ASHLAND — Before February 2022, Dmytro Solomianiuk, 21, from Lviv, would spend his days working at the Junior Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, helping the organization plan events and trips for young scholars across the nation.
But on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, putting Dmytro's job on hold and ending the normal life he led. Solomianiuk would end up fleeing Kyiv in March 2022, away from his job and the life he knew.
Afterward, he became a volunteer courier, loading first-aid kits, night vision goggles and body armor into his car — provided by his father — and taking the hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment to soldiers in eastern Ukraine.
"I was laughing, like I have a car, I have a free car, but inside of this car there is a Rolls-Royce," he said.
Oleksandra Bibik, 17, from Kyiv, used to do yoga, meditate, play tennis and go figure skating with her friends. When the war struck, Bibik's city, once bustling and full of people that seemed "really happy" with their lives, "lost its spark," she said.
"People were no longer happy. Like even if they were, I could still like see that inside, they were like, not like in pain, but they were really, really upset about everything that was going on," she said.
She left Kyiv and enrolled in a Ukrainian university, where life started to feel normal again. Even when power cuts began to affect her new university life, she found comfort in all the other people going through the same things.
Now, just over a year since Russia's invasion, Solomianiuk and Bibik live in Ashland, more than 5,000 miles from Ukraine.
They are attending Ashland University as part of its new Ukrainian Freedom Scholar initiative that provides scholarships to high school graduates from Ukraine who were displaced by the war.
Two other students, Dana Krukovska from Khakhovka Kherson Oblast and Maksym Polianskyi from Odesa, both 17 years old, also came to Ashland via the Ukrainian Freedom Scholar initiative.
Krukovska was "living her best life" before Feb. 24, when her hometown fell under Russian occupation "on the first day" of the invasion. She wouldn't get a chance to flee to western Ukraine until April.
"I was trying to get rid of that trauma that I got when it was under occupation. And I was trying to continue living the life I was living before the war started," she said.
Like Solomianiuk, she turned to volunteer work to fill her days. She tried to reclaim bits of her normal life, but she struggled being away from home where her grandparents, her aunt and her uncle were still under Russian occupation.
"I can't be completely sure that my family will survive the war and that I will be able to return back home and see everyone and everything, like to see my home and see my relatives," she said.
"Even my parents who are in western Ukraine, they are still in danger because there is no safe place in Ukraine. Unfortunately, you can't hide from missiles," she said.
She decided to participate in Ukrainian Global University, a program that places Ukrainian students in universities around the world with the condition that they will return to Ukraine when they graduate to rebuild the country.
Krukovska would eventually receive an email from AU's Olga Monacell, asking her to attend an interview for the program. She prepared "really carefully" for the interview, and a few months later she learned she would be leaving behind her life in Ukraine for a new one in Ashland.
But before she could come to The World Headquarters of Nice People, she had a few obstacles in her way.
"I was like, oh my gosh, I'm gonna spend a lot of money on a Visa and so on. But, I know that you need to sacrifice something to go somewhere. And my autumn was like a total, total bureaucracy disaster," she said.
Another Ukrainian scholar, Maksym Polianskyi, had just finished taking a final exam when he got an email from Monacell. Like Bibik, he got through the interview process and all the paperwork, and he was eager to start his new life in the United States.
"I was into American culture, I guess since my childhood cause I watched sitcoms, as well. So I was very excited about this news that I was studying in the U.S. because I have never dreamt about pursuing a degree here. So that is even more exciting, even more spectacular," he said.
The Ukrainian cohort arrived in January, and the first few weeks of American life were "overwhelming," Krukovska and Polianskyi said.
Beyond simple things like measurements and units, Polianskyi had to adjust to Americans' friendliness toward strangers, he said.
"In Ukraine, for example, I would never say hi to a person that I don't know really. And sometimes people are smiling at you and it makes me feel, like, suspicious," he said.
For the other two students who used to live in Kyiv, Solomianiuk and Bibik, the Ashland way of living was slower than their former fast-moving lives in the city.
"It's all really different, but in a good way," Bibik said.
Solomianiuk knew how to study at a large university from his time at Kyiv's largest technical university, the National Technical University of Ukraine, but he had to learn how to succeed at Ashland University's smaller campus.
"It's difficult when you are from a big city, but at the same time it's cool that you can like focus on your studies," he said.
The war taught Polianskyi, who is majoring in international political studies and communications, that he can't plan for years in advance. Even so, he wants to return to Ukraine after he's done with college and help rebuild it by being a diplomat or a representative, he said.
Krukovska, who is studying digital media journalism and communications with a minor in political science, wants to be a journalist, or a politician, or maybe even a film director when she's done with school.
"I'm still thinking about my future. And I have time, I'm only 17 years old," she said.
The eldest of the students, Solomianiuk, who is studying international business with a minor in political studies, said he plans to work for an international company in the U.S. after he graduates so he can take what he learns back to Ukraine.
Bibik, who is studying political economy and psychology, has no specific plans for her future after her life has changed in so many ways in the past year.
"I prefer not to plan like years ahead of me and I just live in the present and live to the fullest and get the most out of present. But the only thing I know about my future is that I'll be really happy there," she said.