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MUHS grad takes journey from Ukrainian conflict to Yale University

DIANA HERASIM GRADUATED from Middlebury Union High School this month after a three-year experience marked by war, a pandemic and a very mature outlook on life. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Diana Herasim’s young life has surged like a comet, blazing a path from the rubble-strewn cities of war-torn Ukraine to the sprawling green farmland of a sedate Champlain Valley.

Beneath her gentle brown eyes, quick smile and athletic frame resides a searing motivation born from a vow made at her mother’s death bed almost five years ago.

“A big part of this passion for life was given to me my mom,” Herasim, almost 18 years old, said during an interview just a few weeks prior to her graduation from Middlebury Union High School.

“She passed away at the age of 42. I saw her going through this fatal disease but never giving up hope. She was such a role model for me, such an example. When she knew she had around two years of life left, she was still so passionate. I have this whole life in front of me and want to do as much with it as I can. I’m incredibly grateful to my mom for that lesson in life.”

Diana Herasim arrived at MUHS in fall of 2021 as a sophomore, courtesy of the Future Leaders Exchange Program, or FLEX.

It was supposed to be a 10-month stay, but that all changed when the Russian Army invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She’d been slated to return to her homeland on June 20 of that year.

With a single fusillade, her life’s trajectory — and the safety of her family — had been dramatically altered.

“It wasn’t clear to me at the beginning of the war what my plan would be or whether I would be able to go back,” she said. “But within a couple of months, it became clear that returning (would be impossible).”

Her hometown of Kherson was among the first Ukrainian communities to absorb the brunt of a pulverizing Russian attack, according to Herasim.

“My family had to flee the town and find a place to stay. They’re still all in Ukraine, unable to leave,” Herasim said of her dad, brother and maternal grandmother.

THE MAIN SPEAKER at a vigil on the Middlebury Town Green in March 2022 was Diana Herasim, an MUHS exchange student from Ukraine. She wore a traditional Ukrainian flowered headpiece and embroidered blouse, and spoke movingly about the travails her family and her fellow Ukrainians have suffered since the Russians invaded.
Independent photo/Steve James

They first sought refuge in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Snihurivka. But that community soon came under fire, with bombs damaging the home in which the family was staying. From there, they settled temporarily in a small village, amid Spartan conditions.

“It was the safest area they could get at, at that point,” she said. “The (phone) connection was better at that point, so I was able to call them — which made me feel much better.”

Herasim speaks daily with her 26-year-old brother, Vladyslav, and a couple times a week with her dad and grandma.

“I call him before school for at least 15 minutes,” she said. “I need (the daily conversations). Being away from my family for three years, it makes me feel like I’m still part of the family.”

Her remaining relatives are now scattered throughout Ukraine.

“They’re holding on and are as safe as they can be right now,” Herasim said.

While understandably terrified for her family and concerned for Ukraine’s survival, Herasim realized she needed to dodge some figurative shrapnel 4,000 miles away from the war zone. She was at the time of the invasion just four months from a scheduled plane ride back to Ukraine — if there were any airports left standing.

“My education was at risk,” she noted of an additional worry.

Some sun peaked through the clouds when she learned her student exchange sponsors would give her a one-year extension to complete a junior year at MUHS.

“That was nice, because my visa would be extended and (the exchange program) would financially support me; it was a kind offer that I accepted,” she said.

A second extension wasn’t in the cards, but Herasim successfully secured “juvenile immigrant” status for her senior year. Her Middlebury host family — Jessica Allen and Jeff Buettner — agreed to become her legal guardians as she sought U.S. citizenship and completion of her high school career.

‘KIND OF A NORMAL STUDENT’

Now no longer part of an exchange program, Herasim refers to herself as “just kind of a ‘normal’ student here.”

But one would be hard-pressed to label her “normal,” per the dictionary definition of “usual, typical or expected.”

At MUHS, Herasim was:

Diana Herasim at Prom in 2022

• Among the top 10% in her graduating class.

• President of MUHS’s Model United Nations organization, and co-president of Student Coalition on Human Rights.

• A member of the MUHS Student Council and part of a peer leadership program that helped incoming middle schoolers acclimate to high school.

• A soprano in the MUHS choir and with the Camerata Singers.

Outside school, she is:

• Learning to play piano, with Allen providing tutelage.

• A lover of animals, she volunteers at Homeward Bound, Addison County’s Human Society.

• A former boxer who’s now a serious bodybuilder. Herasim wants to revisit boxing during college.

• Polylingual, able to speak five languages. Her English is incredibly polished, especially for someone who’s largely self-taught.

Herasim at times feels like she’s won the lottery but realizes her family and peers in Ukraine never even got a chance at a winning ticket.

“It’s very sad seeing my former classmates in Ukraine struggling so hard to get their education right now. They’re all scattered, trying to find places where they can study,” she said.

Herasim noted that, unfortunately, Ukrainian schools haven’t placed much emphasis on foreign languages. And that’s made for a more difficult transition for Ukrainian students receiving offers to continue their studies in safer countries, she explained.

Since Herasim already had a solid foundation in English, she was able to assimilate and “it was, to an extent, easier for me to obtain this high-quality education (at MUHS),” she said.

LEARNING ENGLISH

So how did she learn English in an environment where it wasn’t spoken or taught?

Knowing FLEX had just a 2% acceptance rate and placed a premium on language skills, she started self-teaching herself around two years before applying for the program.

Herasim immersed herself in YouTube videos, U.S. films, online apps, vocabulary flashcards, a short stint with a tutor — anything that would increase her proficiency in English.

“It worked successfully for me,” she said with a smile.

So successfully she’s currently learning a sixth language — Mandarin Chinese. Acquiring languages has become one of her hobbies, along with singing, bodybuilding and having fun with a growing network of friends.

Diana Herasim looks heaven-wards as she talks about her mother during her senior speech. Diana_s mother died of cancer in her homeland of Ukraine four years ago.
Independent photo/Steve James

“It’s been hard to balance hobbies and school during the college application season; it was very demanding,” Herasim said. “But I feel like now I’m finally at a point where I have the time to actually socialize, resume my gym schedule and learn languages — things that I love.”

Herasim has found the U.S. education system different from what she’d been accustomed to.

In Ukraine, she explained, all schools have a curriculum that’s set by the government.

“We all study the same subjects every year,” she said, noting she took around 20 different classes during her last year of schooling in Ukraine.

“Both the U.S. and Ukraine (education systems) are pretty intense and challenging,” she said. “The education in the U.S. is much more focused; I can choose the six or eight subjects I take here, put myself into it and really enjoy what I’m doing.”

She believes MUHS’s International Baccalaureate curriculum — and her experiences here in general — have made Herasim “a much more open-minded person” when it comes to appreciating different points of view.

“I’m a very political person and I feel like open-mindedness comes in very handy in politics,” she said, adding the IB program promotes critical thinking, adopting a “world view,” while learning about cultural differences.

“Those are skills I wasn’t able to fully develop before coming to the U.S.,” she said.

The launch of hostilities in Ukraine prompted to express her political views publicly, including at various community events in support of Ukraine. She found kindred spirits in her guardians, Allen and Buettner. They had had experience living in Ukraine and shared Herasim’s passion for music. 

“There were many cultural connections that made me choose them,” she said, noting around 10 families had generously offered to take her in for her senior year.

She had initially stayed locally with the Wright family — until they moved to Utah. They offered to take Herasim with them, but she had become invested in the Middlebury community by then.

ROTARY CONNECTION

“The (Middlebury) Rotary Club has been sponsoring me in many ways and the school has been very supportive, so I decided it would be more reasonable for me to stay here. I know people here are going to help and are helping. I was vulnerable in many ways at the time, so I decided to stay,” she said.

And it’s worked out well for her.

Herasim will attend Yale University this fall, where she plans to double-major in political science and history, on a pre-law track. She’ll move into Yale on Aug. 18 — the third anniversary of her arrival in the U.S.

After Yale, it’ll be on to law school.

“I haven’t yet decided what sphere of law I want to pursue, but it will probably be Constitutional law,” she said confidently.

Her path to a successful career seems well charted in the U.S., but her heart remains in Ukraine.

“It’s very complicated right now. I’m planning on building my future and my career in the U.S. Of course, I’m hoping very strongly to go back and visit Ukraine at some point,” Herasim said.

At one point she thought she’d be reunited with her grandma, who recently sought entry into the U.S. through the “United for Ukraine” program. The Middlebury Rotary Club offered its assistance and identified housing and a local sponsor. But sadly, Diana’s grandmother experienced some health problems that kept her from making the trip.

“I want to visit Ukraine as soon as I can, but right now it’s not looking possible for another three or four years,” she lamented, noting the war.

“The situation in Ukraine is getting to a very extreme point right now,” Herasim added. “We’re on the verge of human rights being violated, which I don’t think would happen if more help was provided. Now, almost all the (Ukrainian) men are fighting; it’s getting to a point where we need more help.”

She’s deeply appreciative of the support her country’s received thus far from the U.S. and other nations.

“I would ask to keep it coming, because it’s no secret that Ukraine is not only fighting for its people and its sovereignty, but also for democracy,” Herasim said. “That seems to align with U.S. values.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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