Triumph Over Tribulation: Two Ukrainian Students poised for Stetson Graduation

From left: Yuliia Balan, Yana Verbova and Genevia Gayden are three of the four students who arrived at Stetson under the Ukraine Initiative.

Two young Ukrainian women, Yuliia Balan and Yana Verbova, will be among this year’s Stetson graduates and — with brave smiles — they are proud of what they’ve accomplished despite their never-ending worry about their loved ones, who still reside in Ukraine. 

“Stetson was definitely a perfect place to be, but it seemed like I was split into two worlds: leaving my fabulous country with my bosom friends and family, who undergo a lot of difficulties every single day fighting for their own life, or building my own bright future in the United States,” Verbova said. “No matter how tough of a decision it was to me, I consciously decided to give Stetson a go, since studying in Ukraine was barely possible at the time.”

The original goal of the Stetson Ukraine Initiative was to bring four Ukrainian undergraduate students, and one Ukrainian professor, to Stetson for the 2022-2023 academic year. Even though support for the program has continued into the current academic year, only three of the four students continued their studies at Stetson. The fourth student transferred, due to familial reasons, to a college outside of the state of Florida. 

“Before coming to Stetson, I was nervous about how I would feel in a new environment, because I had never been to the United States,” Balan said. “However, thanks to the enormous support of the organizers of the Ukrainian Initiative — including Dr. (Mayhill) Fowler, Dr. (Elizabeth) Plantan and Dr. (Martin) Blackwell — international friends, faculty members and donors, I felt that I was in the right place at the right time.”

Gayden, Verbova and Balan have treasured their time at Stetson and are grateful for the opportunity the university has provided them.

Balan is slated to earn two bachelor’s degrees in May, as she is majoring in Political Science and Government. She is also studying International Information at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine, from which she will graduate approximately one month after Stetson’s commencement ceremony takes place May 11. For her master’s degree, Balan is set to start her International Relations studies in September, jointly administered by the Central European University in Vienna and Bard College in New York.  

“After this, I would like to apply for a PhD in Political Science or work at intergovernmental organizations,” she said. 

After graduation, Verbova plans to obtain her master’s degree in Public Health, most likely with a health services concentration at Brown University, as she is considering its generous fellowship.

“Additionally, it has an included internship opportunity in the public health sphere, which is a huge benefit, since I will be delighted to have hands-on practice in my chosen field,” Verbova said. “I haven’t thought about my post-masters plans yet. However, there is a possibility I proceed with my educational career in the PhD field, or I could be lucky enough to find the job of my dreams.”

Assistant Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Plantan, PhD, is looking forward to seeing both Ukrainian students graduate and receive their diplomas. 

Elizabeth Plantan, PhD

“I am immensely proud of Yana and Yuliia, and I am excited to watch them walk across the stage to receive their diplomas in May,” Plantan said. “It has been an honor to be a part of their undergraduate journey.” 

Genevia Gayden, the third Ukrainian student currently enrolled at Stetson through the Ukraine Initiative, is currently a sophomore and majoring in political science and global development. Gayden plans to continue studies at Stetson but, despite the excitement of furthering academic development and seeing friends thrive outside of Stetson, Gayden is aware the campus will look different next year without Balan and Verbova. 

“I’m going to miss Yana and Yuliia, but I’m really happy to know that Yana has been accepted to Brown University on a full scholarship and Yuliia’s senior research is moving forward well,” they said. “I am happy to know that they are going to do well in their future academic endeavors.”

portrait for Stetson University in the News
Mayhill Fowler, PhD

Mayhill Fowler, PhD, associate professor of History and Director of Stetson’s Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (SPREES), has high expectations for both Balan and Verbova, and she’s excited to see them succeed in their respective careers. 

“I adore Yuliia and Yana and have the highest hopes for them,” Fowler said. “I wish they could go home right away to Ukraine, but war has changed so many life paths. I hope that in 10 years, Yana is working in public health and Yuliia is crafting security policy, and they both feel like their lives are meaningful. I hope they are safe and happy. They have absorbed everything they could during these two years, and they have shown us how transformative Stetson can be. They showed me how great Stetson can be. I could not be prouder of them.”

portrait for Stetson In the News
Martin Blackwell, PhD

The current main goals of the Ukraine Initiative are to continue the support of Stetson’s Ukrainian students and faculty members, as well as continue to raise awareness of what is happening in Ukraine.

“For me, this has been my most important work as a professional over these past two years,” said Martin Blackwell, PhD, visiting professor of History. “Two of our students are now graduating, and they are going to be successful professionals in the future, too. They are just bright lights in difficult cloudy times for the world as a whole.”

-Trish Wieland