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Life changed overnight for Ukrainian undergrad

Feb 20, 2023

In the late hours of Feb. 24, 2022, Indiana University Bloomington student Yaroslav Chalyi stayed up late to study for an exam. He said his experience as a first-year student up to that point had been ideal as he focused on academic achievement, joined extracurricular groups and made new friends. That night, everything changed.

A young man looks at the camera. Indiana University student Yaroslav Chalyi grew up in a household deeply involved in the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine in 2014. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

Chalyi’s study session was interrupted when his phone pinged several times with messages telling him Russia had invaded Ukraine where his parents, sister, and many other relatives and friends resided.

“I immediately called my parents to ask about the situation,” Chalyi said. “I heard explosions in the background of the phone call. It was a very terrifying talk during which my family wished me to do well in life and take advantage of the opportunities they were able to provide for me before that point.”

His father, Valeriy Chalyi, is former deputy minister of foreign affairs in Ukraine and became an outspoken opponent of corruption within the government. He resigned in protest of the foreign and security policies pursued by former President Victor Yanukovych, who was removed from office during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Valeriy Chalyi later served as Ukrainian ambassador to the United States from 2015 to 2019 after Yanukovych was ousted.

Political unrest became a familiar part of life from a young age, said Yaroslav Chalyi, now a sophomore studying public financial management at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a young boy during the Euromaidan protests and the Revolution of Dignity, when Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv to protest Yanukovych’s alignment with Russia.

Opposition turned deadly in February 2014, as protesters and state forces clashed, resulting in the deaths of 108 civilians and 13 police officers. Yanukovych was forced out of office at that time, leaving Ukraine for Russia.

Anti-government protesters man barricades during demonstrations in Independence Square on Feb. 19, 2014, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Phot... Anti-government protesters man barricades during demonstrations in Independence Square on Feb. 19, 2014, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

“The Revolution of Dignity was an important step for the country to get rid of the corrupt government and pursue a successful European future,” Chalyi said. “I remember those days incredibly well from the very moment the peaceful student protesters were beaten and when hundreds of thousands of people were gathered at the main square in Kyiv, fighting for their future.”

Chalyi said that even as a child, he participated in the protests whenever it was relatively safe.

“On some late nights my parents would go on their own,” Chalyi said. “My father was one of the leaders of the revolution, which gave me a deeper understanding of the political situation.”

Growing up in a household deeply involved in the revolution inspired Chalyi’s interest in politics and social reform.

“That was the very first time I realized how strong my nation was and that sacrifices made by my family and all Ukrainians are investments toward a bright future for new generations,” Chalyi said.

After the phone call with his parents that first night of the Russian invasion, he said his priorities shifted.

“Nights became sleepless, days tiring,” Chalyi said. “I charged my phone four times a day and constantly watched news from a thousand sources. I started to value every second of secure phone calls with my family, which was not always possible because they were experiencing power outages. The situation had a drastic impact on my personality. I had to reevaluate my values, and I became a complete adult overnight.”

A young man sits in a chair while looking at the camera. Yaroslav Chalyi. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

In addition to his family constantly being on his mind, Chalyi said he suddenly had to cover his living expenses and international tuition costs on his own. To counter that financial burden, Chalyi took a position as a full-time residential assistant in the dorms.

“Being an RA allows me to be helpful to incoming freshmen and help with their school experience, and it also provides a roof over my head,” he said.

Chalyi enjoys helping others, and he set out to bring attention to the war and educate students about Ukraine. He became president of the Ukrainian Studies Organization, which promotes Ukrainian studies at IU and throughout Bloomington and other Indiana communities. Students share their work related to Ukrainian studies and interact with scholars who share interest in Ukraine.

“I started to do the most I could from overseas,” Chalyi said. “I helped create numerous fundraising events, informational speeches and conferences discussing the current situation. I became very involved with other people from Ukraine that suffered due to the war, trying to help them in whatever way possible.”

Chalyi and the Ukrainian Studies Organization organized a peaceful protest walk to the Sample Gates on Ukrainian Independence Day in August, six months after the war began. The group organized various events, including a conversation with Myroslav Marynovych, founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and author of “The Universe Behind Barbed Wire: Memoirs of a Soviet Ukrainian Dissident.” Marynovych talked about his experiences, including the 10 years he was a political prisoner in Siberia because of his human rights advocacy during the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union.

Through the Ukrainian Studies Organization, Chalyi met Ukrainian graduate students and faculty. He made connections with community members and local business owners who wished to support Ukraine. 

Chalyi said his initial career goal was to work in the private financial sector. After the war started, he became more interested in economic policy and finance within the public sector and hopes to use his education to one day help Ukraine.

“Ukraine is an emerging market with incredible potential,” Chalyi said. “The knowledge and personal connections I gain while at IU will make me ready to be a valuable worker with an understanding of both business systems and culture. My main goal is to facilitate investments in Ukraine.”

The road ahead is uncertain for Chalyi and his family and friends back home.

“Not having an opportunity to see my parents for two years is not easy, while keeping in mind that I might never see them again,” Chalyi said. “Being in this situation is a very unique experience that I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through. I try to be very accomplished, so I can build a successful future, not only for myself, but also my country.”

Julia Hodson is a communications consultant in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing.

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