Yulia (far right) pictured with host mom Trina Newton (center) and host sisters Aileena Harper (left) and Arynn Harper (front center) in 2021. Photo credit: Trina Newton.
Yulia (far right) pictured with host mom Trina Newton (center) and host sisters Aileena Harper (left) and Arynn Harper (front center) in 2021. Photo credit: Trina Newton.

With one year of study in the rearview and graduation ahead, Ukrainian student Yulia Karkusha will be the first exchange student to graduate from Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School next year.

The 17-year-old absolutely loves the Hope community and says she was surprised it didn’t take much for her to get settled in. Karkusha credits the warm welcome she received when she arrived in Hope last year with helping to ease her transition to life in an American small town.

“I was pretty surprised it didn’t take me much to adjust to people here,” she says. “Maybe because I was placed in the Hope community and Hauser and they welcomed me really well.”

Hope proved to be smaller than her hometown in Ukraine, but the love, friendships and support she’s found have been great beyond measure.

Coming to the United States to study was a dream for Karkusha and it took a lot of work to get here, she admits.

“I really wanted this experience, so I needed to work hard for it,” she explains. “I got the scholarship to come here and was thinking about it as a really good opportunity to see something new and live for a whole year as a teenager in another country.”

The unique opportunity was one that sounded “really cool,” Karkusha says, however, she didn’t anticipate staying for more than one year.

“I was trying to take everything I could from my first year,” she says. “But then everything changed, and I am here for another year.”

Since arriving, Karkusha has stayed with John and Trina Newton, who have participated as hosts with the Council on International Exchange program since 2012 and welcomed students from a variety of locales, including Spain, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and China.

“Watching these kids come thousands of miles away from home to live with complete strangers, and how they adjust to their new temporary norm has been a big eye-opener,” Trina Newton says. “We have learned that though our cultures are very different, we are all still the same. Seeing the world through their eyes and the passion they have for their home country is something that cannot be put into words.”

Newton recognized early-on that Karkusha is wise beyond her years and says she and her husband’s biggest concern is and has always been not only for the safety and well-being of Karkusha and her family, but also that Karkusha has all the resources and support she needs to be successful while she is here.

Visiting another country is one thing. Visiting another country while your homeland has become a war zone is something else entirely.

In the beginning, the situation was very difficult, Karkusha says.

While seated in her host family’s living room one evening in late February watching television, Karkusha was on her phone chatting with other exchange students and friends back home. Then, everyone started talking about the rumblings of rumors that Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine, Karkusha recalls.

“People were reporting they were hearing explosions,” she says.

Karkusha stayed up until midnight that night so she could call her father back home. She admits she was caught off guard by the seeming nonchalance of his demeanor at the time.

“My first thing I asked him was, ‘Dad, is it actually a war?’” she says. “He said, ‘Yeah’ and I was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ To which he said, ‘Well, right now I am going to go make myself a coffee and go to work.’ And I thought, it is the beginning of a war, ‘What do you mean you are going to work?’”

As a native of the western part of Ukraine, Karkusha grew up in a small town. She says most of her family lives in the area of Lviv, which is where she spent her childhood.

She keeps in regular contact with her parents and brother and says, following the outbreak of war she was given the choice to remain here or to return home.

“I still remember that day,” she says.

If her parents were ready to accept her, and it was safe for her to return home, arrangements would be made to get her there safely and in a timely manner. If not, her visa would be extended and the details would be ironed out with her host family.

The weight of not knowing combined with the anxiety of not having yet spoken to her mother, Karkusha recalls one afternoon being in the girls’ locker room at Hauser feeling overwhelmed and simply needing answers.

She called her mother. And the response her mother gave her was unexpected to say the least.

“She said something that was hard to hear from my own mother,” Karkusha recalls. “’It would be easier for me if something happens that it only happens with me and not with you,’ she said. It is really hard to hear these things when you are 16 and so far away from your family.”

Karkusha’s mother left the choice up to her but added a caveat.

“She said, ‘You can make the choice, but if you want to ask what I think, you should stay there because it is safer for you,” Karkusha recalls.

Karkusha says she will return home to Ukraine next summer, if only for a month or two. Missing her family and friends, at times, is almost unbearable, she adds, but she will continue to keep in touch with them until she is able to return.

“It hurts me a lot to not get to see my family for a second year when I am still a kid,” she says. “Next year, by the time I get home, I’ll be 18 years old and an adult.”

Last year was a time for fun, gaining experience and making friends, Karkusha says. Now, she has narrowed her focus to her studies, which are integral to getting into college, she says.

“I will try to get into college or university here,” she says. “I will also try to apply back home in Ukraine or otherwise abroad.”

Although she is undecided about a particular avenue of specific study, Karkusha says she wants to major in computer science or cyber security.

Upping her academic game also means gaining experience in other areas, like student government and a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities, including Spanish and Key clubs, she says. Of particular interest to her is the yearbook.

Last year, gathering pictures, stories and quotes for the yearbook was an activity of solace for her, Karkusha admits.

“That was something that really helped me get through stressful times,” she says. “Capturing all the happy moments of last year in one book and so that is something I am doing again this year and I am really excited about it.”

Shanon Pittman is a local coordinator with the Council on International Exchange and has worked closely with Karkusha since she arrived.

Describing the Hauser senior as “full of energy, outgoing and an extremely social girl,” Pittman says Karkusha has been “one of the strongest and courageous students” she’s had the pleasure to support.

“She has shown time and time again that she has the strength to overcome extremely adverse situations and make the best out of every challenge,” Pittman says. “Her dedication is truly inspirational.”

When Karkusha reflects on her time here, she says one of the greatest challenges she’s faced has been continuing to embrace the unknown.

One way she copes is to push herself beyond her comfort zone, she says.

“I like trying something new and that is how I am always challenging myself,” she says. “Even to come here it was a big challenge because I never stayed for more than a few months in a new place, and it was a whole year in a new country so far from family.”

Beyond the given unease that surrounds her situation, Karkusha says she has much gratitude for her host family, all her teachers and those who have supported her journey.

“I am really grateful for those who are talking to me, supporting me,” she says. “I have a lot of people who are always here for me, amazing friends, and an amazing host family and others who help me out.”

If you ask if she would do anything differently, Karkusha’s answer exemplifies maturity beyond her years.

“I don’t think so,” she admits. “I like that everything happens the way it is because that is how it is supposed to be.”

It simply comes down to gratitude and making the most of each and every day without fail, she says.

“Take every opportunity life gives you and live it to the fullest,” she says. “You always need to say ‘Yes’ to something new and appreciate all you have.”