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The war in Ukraine hits close to home for international student Yana Garbuzova

By Samantha Paul

Millions of lives would change with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Families would be torn apart, forced to flee their homes, and many would lose their loved ones. Millions of refugees would try to make the journey to the western side of the country, some not entirely sure where they were going. They just knew they had to escape the violence while they still could.

Right here on Alden Street, Yana Garbuzova, an international student from Russia, was feeling the stress of the conflict more deeply than anyone else on campus.

She worried about her friends and family, who lived between the Russian military station and the Ukrainian border. With each day that passed, she had no idea when she would hear from them next, or even if they were safe. With each call she made home, she could hear the helicopters and missiles flying back and forth over her town.

Unfortunately, all she could do was watch the news from 5,403 miles away.

Three years ago, when Garbuzova was deciding where she would attend college, she immediately began researching institutions in Europe and the United States. Even as a teenager, Garbuzova knew that her small hometown of Slavyansk-on-Kuban, in the Krasnodar Region of Russia, did not offer the opportunities she was after.

Unlike most Springfield College students, who come from high schools within nearby cities or even states, Garbuzova was making the move across the world to further her education. She also did so with her name mispelled as “Iana,” as the government provided her with a mistranslated passport.

“Do you know the Iron Man movie?” Garbuzova asked, smiling. “I watched the first one, then I became obsessed with computer science, and that’s actually why I applied to [colleges in] Massachusetts state, because Tony Stark was a graduate student of MIT.”

Computer science is exactly what Garbuzova is pursuing in her time as an undergraduate, and plans to continue to graduate school to delve into software engineering, or perhaps further expand her interest in artificial intelligence.

“[Yana] is a phenomenal student,” said Heather St. Germaine, director of Springfield College’s International Center. “I don’t think she’s ever received anything below an A, and always been just very driven and committed to following her dreams, and that was to come here and graduate from Springfield College. So much so that she has accelerated that process and plans to actually complete a year early.”

Beyond the classroom, Garbuzova keeps herself busy working four different jobs on campus. She is a student assistant in both the Computer Science and Literature, Writing, and Journalism departments, in addition to working at the post office and as a resident assistant in International Hall.

She often comes across as reserved to others, but Garbuzova’s personality can fill a room. She loves spending time on her PlayStation and is currently rewatching “The Last of Us,” a television adaptation of her favorite video game. She also loves sushi and has taught herself how to make the dish by watching YouTube videos. What she describes as an obsession has now also piqued her interest in Japanese culture.

When asked about her other pastimes, Garbuzova turned her hands over and wiggled her fingers, smiling. She answered simply, saying, “Nails.”

Garbuzova painted her fingernails a dark navy blue, so deep of a shade that they are almost black. She had also painted colorful specks across them, somewhat replicating a dark night sky and the stars.

“It’s the same as painting,” she says. “If I have free time, I just do my nails.”

Like any other college student, Garbuzova is hardworking and simultaneously pursuing a handful of interests. However, what most people don’t see is the ongoing struggle of keeping her mind off of the conflict at home.

“Whenever I call my mom and she does not answer me, it’s really tough,” Garbuzova said, nodding gravely. Her voice went quiet, far from the lively tone she possessed when talking about her major and her work. She calls home as often as possible, just because she does not know when she may get another opportunity to do so.

Garbuzova’s grandmother was born in Ukraine, and she has had family in both countries since the war began last winter, which makes the conflict all the more complicated. Still, she finds time to spread knowledge about the Ukrainian situation, and even helped her uncle find his footing in the United States after he left Russia.

“On top of all her school pressures, she helped him get a Social Security number, she helped him get a job, an apartment, and later helped his daughter do the same. We did a fundraiser where we tried to get clothes and food for them to get up on their feet and running,” said Kellie Lavoie of Springfield College’s Computer Science Department. Lavoie works closely with Garbuzova through her work-study program, but has also become a kind of mother figure for her while she is at school. “She doesn’t just worry about herself, she worries about her family.”

Even though she is Russian, Garbuzova has made it extraordinarily clear where she stands on issues of the war. Since arriving in Springfield, she has written several essays and social media posts about her support for Alexei Navalny, a leader of the Russian political opposition, and criticisms of his imprisonment.

“I was actually… friends with the coordinator, one of Navalny’s places in Kaliningrad. I was not famous, but I was emphasizing my opinion,” Garbuzova said. “We have to talk about this, about the war. I feel like I’m responsible to talk about this, sharing my opinion, sharing the knowledge with the people.”

Garbuzova also frequently encourages people to volunteer or find other ways to support the Ukrainain people. One of the ways she has done this is in partnership with the Office of Spiritual Life to commemorate and speak about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. “I do believe that Ukraine will win and recover; and I will do anything to make this happen,” she said.

With the ongoing war, Garbuzova being able to return to Russia after graduation is highly improbable. Unfortunately, her political alignment makes this even more unlikely.

Garbuzova will presumably never return to Russia to see her family. Her activism and writing have caught the attention of the Russian government, and she could be arrested if she returns to the country. Her family could even face repercussions on her behalf, so they may move to Germany with family friends to escape this and the fighting. Sadly, Garbuzova ultimately does not know what will come of their situation.

“It’s stressful. You know, some days, she’ll sit here and cry, because it’s a lot of burden on a young person’s shoulders,” Lavoie said. She has seen Garbuzova’s growth as a student and person, but has also seen the immense toll that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has taken on her mentally.

Thankfully, Lavoie is a central piece of the strong support system that Garbuzova needs and has built at Springfield. Donna Laviolette, an academic associate of Springfield’s Literature, Writing, and Journalism Department, is another one vital part of Garbuzova’s experience here. It’s relationships like these that help her navigate her time at a college so far away from home.
“I have no doubt that she will succeed,” Laviolette said. She has great hopes for Garbuzova after she leaves Springfield, chief of them being her happiness and reaching the goals she has set for herself during her time in undergrad. Laviolette spoke of Garbuzova approaching graduation with tears welling in her eyes.

“I’m sure that Springfield College will be proud of her when she does succeed and she’s going to make a little name for herself,” she said “She’s not the average student here. I feel like it’s been a definite pleasure and honor on my end, being able to work with her.”

Garbuzova says that the Springfield College community is filled with hundreds of other friendly faces and helping hands, which has made her hard days a lot easier. Despite the great amount of uncertainty and stress that follows her, Garbuzova said, “They all supported me, they all understand me. so it’s a lot about people here, and people here are really, really, good.”

Photo Courtesy of Yana Garbuzova

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