UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Alex Hodovanets only expected to stay through the school year when he moved to the United States last year.
Hodovanets, 17, had already finished high school in Kyiv, commuting on public transit each day from his family’s home in nearby Bucha.
Last summer, Hodovanets moved to the Twin Cities area to complete an additional year of study at St. Croix Lutheran Academy, where he brushed up on his English and continued studying biology and chemistry. His passion is science, and he hopes to one day open his own research lab.
“I have this kind of mindset: If you finish education in America, it will be easier to go anywhere in the world to find a job, to find what you will do,” he said.
But when Hodovanets completed his studies in Minnesota earlier this month, he didn’t go home. He couldn’t.
Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine. And Hodovanets’ hometown of Bucha was the site of a massacre of civilians by Russian soldiers. His family fled the city at the beginning of the war, just before the Russians arrived.
Today, Hodovanets’ house in Bucha is “totally destroyed,” he said.
Hodovanets’ mother, Ira, and sister, Yaroslava, are living in Germany, and they hope to make their way to Portugal.
Hodovanets’ father, Igor, is living with his grandmother in Khmelnytskyi, about a five-hour drive from Kyiv. Like all men in Ukraine younger than 60, he’s not allowed to leave the country.
Hodovanets said he and his family are lucky to be safe and, for now, out of harm’s way. If they had left Bucha “even a little bit later, maybe … yeah,” he said, his voice trailing off.
When it became obvious Hodovanets wouldn’t be able to return to Ukraine after finishing school this spring, he started doing everything he could to try to find a way to go to college in the United States.
Because he’d been planning to return to Ukraine at the end of the school year, he hadn’t applied to any American colleges. And by March, it was late in the application season for him to do so.
Hodovanets was assisted by a school counselor — and by two people he’d never met before.
Robert Musgrove and Whitney Skaalerud work with Hodovanets’ father at a telecommunications company with offices around the world.
Musgrove is based in suburban Wauconda, and Skaalerud lives near Knoxville, Tennessee. Before this week, neither of them had met Hodovanets in person. But they jumped into action this spring, helping him apply to schools and navigate paperwork and questions.
Hodovanets’ main worries were his visa status and being able to stay in the United States. Now, new rules are allowing him and other Ukrainians to stay in the country.
“He just wants to be able to continue his education and keep his head down, just keep going, and that’s what his parents are hoping for, as well,” Musgrove said.
Ultimately, Hodovanets was accepted to the University of Illinois Chicago, as well as two community colleges: Harper College in Palatine and McHenry County College in Crystal Lake. He plans to continue studying science, specifically biochemistry, at one of them this fall, he said.
But money for tuition and expenses has proved to be a huge obstacle.
Hodovanets said he’s applying for scholarships and financial aid, but it’s not yet clear what will come through.
Musgrove and Whitney have set up a GoFundMe, with all of the money going directly to Alex.
“Only a very specific set of circumstances qualify a potential student for help, and Alex, despite the nightmare of his situation, simply does not qualify for monetary help in the eyes of the U.S. school system. He can stay and he can attend, but he must pay his own way,” Musgrove and Skaalerud wrote in the fundraiser page.
The GoFundMe has collected about $3,400 toward a $45,000 goal.
Musgrove and Skaalerud have gone beyond helping Hodovanets apply to college and raise money. Last weekend, Hodovanets flew to Tennessee to stay with Skaalerud after the school year ended. Later this summer, he’ll live with Musgrove in Wauconda.
There, the teen will work part-time at a mushroom farm run by Musgrove and his wife, Julie.
Hodovanets is overwhelmingly grateful for the help his father’s coworkers have given him and is thrilled to have the chance to go to college and stay in the United States.
“I’m really thankful for them, and I can’t even describe how much. … It’s really amazing what they did for me, how much time, energy and all of that they spent,” he said.
Hodovanets tries to talk to his family back in Ukraine every day, although it can be difficult because of the time difference, he said.
The student is also spending a lot of his time running, which he picked up a few years ago when his dad started training for a marathon. It’s a way to de-stress from the details of daily life and the larger challenges facing his family and country, he said.
“It clears my mind, it helps me to concentrate on problems I have, and a release of all those energies that can be saved up during the week,” he said.
Hodovanets said he hopes to run a full marathon this fall. Just this weekend, he ran a half-marathon by himself as part of his training.
For Musgrove, the horrors of the war in Ukraine have become part of daily work conversations since the invasion began in February. Helping Hodovanets is a small way he can ease the pain and suffering, he said.
“Please help us give Alex a future he deserves and can be proud of,” Musgrove and Skaalerud wrote on the GoFundMe page. “It’s not the one he made for himself, nor is it the future he or his family wanted, but it is the best thing for Alex and his family right now.”
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