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Unlikely connection: college students in Ukraine and the U.S. form a bond

The last class session with students from Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro, Ukraine, and science and engineering students from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.
Kenneth Osgood
The last class session with students from Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro, Ukraine, and science and engineering students from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.

A few years ago, Daria Samotuga was living a typical college student's life, in the dorms at Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro. The war forced her to move to her hometown of Kryvyi Rih, about two hours away. Now, she rarely leaves the house, which is near the city's air raid sirens.

"It's really loud every day, every night," Samotuga tells NPR's Leila Fadel on Morning Edition. "At first it was really scary. At night, you didn't sleep because you're just sitting and waiting for something, I don't know. But right now it doesn't influence my life."

Before the war, Daria Samotuga attended classes in-person at Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro, Ukraine.
/ Daria Samotuga
Daria Samotuga
Before the war, Daria Samotuga attended classes in-person at Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro, Ukraine.

But Samotuga's life is also shaped by a new set of relationships — with American college students. She and other students in her master's program in Dnipro have been meeting — over Zoom — with undergraduate students at Colorado School of Mines since early February.

The idea: American students would learn about life in Ukraine during the war, and the Ukrainians would learn American cultural references to help them if they took up work as Ukrainian-English translators.

Bonding over memes

One of the first class assignments was to share memes with one another: Shrek, the road work ahead vine and the trend of trying to work but ending up in bed were a few favorites.

"We're all still young adults with the same garbage sense of humor," says Kate Diamond, who studies mechanical engineering at Colorado School of Mines.

At first, the American students were apprehensive about talking about the war with their newfound friends. But the Ukrainians showed them how.

"At one point in a conversation, one of the Ukrainian students mentioned her experience in the war and no one responded," Colorado School of Mines professor Kenneth Osgood tells NPR. "They said, 'Well, we don't want to re-traumatize them.'"

Osgood decided to bring in a therapist to show the class how to support their Ukrainian classmates going through trauma.

"In reality, humor is one of the greatest instruments for protecting our mental state," Yan Samosiienko, a Ukrainian student wrote on Discord. "We make jokes not because we are indifferent, but because we have adapted to it. Something is funny when it is absurd. And it's hard to imagine anything more absurd than Russia and its narratives."

College during a war

One of the class projects was filming a day-in-the-life vlog. It turned out that the students' lives were comparable in many ways — other than the air raid sirens.

In her vlog, Darina Dorokhina, 21, is sitting in her shelter with her cat. "Let's go to our shelter due to alarm," she narrates. "Here we are sitting in the corridor. Reality sucks."

"After more than one year of war, it doesn't scare me anymore," her classmate, Eva Kusch, says, as she bolts a window shut on her vlog entry.

Alfred Nobel students attend classes online because of the war. Professor Tamara Ishchenko, Samotuga's instructor in Dnipro, says she spends around five hours in her shelter each day.

"We are about 100 kilometers from the front line, so we are regularly bombed by missiles," Ishchenko says. "In the university, we do have a shelter, but our students come from different towns and cities of Ukraine and we'd have to arrange bomb shelters in the hostels and dorms. We also would [need to] provide local authorities with the proof of extreme necessity to work offline."

Finding similar threads between Ukraine and the U.S.

Although the American students obviously do not share the experiences of attending college during war, design engineering student Hannah Weist, 21, says the constant threat of missiles in Ukraine reminds her of the constant threat of gun violence in schools in the U.S.

"There's often been lockdowns in high school for me," she tells NPR's Leila Fadel. "I know the feeling of being in that kind of environment, and how scary it is, and how you might just have to go numb to continue what you're doing."

Weist wrote a poem contrasting her experiences at the Colorado School of Mines with the lives of her Ukrainian peers. In Colorado, she writes, students feel sick because of drinking and partying; in Dnipro, students feel sick from the anxiety of war. In Colorado, students hear the blast of homemade fireworks and in Dnipro, students hear explosions from missiles.

Samotuga says that she used to celebrate New Year's with fireworks. Now, she says that the war has ruined fireworks for her and, she suspects, the rest of Ukraine.

Not your typical college course

Although the Ukrainian and American students only meet bi-weekly on Zoom, they chat on Discord every day. They found easy connections in pet photos, mysterious geological formations and — of course — Taylor Swift.

They created their own slang dictionary together on Discord with definitions for words like "fire," "lit," and "hot potato."

"When you are just talking about daily life and suddenly [an American says] hot potato — what is it?" Samotuga says. She likes that she can talk about silly things on Discord, and says it takes her mind off of the constant thrum of war.

"I try to not talk about war as much [with American peers] because I hear about it every day," Samotuga adds. "I really appreciated that friends from USA were quite understanding. They agree to talk about everything; what animals I found in my garden and about scams in Dnipro and about music, movies as well."

The students plan to keep chatting on Discord and say they hope to meet in person one day.

Jan Johnson and Amra Pasic contributed editing. contributed to this story

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Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.