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University ‘Adopts’ Two Ukrainian Students into Community

Myhkailo, or Mike, Chabanovskyi, right, poses with his parents Anton and Nataliia during a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. The photo was taken in June, 2021, two months before Mike traveled to the United States as a high school exchange student. Mike hasn’t seen his parents since.
Myhkailo, or Mike, Chabanovskyi, right, poses with his parents Anton and Nataliia during a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. The photo was taken in June, 2021, two months before Mike traveled to the United States as a high school exchange student. Mike hasn’t seen his parents since.

Stockton University may have saved first-year students Mykhailo Chabanovskyi and Khrystyna Svystovych from war-torn Ukraine.

“One thing I know for a fact is that if I were to go back to Ukraine right now, I wouldn’t be let back out,” said Mykhailo, who also goes by Mike. “As an 18-year-old, there is a chance I could be drafted into the Ukrainian army. Stockton was my last hope.”

Mike and Khrystyna, who goes by Khris, came to the United States from Ukraine with about 130 other students in August 2021, as part of the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) created by the U.S. Department of State. Staying with host families, Mike went to high school in Portland, Oregon, while Khris lived in a small town in Ohio.

Six months later, Russia invaded their home country. To keep them from having to return, the FLEX program extended the students’ time in the United States. But after graduating from high school, their options to stay in the United States were limited. The FLEX program does not extend to college education, even though about 70 of the visiting students wanted to pursue higher education in the U.S.

The American Councils for International Education, which helps the State Department run the FLEX program, reached out to several university presidents to see if any would accept students. Only a handful agreed, including former Stockton President Harvey Kesselman, who said the university would take two students, said Natalja Manger, Stockton’s assistant director of International Recruitment and Admissions.

Mike and Khris were selected after a rigorous interview process of 15 FLEX students who applied and were accepted to Stockton, Manger said.

Khrystyna Svystovych, or Khris, poses with most of her family in Ukraine before she left for the exchange program in the United States. From left, her father Vasyl, youngest brother, Kryhorii, brother, Vasyl, brother, Michaylo, mother, Tetiana and sister, Veronika.
Khrystyna Svystovych, or Khris, poses with most of her family in Ukraine before she left for the exchange program in the United States. From left, her father Vasyl, youngest brother, Kryhorii, brother, Vasyl, brother, Michaylo, mother, Tetiana and sister, Veronika.

But admitting them was much more of a commitment than a typical first-year student. Stockton is not only providing tuition, room and board, but also health insurance and incidentals like bedding, pots and pans, and laundry baskets.

“With the help of Stockton’s Foundation, the university has provided them the financial support necessary for four years, 365 days a year,” said Manger, ’16 MBA, who is a naturalized citizen from Latvia. “To host a student like that, who has very little or any fiscal support for an entire four years of their education—it’s a huge, huge investment.”

Stockton provides the equivalent of family and community support to the displaced students.

Khris is from the small town of Uhniv in the western part of Ukraine. Her parents, Vasyl and Tetiana, moved to Poland because they have jobs there, but her siblings are still in Ukraine. She said they haven’t seen too much fighting because Uhniv is so close to Poland, but at the beginning of the war her family struggled without electricity for months.

“I was very happy [to be selected by Stockton] because I didn’t really have any other options. I was already thinking that I would probably have to go back home, and to be honest, that wasn’t really an option,” Khris said. She applied to more than a dozen other schools, but Stockton was the only one to offer help.

Mike grew up in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. His parents, Anton and Nataliia, were able to leave and now live with relatives in Munich, Germany. However, his grandparents are still in eastern Ukraine.

“Stockton was the last chance. I had no Plan B,” Mike said. “I had applied to like 25 schools at that point and they always posted something like ‘We stand with Ukraine. We support you guys.’ But they presented no real opportunities. Stockton did.”

Stockton’s Center for Community Engagement and Social Learning organized free bedding for Mike and Khris, and other members of the university community donated supplies when they moved into Kesselman Hall on the Atlantic City campus.

Some Stockton employees have become like surrogate parents. When Mike first arrived in New Jersey, Manger picked him up at Newark Liberty International Airport and drove him to campus. Yibin Feng, a Stockton international student advisor, recently took Khris to a dentist appointment.

Manger, a mother of two daughters, said she just wants to provide some semblance of security as they go through an unimaginable crisis.

“They arrived here as children who were brave enough to travel into the unknown, but as the war began, they realized that the way they envisioned their future isn’t going to be possible anymore and they are going to have to reinvent it for themselves,” she said. “Where your future was a source of anxiety for you, it now becomes what you can anticipate. And that puts you at ease, and you don’t have to always be afraid of what’s going to happen next month.”

“... I really love the people here. I feel like I’ve become so much more global. People here have so many opinions. It’s made me think about what I stand for, what are my values.” —Khrystyna Svystovych
“… I really love the people here. I feel like I’ve become so much more global. People here have so many opinions. It’s made me think about what I stand for, what are my values.” —Khrystyna Svystovych

After spending a semester and a half at Stockton, Mike and Khris admitted they’ve started to adjust to their new home and are really enjoying college life. Like most first-year Stockton students, Khris loves grabbing a cappuccino and a pink-frosted doughnut at the Dunkin’ in the Campus Center. Mike enjoys the beach, the view of the city from his room and how “cool” it is that his favorite board game, Monopoly, is modeled after Atlantic City.

“Honestly, I thought it would be harder,” said Khris, who wants to major in anthropology because she loves learning about cultures. “But it’s so much easier because I really love the people here. I feel like I’ve become so much more global. People here have so many opinions. It’s made me think about what I stand for, what are my values.”

Mike also appreciates how diverse the university is, and that Stockton is just a short drive to big cities like New York City and Philadelphia.

“I really like that you can find any type of people here if you just look,” said the business major who wants to eventually start his own company tied to cryptocurrency and virtual reality. “You have a sense of belonging. It’s a melting pot.”

But as the second anniversary of the Russian invasion passed last week, the reality of their situation is never too far from their minds. Both of them haven’t seen their families in person in nearly three years, although Mike plans to see his parents in Germany this summer.

The Ukrainians are trying to make the best of a situation they can’t control.

“Being at Stockton helps me to appreciate each day more,” Khris said. “I’m by myself, but I’m safe. At this moment, my family is safe. I love Stockton. I love that they cared about my situation. It’s nice to know that I feel like I belong here. Even though I don’t have a home, it feels like home.”

VIDEO: Watch an interview with Khrystyna Svystovych: https://bit.ly/3UXMgZL