Colorado Springs High School rallies around Ukrainian exchange students (The Gazette Article, March 9, 2022)

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At an age when many high school students are consumed with social media and other teenage pursuits, Ukraine native Svitlana Nerovnia wakes up each morning with the knowledge that thousands of miles away Russian military forces are trying to take over her home country.

That knowledge sometimes manifests itself as physical symptoms as Nerovnia, 16, worries about her family and friends in her hometown of Zhurivka, about 100 miles east of Kyiv.

“Sometimes I lose sleep, and my head will ache,” said Nerovnia, an international exchange student at CIVA Charter High School in Colorado Springs. “Other parts of my body, like my stomach, will hurt, too.”

Nerovnia and another Ukrainian student, Veronika Dementieva, have been attending CIVA since the beginning of the fall semester. Over the past few months, they had been enjoying their adventure in a new country, learning its nuances as they shared their culture with their new American friends.

That changed last month, when Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This crisis is unimaginable and so unwarranted,” said Randy Zimmerman, CIVA’s executive director and headmaster.

A District 11 college prep high school focusing on arts and character development (its name is an acronym that stands for Character, Integrity, Vision, and the Arts), CIVA maintains a robust international exchange program.

“We’ve been focused on having exchange students the whole time I’ve been here,” said Zimmerman, who has been at CIVA for 18 years. “Some years, about 10% of our population has been students from other countries.”
That’s why CIVA students have become emotionally involved in the events in Ukraine, he said. “They’ve sat in class with someone from Ukraine, and made friends with them, and have come to really care what is going on over there.”

“All of our students have really embraced the idea of solidarity,” said assistant principal Elise Robinson. “They have been really supportive, and we’re proud of them.”

Nerovnia’s CIVA schoolmates have rallied around her, offering friendship and emotional support that sometimes leaves her feeling overwhelmed, she said.

“(Students) have decorated my locker, and they send me messages on (social media),” she said. “It makes me feel like I am not alone.”

Many staff members, having gotten to know other Ukrainian students, feel a kinship with the country as well.
“It’s really quite personal for us,” Zimmerman said. “We feel it here, because it affects people we know.”

The school has had several Ukrainian exchange students over the years, and staff members have made an effort to keep in touch with them, Zimmerman said.

“The good thing about social media is that we’ve been able to check in with most of them,” he said. “As of right now, at least, they and their families are safe.”

CIVA is coordinating a medical supplies drive with a Ukrainian former exchange student, who is back in her home country. They’re collecting bandages, gauze and other necessarily supplies, which they will ship to the former student’s local Red Cross chapter.

“Our first shipment will go out later this week, and we’re going to keep doing it as often as we can,” Zimmerman said.

Nerovnia’s friends and family are a safe distance from the fighting, she said. But as far as she’s concerned, they’re still too close. The people in her hometown, and in neighboring towns, can still hear gunfire, explosions, and other “sounds of fighting,” she said. She tries to check in with her family every day.

“I think it’s important for people (in the U.S.) to understand how big this problem is,” she said. “It’s not only a problem of Ukraine; it is a problem of the world.”

As she splits her time between her high school studies and her concern for her loved ones at home, Nerovnia takes comfort in the fact that her CIVA schoolmates and faculty stand behind her. She gets a little emotional when she talks about it.

“I really appreciate the support,” she said. “It’s really important to me. I think I would lose my mind without it.”