From Kyiv to Connecticut

Ira Buch in Gdansk, Poland, after the war broke out in Ukraine in 2022.


From Kyiv to Connecticut

January, 2022. My new year celebration in Ukraine was accompanied by cheerful optimism for the upcoming year. After being wrongly diagnosed with lupus, this time marked the end of 12 months of everlasting hospital visits, biopsies, and analysis. Looking ahead, I hoped to spend the coming year with my family and friends, as the need for my isolation had passed.

But then, on Feb. 24, 2022, the world turned upside down. With explosions outside my home in Kyiv, all I could wish for was the isolation and silent safety I once knew in those hospital rooms.

My family fled Kyiv to one of the small neighboring towns – Borodyanka. The town was surrounded by the occupiers the following day. We soon learned that the explosions signified safety: they meant that there was still a fight to be had.

Under the shells of Borodyanka, I continued working on my application to Ukraine Global Scholars (UGS), a program designed to help Ukrainian youth through their application process to top boarding schools and colleges in the U.S. Within a few days, the Russian military hit the only grocery store, power plants, and internet tower in the area. Running low on food and water, our only source of information became the radio, which translated stories of the terrors from the neighboring regions.

Two weeks later we were evacuated from the city. The neighboring family knew of the situations in the nearby towns, which were temporarily controlled by the Ukrainian army. With them, we placed white sheets on the car and drove through forests and a few villages to get to the Polish border. I submitted my UGS application in a big multi-family room of a refugee center in Warsaw, Poland.

My UGS acceptance notification was followed by a six-month application process to U.S. boarding schools.

On March 10, 2023, the results came out: acceptance from Hotchkiss. I was overwhelmed with joy. Neither my parents nor I had ever traveled abroad before the full-scale war broke out. Following my acceptance, my mom and I returned back home to Kyiv. With the visa application, preparations, and occasional explosions, the summer went by quickly.

The next thing I knew, I was on my way to the United States (my first time traveling alone). A bus, two trains, two flights, and one car drive later, I arrived in Lakeville. As I came to Hotchkiss for the fall semester, I was struck by the drastic differences in the educational system. Six chosen classes substituted eighteen fixed classes I took in Ukraine. The focus shifted from memorizing material to learning how to discuss, interpret, and analyze data. The analysis and interpretation of the readings and assignments became the priority. On the other hand, after-school activities became as important, if not more important, than academics. From community service to athletics and research projects, I was spinning in choices.

For the first two months, I struggled to adapt to the new expectations in and outside of the classroom. It was difficult to construct effective essays according to the new methods, and grasping math topics from a new perspective became a challenge. At my Ukrainian school, we covered parts of precalculus and calculus, never fully finishing either of them. At Hotchkiss, I was placed into a calculus class where the themes were based on concepts I had never fully studied. I struggled to keep up with my classmates, every one of whom seemed to have complete control over their activities and goals. At that time, I was lucky to have been met with support and feedback from my teachers, improving my understanding of the expectations and requirements. With their support, the B on my essay transformed into an A, and math concepts became easier to grasp. The confusion with the U.S. measurement system, however, persisted. I still interpret Fahrenheit and miles connotations based on the context.

During the winter break, I had an opportunity to travel to Germany with some of my classmates. The trip was one of the best experiences of the year: we practiced German, drove the U-Bahn, and visited Christmas markets, museums, and shows.

After the trip, I was able to go home and spend the New Year with my family. The trip back was accompanied by the Russian New Year’s Eve bombing and, as a result, a missed bus in Poland. One bus turned into three to get to Berlin’s airport. Back home, the snowy landscape was reminiscent of the Lakeville weather. The howl of the wind, however, was replaced by the howl of Russian shaheds, drones and missiles, explosions instead of the celebratory fireworks, and commemoration of those killed by the Russian invasion instead of the celebration of the past year.

February, 2024. Two years after the beginning of the full-scale war and ten years after the initial Russian invasion. With the enormous support of the school and the local community, Oleh, my friend from UGS, and a Hotchkiss classmate, and I launched a fundraising campaign and a photo exhibition at the school. The exhibition featured photos taken by my family and friends, as well as other families. Here, Oleh and I got an opportunity to share our stories. I was struck by the outpouring of support we received and the community’s awareness of the situation in my home country.

As time marched on, Lakeville slowly transitioned into the spring season. Since coming to Hotchkiss, spring has become my favorite part of the year. The classrooms and hallways are no longer stressful, but familiar. I started feeling at home on campus and during class discussions and assignments.

In the blink of an eye, Lakeville’s transition between winter and spring was complete with flowers, sun rays on the windows, and a pleasant rise in temperature. A two-year whirlwind culminates with peace.

Ira Buch is a junior at The Hotchkiss School. She will be returning to Ukraine this summer before coming back to Hotchkiss for senior year.

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