Living Two Realities

From navigating war-torn landscapes at home to pursuing an ambitious triple major at Sewanee, Kamilla Haidaienko, C’25, sets her sights on one goal: helping to shape the post-war reconstruction of her native Ukraine.

When Kamilla Haidaienko, C’25, returned home after her freshman year at Sewanee, she found that everything was not as she had left it. Her hometown’s famous beaches were closed, mines buried in their sands. Family dinners were sometimes held by candlelight, as the power infrastructure had become unstable. And the city’s regular soundscape now had a new element: the distant, or sometimes not-so-distant, thumping of explosions.

A junior from Odessa, Ukraine, Haidaienko has spent the past two years navigating the complexities of pursuing her education and making the most of her Sewanee experience while, on the other side of the world, her family and country face near-daily peril. Persevering through an unprecedented set of circumstances, Haidaienko would come to discover quite a bit about herself and her interests, ultimately knitting them together into a unique triple major that bolstered her ability to advocate for her fellow Ukrainians now—and set her on a course to help her country in the future.

Growing up, Haidaienko never seriously considered going to college in the United States. She studied German (in addition to English) at school and thought about studying abroad in Germany or perhaps, as would ultimately be the case for her twin sister, in nearby Poland. But in high school, she had the opportunity to spend a year as an exchange student in Idaho as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Future Leaders Exchange program.

The connections forged during that crucial year helped connect Haidaienko to the Ukraine Global Scholars Foundation, which administers a competitive scholarship program to help high-achieving Ukrainian students attend colleges and boarding schools in the United States and, eventually, return to Ukraine to put their education to use in service of their home country. The organization selected Haidaienko as one of its scholars and helped her identify Sewanee as the home for her undergraduate education.

For Haidaienko, the transition from Odessa—a coastal city in southern Ukraine that is home to nearly 1 million residents—to life on the Mountain was an interesting one. “I had never seen a forest before, and definitely never lived in one,” says Haidaienko. But the smaller school setting and the many opportunities for academic exploration appealed to her, and she arrived on campus ready to soak in as much of the experience as she could. 

Haidaienko's family has dinner by candlelight during a power outage in wartime Odessa.

Haidaienko's family has dinner by candlelight during a power outage in wartime Odessa.

Her freshman year was an exceedingly normal one, until suddenly, in February 2022, it wasn’t. That month, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of the long-running conflict between the two nations and marked the start of a war that, two years later, continues apace.

Over 5,500 miles from home, Haidaienko at first could do little but watch as images of the assault on her homeland proliferated in the media. Her family, nearly all of whom still lived in Odessa, faced the impossible choice between staying or fleeing. By remaining in Odessa, they chose the steadiness of their existing homes and jobs over the uncertainty of life as refugees.

“The immediate response from Sewanee was honestly amazing,” says Haidaienko. “I had so many people reach out to me—friends, community members, professors—showing me that I’m not alone.” Yet even amid all that support, she found that the distance from her family and the relative invisibility of the war here were taking a toll on her. Haidaienko was safe in Sewanee, but in some ways, she felt, “It was almost harder to not be home.”

When one of her German professors approached her about participating in the Sewanee Semester in Berlin study abroad program, Haidaienko jumped at the chance. For one, the program gave her the opportunity to take classes in architecture and urban planning and study German postwar reconstruction—lessons from which she knew she would be eager to apply to Ukraine’s recovery efforts after the war is over.

The program also brought her closer to home, both physically and emotionally. She was no longer an ocean away on a separate continent, and she was living in a big city with a large Ukrainian population and regular rallies in support of her country.

After returning to Sewanee, Haidaienko found herself frustrated as media coverage of the war began to diminish and general awareness in the United States seemed to decline along with it. Occasionally, someone would ask her if the war was even still going on. It never failed to stun Haidaienko, for whom thinking about the war was a constant occurrence.

Haidaienko’s phone still lights up with warnings from home, as Odessa sees bombings nearly every day. Each time her phone alarm goes off, she rushes to check if it’s another Ukrainian air alert—and if it is, she then faces an agonizing wait until her friends and family can confirm their safety. “I would be really worried,” says Haidaienko. “While my family at home could be fine, because they're there and they can see that it's really OK ... I just wouldn't know. And not knowing was hard.”

Haidaienko taught classmates traditional Ukrainian egg-dyeing techniques for Easter.

Haidaienko taught classmates traditional Ukrainian egg-dyeing techniques for Easter.

Also hard is trying to preserve a semblance of normalcy in her day-to-day life as a student. How does she maintain her focus on classes and turning in assignments when each buzz of her phone carries with it the possible portent of devastating news? “It’s very much having to live two lives,” she says.

In an effort to unite those two selves—the Sewanee student and the Ukrainian citizen living through a war—Haidaienko has thrown herself into organizing campus programs to share her and her country’s stories in immediate and impactful ways. Working with campus groups like the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding, she’s sought to remind people that the war rages on and continues to raise awareness by hosting fundraisers, panels, and cultural events.

Since the war began, Haidaienko has returned home to Odessa twice, and hopes to do so again this summer. It isn’t the same city that she left in 2021. Still, life has continued for Haidaienko’s family just as it has for her. “Life,” she says, “doesn’t end when war starts.” 

One day the war will be over and she will be able to return in a longer-term capacity than the few stolen weeks she’s managed thus far. That inevitability has lent an urgent focus to her ambitious pursuit of not one, not two, but three majors at Sewanee in art, German and German studies, and mathematics.

Committed to return and work in Ukraine for at least five years as a Ukrainian Global Scholar, Haidaienko sees her three-pronged course of study as naturally preparing her to be part of quite literally rebuilding her country after the war. Her German studies have given her a useful perspective on the process of reconstruction after war, and the combination of her work in mathematics and art will help in her potential future pursuit of an architecture degree—a field in which Ukraine will have much need.

Haidaienko has also found that her coursework in art has helped to push the bounds of her thinking and, crucially, express herself by sharing the things she cares about in ways that others can better understand. In March, she was instrumental in bringing to Sewanee an exhibition entitled Unissued Diplomas.

Featuring mock diplomas displaying the photos and biographies of Ukrainian students who were killed during wartime—and who thus will never receive the degrees toward which they were working—the exhibition encapsulated much of Haidaienko’s journey to reconcile her parallel lives as a U.S. college student and the citizen of a country under siege. 

Haidaienko (left) with family in Odessa.

Haidaienko (left) with family in Odessa.

“I thought it was a good thread that could connect these two places,” she says. “Some of these students were killed at the front lines where they were fighting, but others were just going to school and were hit by a bomb and died. They were studying biology or chemistry, they had aspirations, and they had goals for life. They were just as innocent as everybody else here, and they didn’t get to live the same life because of the war.”

It’s a painful subject to be sure, but also one around which Haidaienko is eager to continue to foster conversation. “I always encourage everyone to come and talk to me and just ask questions, no matter how difficult. I want to talk about these things because they matter to me so much,” she says. 

Believing that the more people learn about the situation in Ukraine, the more they will care, Haidaienko intends to keep doing what she can to keep the topic on her community’s radar. She’s found purpose in being able to educate those around her and, she says, “I want to be heard.”