While in college, students may find themselves in unexpected and emergency situations, and for international students who are often entering the college experience far from familiarity, these situations can feel particularly overwhelming. However, at the University of South Dakota, students can feel a little more at peace knowing they have the support of the Coyote community behind them.

International students Oleksandra “Sasha” Lukina, from Ukraine, and Anton Pratsenko, from Belarus, both came to USD in the spring 2022 semester as part of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD).

Global URGRAD is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), funded by the U.S. government and administered by World Learning, that seeks to bring future leaders to the U.S. to experience the nation’s higher education, gain critical professional skills and explore new cultures and values.

The original terms of the exchange program allowed Lukina and Pratsenko to complete one semester at USD and required that they return to their home countries immediately thereafter. Their situations quickly changed when Russia invaded Ukraine, and it became clear that they could not safely return home.

The DOS made the decision to extend funding for UGRAD students impacted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict through the summer of 2022. However, the department was not prepared to provide long-term support to exchange students, making it clear that students needed to look for other solutions.

Susan Hackemer, former director of the Gallagher International Center and ongoing leader at USD, reached out to university leaders in hopes of finding a solution to support Lukina and Pratsenko and keep them at USD. The USD Foundation then got involved and began calling and emailing friends of the university to ask for their support.

In just five days, donors provided nearly $50,000 for Lukina and Pratsenko. With this financial assistance, they were able to switch their status from exchange students to full-time degree-seeking students and continue their education at USD.

“USD made fast decisions and accumulated financial support for us very quickly,” Lukina said. “A lot of people elsewhere were very slow at the time, not knowing what to do. People at USD just knew exactly what was important, and Susan knew that they had to help us in some way.”

“They did an absolute miracle for me,” Pratsenko echoed. “There are absolutely no words I can find to describe how grateful I am to USD for giving me the opportunity to stay here. Their support means everything.”

Both Lukina and Pratsenko just completed their third semester at USD. Though they have had a college journey full of adversity and uncertainty, they are making the most of their education and taking advantage of every opportunity – opportunities that could not have been possible without the generous support of the Coyote community.

Oleksandra "Sasha" Lukina

Lukina, originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, was studying with some friends in the library when she heard the news that Ukraine was invaded by Russia. At this point, she was only two months into her education at USD, and her feelings of excitement about coming to a new place and experiencing a new culture quickly turned into feelings of uncertainty and fear.

“It was a very hard time,” Lukina remembered. “Because first, it’s a very scary event and I was so far away. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my family and friends. On top of that, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me – if I was going to go back or become a refugee or what would happen.”

After discussions with the DOS, the Gallagher International Center and the USD Foundation, Lukina received full donor support to continue her education at USD until graduation.

In addition to financial support, Lukina has also felt a wave of emotional support from USD and the Coyote community. In the first few months after Russia invaded Ukraine, she said USD held a lot of events to inform people of the situation in Ukraine.

“There was a panel where history and political science professors gave relevant information about the war,” Lukina remembered. “There were cultural events where people played music dedicated to Ukraine. There was a Ukrainian flag wrapped around the Coyote statue, which was pretty cool.

“I felt like people cared, which was very important,” Lukina continued. “It was helpful to know that I cared about something, and others shared that emotion with me.”

As one of the few Ukrainian students on campus, Lukina quickly felt the attention shift to her as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated. While overwhelming at first, she slowly began to appreciate being able to bring light to the situation and educate others.

“I came to USD as a normal international student and then I suddenly became the Ukrainian,” Lukina said. “Ukraine just became different than other countries, and I also became different from international students because of the experiences that I’ve gone through.

“I’m very happy when people ask about my country because it’s much better than having people who don’t care,” she continued. “So, I sacrifice a bit of free time and parts of my personal and private life, but I feel that it’s important to do.”

As the conflict in Ukraine has continued, Lukina has tried to shift her focus to her education to distract herself from thinking about the situation and worrying about her family.

“It took me quite some time to, not forget about my family and the Ukrainian war, but to not be too emotional about it and try to keep it somewhat in the background,” Lukina said. “I feel that I’m an achiever, and I’m trying as hard as I can to do important things.”

Lukina spent three semesters studying physics at a university in Ukraine, before entering her exchange semester. Now, at USD, she is pursuing a degree in physics and making vast contributions through research.

As an undergraduate student, Lukina has been able to work on the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SUPERCDMS) project, an experiment to search for evidence of dark matter particles with the goal of better understanding its nature and effects.

“As an undergrad, it’s very cool to be involved in something that’s of this scale. I already have some projects completed and have some people in the collaboration that know my name,” Lukina said. “My favorite part about the physics program at USD is that they have lots of cool research opportunities.”

Through her research, Lukina is not only making herself known, but also helping to put USD on the map. In January, she presented her research at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at the University of Iowa and received the award for best poster.

“I’m very happy to represent USD because of everything they’ve done for me,” Lukina said. “I’m trying to work hard on my research and do something for USD.”

While she never intended to be here as long as she has, Lukina is making the most of her time at USD and in Vermillion.

“The small-town college experience has been very cool,” Lukina said. “I am able to work with my faculty members and other people one-to-one and it’s a very individual experience. It’s been easier to get involved in important things.

“This individual approach and the personal connections I have here at USD have been really important to me and what I enjoy the most,” she added. “And even with this war situation, people wanted to help me specifically – not just help someone, but specifically help me.”

Lukina is set to graduate from USD in May 2024 and hopes to attend graduate school and then pursue a career in physics research.

Anton Pratsenko

Pratsenko came to USD from the Republic of Belarus, a country in Eastern Europe that is bordered by Russia to the east and northeast and Ukraine to the south.

While the Department of State was quick to make decisions about exchange students from Ukraine, the decision to temporarily support students from Belarus, like Pratsenko, was a bit slower, as Belarus has supported Russia in the conflict.

“It was overwhelming for me because on one side of the globe, my friends and family were leaving the country to flee to Europe, Georgia or anywhere they could to escape the nightmare that people were going through,” Pratsenko recalled. “And I was here, stuck not knowing what was going to happen to me.”

By the end of March 2022, Pratsenko received an update from the U.S. Department of State stating that he could continue his education in the U.S. only if he could gather financial support to fund his education. That’s when the USD International Office and the USD Foundation stepped in and garnered support from donors.

“I don’t know how to say thank you to those people who actually sacrificed something of their own to help me,” Pratsenko said. “The fact that people sacrificed something just so I can attend a university in America, which is not an opportunity a lot of kids get, means a lot to me.”

As a result of this financial support, Pratsenko has been able to continue his education at USD and plans to graduate with a degree in business analytics in May 2025.

“I’ll have a great degree from a great university,” Pratsenko said. “I feel like that’s going to set me up for a successful career, whether I stay in the United States or go somewhere else. I’m super happy with USD in terms of quality education.”

On campus, Pratsenko has been involved in Coyote Capital Management, a student-managed investment organization through the Beacom School of Business. Pratsenko has also enjoyed attending international events and meeting people from across campus.

“The international community here is super great,” Pratsenko said. “I have a lot of friends from all across the globe and we can share our experiences. There are a lot of people here that come from places like Europe, Africa and Asia, and I really get exposure to a diverse culture here at USD as compared to when I went to school in Belarus.”

When his time at USD is said and done, Pratsenko said he hopes to give back to the university that gave so much to him.

“I don’t want to see the financial support that was given to me as a charity, but rather as an investment,” Pratsenko said. “It gives me the motivation to work and study harder, to give great things in life and become super successful.

“After I graduate, I want to give back to the university and maybe establish a scholarship for international students,” he continued. “I don’t know in what country or in which part of the globe I’ll be, but one of my lifetime goals is just to repay my debt. Even though USD doesn’t see it as a debt, I hope to give back to these people and to the university.”

About the Student Emergency Fund

“Anton and Sasha are not the only students with urgent needs; this is just an extreme example of why it is essential to have relationships with donors who have the interest, empathy and ability to answer an unanticipated call for help,” said Susan Hackemer, former director of the International Office.

The Student Emergency Fund is one way that USD seeks to offer support to students like Lukina and Pratsenko. The fund is USD’s ongoing effort to provide financial assistance to students in need and to remove barriers so that students receive the highest quality education possible.

By donating to the Student Emergency Fund, you can help ensure that USD students needing financial assistance during times of uncertainty are backed and supported by those who care about their education the most.

Help students at USDAlumni.com/Student-Emergency-Fund. 

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