BANGOR, Maine — Maria, or “Masha,” Gidulianova vividly remembers the day before Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
After school let out on Feb. 23, 2022, she and a friend strolled down the streets of their beloved city of Odesa, taking Gidulianova’s dog for a walk. Vehicles packed with Ukrainian soldiers drove past, and the girls smiled and waved to them.
“But they did not respond. There was such sadness in their faces,” she recalled Friday. “That is the moment when I understood there will be a war. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was coming.”
Gidulianova, 15, is one of four students from Ukraine studying at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. The others are Denys Romashchin, Oleksandr “Sasha” Shvytchenko and Oleksandr Smetana.
David Armistead, the head of school, learned about the Ukrainian students during a webinar sponsored by the Maine International Trade Center and the U.S. Department of Commerce in April of last year. Having watched the news about the country’s schools and other infrastructure crumble to pieces, he volunteered to accept up to four students on full scholarship, meaning their education, food and living expenses would be covered.
For these Ukrainian teenagers, the experience has meant getting to learn in a safe space far from the threat of a missile obliterating their school. The school has 58 international students, but these four are John Bapst’s first ever from Ukraine.
Eight months into their stay in Bangor, the students have asked to study here for another year, which would mean Romashchin and Smetana could graduate in Maine. John Bapst’s administrators and teachers also hope to keep the students, but educating children on full scholarship is rare for the independent high school, so funding is the biggest barrier, Armistead said.
“When we volunteered to take the kids, we didn’t know how long the war would last,” he said. “We were optimistic that it would be quick, but these are extraordinary circumstances. Everyone at school wants these kids to stay with us. We love them. We want them to be safe.”
Armistead and the students’ parents have been communicating about how to extend their schooling in Bangor. It costs about $16,000 to educate a typical student at the school, not including room and board, he said. Tuition for international students, including meals and accommodations in student residences, is $51,750 each.
The families contributed a small fraction of the tuition for this year, Armistead said, but the war has affected the income of most Ukrainians. Some banking services and sites have shut down, and Russian forces have targeted the country’s energy grid, interrupting access to power for millions.
“We and the families have been working hard to come up with something,” he said, noting the outcome looks promising for at least three of the students. “With the fourth family, we’re very close, so I expect the kids will be back next year, but we would definitely benefit from some support.”
Two of the students created GoFundMe pages to help with the costs.
Like their American and international classmates, each of these students is navigating life as a high-schooler, but also have watched their homeland plunge deeper into war. They left behind their families, their mother tongue and everything familiar to them.
“When the war came to our country, I saw all too clearly that the most important things in everyone’s life are those that money cannot buy: a peaceful sky, human life and health, humanity and justice,” Shvytchenko, 16, wrote to administrators in his application to the school.
He and Gidulianova, both of whom are sophomores, were reserved and mostly quiet during an interview at the library Friday. Romashchin and Smetana, in their junior year, were more expressive and talkative.
Despite the language barrier for some, cultural differences and trying to focus on homework and other responsibilities as a war rages at home, they all spoke highly of their time here.
Some of their first impressions of Maine were that the area is rural and unusual, which took some getting used to because they all hail from large cities. The differences in architecture, cars and grocery stores surprised Smetana, so much that he repeatedly caught himself saying, “wow,” with his eyes lit up, he said. They all noted how kind, upbeat and positive Americans are — “sometimes overly positive,” Romashchin, 16, joked.
Gidulianova and Smetana appreciate that here, students have electives and clubs that interest them, and teachers care about their lives beyond the classroom. In Ukraine, school work was more rigorous, requiring a certain lineup of subjects, and Gidulianova found her teachers were less understanding, she said.
“I like that all subjects are connected to each other,” Smetana said, like how a book in his English class intersects with a history lesson. “Mr. [Matt] Pascucci teaches us not for tests, but how he says, for life. He’s doing what schools should be doing.”
The students had hoped to study in the United States even before the war, pointing out that an American education is respected in many parts of the world. Shvytchenko has long dreamed of this, he said, though he imagined it would happen during his college years. Now that he’s here, he knows it will improve his future and provide a stable path to study economics and psychology.
“I want to do my own research on post-traumatic stress syndrome, which is a result of this terrible war. I hope and pray that one day I can make a difference in the world and make it a more peaceful place to live,” Shvytchenko said in his GoFundMe.
Romashchin, who sees his future in business, is the only one of the four students who had visited the U.S. before, attending a school in Hawaii.
They all spoke about their desire to remain here and try new clubs and sports, and some want to take more advanced courses next year. They hope to attend American universities, though Gidulianova has considered studies in Europe because she wants to pursue a career in art or design.
Smetana, 17, isn’t sure what route he’s most interested in. “There are a lot of fields. I like everything, and it’s a good thing,” he said.
Someday, when it’s safe, they imagine themselves working and building lives in Ukraine.
Romashchin — whose family fled the war in Donetsk in 2014 when he was 8 years old and settled in Kyiv — showed up to the homecoming football game wrapped in a flag representing Kazakhstan as a way to support his friend on the team. At a hockey playoff last weekend, Armistead picked him out of the student section as the loudest supporter.
“Denys’ voice was the one that I heard the most — all in Ukrainian,” he said, laughing. “He’s like a superfan.”
Romashchin has since joined the football team and realized his passion for the sport and the camaraderie among teammates. Gidulianova tried cheerleading and liked that it was different from the ballet, modern and traditional Ukrainian dancing she did back home. Now she’s involved with the newspaper club.
About a month ago, the group prepared borscht, a Ukrainian soup distinctive for its bright red color from beets, and varenyky, which are half-moon shaped dumplings containing various fillings. They fed about 30 people, including students and faculty, and said it was comforting to share a piece of their culture with classmates.
Some peers were visibly moved after Gidulianova and Shvytchenko gave a presentation to the student body about the massive destruction in their country, explaining the toll war has taken on civilians and how missiles have slammed into hospitals, schools and people’s homes.
The students work hard to keep up their grades and become more comfortable here, but some of them still don’t sleep soundly. Romashchin still receives air raid notifications on his phone, which wake him at night, but he feels obligated to check on his loved ones.
Shvytchenko, whose family also is in Kyiv, acknowledged that he feels depressed about the war and the disruption it has caused in the lives and jobs of his parents. Gidulianova and Smetana’s family members are in Spain and Austria now, but she thinks about her grandparents near the shore of the Black Sea, where mines regularly explode and rock the lives of those nearby.
In the meantime, they are grateful “to be here, to feel safe, to live a regular life as all people should,” Shvytchenko said.
People can support John Bapst and its students by contributing to the school’s annual fund, available online.