For the past nine months, Olha Sosyak navigated the hallways and classrooms of Parker School, stepped out of her comfort zone and rigidly planned studies to try new things, as well as integrated into another family and developed friendships that might last a lifetime.
With her exchange almost finished, the 17-year-old Ukrainian student made some simple plans for what she wants to do before leaving the Big Island, such as eating brownies and going on one last adventure with her hosts — Jon, Gena, Anna and Craig McFarland. While she’s excited to return home to the Ivano-Frankivsk region and share her experiences, uncertainty also looms.
“I have a feeling that my country will be different than when I left,” Sosyak said.
Sosyak arrived on the island in August and often had to explain where Ukraine was. Now, it seems everyone knows because of the latest media reports about the ongoing violence and conflicts between those who want to free the country from Russian influence and those who prefer to maintain the relationship.
“Today, my little country is big news. Everybody is interested in what’s going on and what may happen,” she said.
Although her family is not thrust in the heart of the discord, Sosyak still finds the tensions upsetting. Sosyak admitted to being disheartened about what might be her new normal. She thinks the relationship between Russia and Ukraine is “horrible.” She also doesn’t understand why pro-Russia protesters want to take over areas that do not belong to them, and thinks Russia is unjustly trying to grab the Crimea. She would prefer Ukraine maintain its independence and forge closer ties with Europe.
Sosyak was most concerned about the anti-government demonstrations last winter, when protesters smashed their way into Kiev’s city hall and tried to break through police lines to get to the presidential office. Her brother was among the thousands who called for then-President Viktor Yanukovych to stand down. She was relieved when her brother returned home safely and she got to talk with him via Skype. Nevertheless, Sosyak admired his bravery to do something out of his desire to create a better Ukraine.
While the unrest, which has spread from the easternmost regions to the south, makes her uneasy, Sosyak is determined to remain optimistic about what the future might hold. Though she cannot vote, Sosyak looks forward to the upcoming presidential election, planned for May 25. She said her country deserves an official leader. Yanukovych was ousted in February. Sosyak also thinks a government is needed to help the people of Ukraine rebuild their country and overcome struggles.
Sosyak also shared her concerns about how the discord could affect her plans following her final school exams. Originally, she thought about attending a university in the capitol. Now, she’s considering continuing her education in Poland. Sosyak might pursue international relations or business, which is one reason she wanted to participate in the Future Leaders Exchange Program, a U.S. State Department-sponsored scholarship program for students from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
“The FLEX scholarship is made possible by funds allocated by the U.S. Congress each year. For over 20 years, FLEX students have been making last impressions on the people of their U.S. host communities and have applied their cross-cultural and community-building skills to make lasting contributions in their home countries,” according to the program’s website.
Sosyak is “grateful to have an opportunity to live in another country, especially in a place as beautiful as Hawaii.” FLEX is administered by American Councils for International Education and CCI Greenheart is the agency that placed her at Parker School, said Katie Callender, the school’s communications and marketing specialist.
Because she’s from a small town, Sosyak felt at home in Waimea.
“Waimea is very small and more peaceful. What I like about it is its community. Everyone is friendly,” she said.
Sosyak instantly liked her outgoing American family, particularly for their love of football and the outdoors. With them, she got to explore the wonders of the ocean with trips to the beach and a boating excursion. The most exciting visit was traveling on rutted, empty roads in a four-wheel drive vehicle to the green sands of Papakolea Beach. She’s also thankful to the McFarlands for taking her to Arizona, where she got to hike and see one of the world’s most remarkable natural wonders — the Grand Canyon.
Sosyak expressed appreciation for her host sister and Parker School junior, Anna. One of her favorite school memories was performing “Hallelujah” with Anna at the school’s talent show. Sosyak played piano while Anna sang. She looks forward to keeping in touch with the McFarlands and someday visiting them again.
As for Parker School, Sosyak said she will miss her classmates, but most of all, she’ll miss her teachers. Struggling to pick a favorite, Sosyak recalled how all encouraged and pushed her to grow in ways she never expected. Each one provided valuable lessons, from boosting her confidence in writing and speaking English — her second language studied since first grade — to embracing her creative side, she added.
When she left Ukraine, her parents, Ivan and Nadya, simply told her to “enjoy every moment.” She interpreted their advice to also mean to try new things. So, she played tennis, joined the debate team and took art and dance classes.
Sosyak said the American and Ukrainian education systems are very different. In the U.S., everything seems more easygoing. For instance, students are allowed greater freedom in choosing their classes and have more opportunities to explore cultural subjects, such as the arts or sports, during school.
The best part for Sosyak was painting, a new passion. It’s something she never before had the opportunity to do in school. Finding it relaxing and fulfilling, she hopes to continue painting as a hobby.
Her talent was recognized when two of her acrylic paintings, both featuring flowers, were selected for Youth Art Month. This annual exhibit recognizes children from around Hawaii for their artwork, which is hung around the state capitol. The event emphasizes the value of art education for all children and encourages support for quality school art programs.
Overall, Sosyak said she had a great year abroad and feels blessed to have this amazing part of her life. Still, she looks forward to seeing her family and friends next week. She also considers going on exchange a privilege and recommends others do so if given the chance.
“It’s interesting to see how things work in a place different than you are used to, make connections, and meet new people who will give you another perspective. The experience is rewarding in many ways,” she said.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at email@example.com.