Ukrainian students in US get internships, housing from corporate America

·4 min read

Sofia Surzhak remembers exactly where she was when she learned that Russia had begun invading her hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine.

“I remember being in the dining hall and reading the news that the invasion started,” Surzhak, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, told ABC News. “And life just stopped for me for a moment because I realized how unpredictable and how dangerous the situation is.”

For 19-year-old Surzhak, watching the war from afar seems surreal. She struggles to hold on to thoughts of the home she knew, not the one playing out in the news. “The road that I used every single day is now filled with reminders of tanks and burnt cars... I think that these are like pictures from the history textbooks, and I do not really recognize the city anymore,” said Surzhak.

PHOTO: Sofia Surzhak says she misses her four dogs the most and can't wait to take them for walks when she's able to return to Ukraine. (Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)
PHOTO: Sofia Surzhak says she misses her four dogs the most and can't wait to take them for walks when she's able to return to Ukraine. (Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)

Just six months into her freshman year, the war has upended life for Surzhak and the roughly 1,700 other Ukrainian college students studying in the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education. Her father Ruslan remains in Kyiv, caring for the family’s four dogs and his small business, while her mother Natalia fled to Poland to live with a family that has taken in Ukrainian refugees.

Surzhak and her mother communicate via FaceTime nearly every day. “When I phone home and phone Sofia,” her mother said, “I was happy that connection, it works, that it is possible to see and hear all my family.”

Natalia Surzhak said she is grateful that technology allows her to stay connected to her family during the war and said she can only imagine how difficult it was for people during World War II, who had no easy way of communicating with loved ones once they were separated.

Unable to return home for the summer, Sofia Surzhak - and many students like her - were left scrambling to find a way to remain in the U.S. once the school year ends. “I am genuinely scared that I will not be able to come back in a very long time,” Surzhak said. “I was just hoping to have such a beautiful summer with my former classmates, and I'm just scared that nothing will go back to normal.”

PHOTO: Natalia Surzhak (left) fled to Poland to live with a family who is taking in Ukrainian refugees. She speaks with her daughter Sofia (right) nearly every day.  (Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)
PHOTO: Natalia Surzhak (left) fled to Poland to live with a family who is taking in Ukrainian refugees. She speaks with her daughter Sofia (right) nearly every day. (Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)

The public and private sectors are working to lend support to these students. The Department of Homeland Security has temporarily extended visas for Ukrainian students and is offering special student relief to those experiencing extreme economic hardship, including allowing them to apply to work more hours while taking fewer courses.

MORE: Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russians, Ukrainians fight street by street in key city

Colleges including the University of Chicago, Columbia University and Hampton University are offering various support, which includes scholarships and summer room and board for eligible Ukrainian students.

Now, corporate America is answering the call. The San Francisco-based technology company AEye, which makes lidar sensors for self-driving cars, is one of a growing list of private companies offering Ukrainian college students paid summer internships. Surzhak will join AEye this summer as a software coder. Other companies offering similar internships to Ukrainian students in the U.S. are the Worcester, Massachusetts-based automation company Dynamic Control Technologies, the Omaha, Nebraska-based travel platform Sojern, and the Marin County, California-based beverage company Free Spirits.

AEye’s CEO Blair LaCorte said the idea was an employee-led initiative. “We brainstormed a bunch of ideas,” he said. “Our company is all about safety, and that’s how we got here. We started to think about the children inside Ukraine, and then we looked at children who were outside of Ukraine who couldn't get home. That really resonated with our employees, who also had children and thought, how would I deal with this?”

Three of AEye’s ten summer interns this year are from Ukraine, and LaCorte said the company crowdsourced to find them temporary summer housing.

PHOTO: Sofia Surzhak's father Ruslan remains in Kyiv to care for the family's home, dogs, and small business.<p>(Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)
PHOTO: Sofia Surzhak's father Ruslan remains in Kyiv to care for the family's home, dogs, and small business.

(Courtesy Sofia Surzhak)

Surzhak said the internship is a lifeline. It not only helps her remain in the U.S. in between her freshman and sophomore years, but it also helps her earn money for tuition at a time when her father’s business in Kyiv is struggling because of the war.

She has found a community of Ukrainian and Russian students at UC Berkeley who have organized fundraisers on campus to send money and supplies to Ukraine and spread awareness about the war. “We all comfort each other,” she said. “It’s difficult for us [Ukrainians], but it’s also difficult for the Russians. Many don’t agree with what’s going on right now with the war.”

When asked what she misses most about home, without hesitation Surzhak answered - her dogs, especially the young one named Princess. When she does finally return to Kyiv, Surzhak said, “I would just love to have a nice quiet evening walk in the center of the city and go to a nice restaurant - somewhere that is peaceful.”

Ukrainian students in US get internships, housing from corporate America originally appeared on abcnews.go.com