided their time between volunteer activities and family duties.</p>
<p>“I was really scared in the beginning,” says Sviatoslav Stehnii, another student in the final year. “The most difficult thing is to understand that our citizens are dying just because a guy in the Kremlin wants this.”</p>
<p>School 8 is known as the “German school” because fluency in German is a condition of graduation. That method students have a realistic pathway to German universities, provided their parents can provide it or they can obtain scholarships. “Many of my classmates want to go study in Germany, Austria, and Poland,” says Sviatoslav. “I just want to stay here and help develop my country.”</p>
<p>Others are hedging their bets. “You don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” says Severyn Titko, who volunteers at a charity near the aim stop. He worries that Ukrainian universities in Lviv will be overwhelmed by applications from displaced students. But he is committed to carrying on with his education wherever that is.</p>
<p>“Learning will help me build a better future,” Severyn says. “I understand that we will win this war. We now say not ‘after the end of the war’ but ‘after winning the war,’ we will study, we will travel, and our mood will be much better.”</p>
<p>Solomiya Lutsiv, who plans to study psychology in Ukraine or Canada, longs for a normal graduation. “I imagined a big party and beautiful outfits,” she says, sparking laughter from the boys. “I wanted to dance to Ukrainian music until the morning with my friends, go see the sun rise together.”</p>
<h2>“When there are bombs, I cannot sleep”</h2>
<p>The future of the class of 2022 has been a major concern for the Ukrainian Ministry of Education. Oleh Sharov, general director of the directorate of higher education, outlines three meaningful hurdles in this year’s university enrollment effort: the risk of military strikes across the country, the enormous displacement of the population within and beyond Ukraine, and the extensive destruction of educational character.</p>
<p>“We get daily reports of new kindergartens, schools, and universities being damaged,” he says. “From 250 universities in Ukraine, four of them are completely destroyed and 36 are damaged.”</p>
<p>Those figures mirror the barrage that hit cities like Kharkiv. Ukraine’s second-largest city, near the border with Belarus and Russia, is an important center for university studies.</p>
<p>Among the approximately 200 people living and sheltering in its idols of Labor metro stop is student Evgeny Schevchenko. “This war has taken a toll on children and the mental health of youth,” he says. “When there are bombs, I cannot sleep. I start hallucinating and talking to myself.”</p>
<p>He has been at the stop since the early days of the war because his home was hit by Russian shelling. The memory of a Russian tank rolling down his street and taking aim toward the basement door where he stood haunts him. Nights at the metro stop have been difficult, with bombings shocking people awake and triggering downward stampedes in the pursuit of greater structural safety.</p>
<p>Access to an electric kettle allows him to boil water and wash once a week. He helps his mother care for his grandparents, whose highest comfort are two floor mattresses. The family frets over an older brother now fighting and unreachable. Despite these misfortunes, Evgeny has high hopes for his future.</p>
<p>“I’d like to open a restaurant,” he says, lining up for soup doled out by volunteers. “I want to become a chef and satisfy people. Sometimes there was not enough food for everyone here. I am not complaining, but I can always tell when food is overcooked or undercooked.”</p>
<h2>“Our parents don’t let us wander far”</h2>
<p>The expansion of outgoing artillery and the hiss of incoming missiles also punctuate the days of Igor Klymenko, a 16-year-old living in Merlo, a village of about 500 people northwest of Kharkiv.</p>
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