Not many 19-year-old students would drop everything at the beginning of the spring semester and travel to Eastern Europe to volunteer their time to the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis.
But that’s exactly what Aidan Dlugacz did.
Dlugacz (freshman-international politics) said his interest in Eastern European affairs began early due to his mother.
“Being from Slovakia, her entire upbringing was impacted by the communist regime of the Soviet Union she had lived under,” Dlugacz said. “All those stories culminated together and raised me to be the person I am today — which kind of looks at the world from a different view.”
And during his first semester at Penn State, Dlugacz was approached with an idea.
Due to family connections to U.S. Steel — a company with affiliations to multiple charities across Eastern Europe, specifically Greek Orthodox charities — an opportunity came up.
“I’m not Greek Orthodox by any means; I’m not religious at all, but it just so happened that they were associated with this charity, and volunteers were needed,” Dlugacz said.
In early November, Dlugacz’s mom texted him, asking if he wanted to volunteer.
“I said, ‘Sure, sounds cool,’ but I never really thought anything of it,” Dlugacz said. “Usually the ideas that she puts forth are unrealistic because of logistics, but luckily, the headquarters for this one charity was a 20-minute walking distance from my mother's old apartment, where my grandmother currently stays.”
Dlugacz said after “the realness” of the situation settled in, he went ahead and began brainstorming how he could make this opportunity work.
Penn State Associate Teaching Professor of Russian Yelena Zotova was one of the first to hear about Dlugacz’s travel plans. In fact, it was right after one of her Russian lectures in the fall when Dlugacz got the first text from his mother.
“He asked if I could accommodate him and incorporate a Zoom portion to the class, and of course I said yes,” Zotova said.
Zotova immigrated to the U.S. in 1994, but she spent her formative years in Luhansk, Ukraine.
“[Zotova] was the one that basically made me feel very, very comfortable about this,” Dlugacz said. “I started my search for online courses, and thankfully, they were all associated with the Russian department, but there were some instances where I would ask professors to accommodate me due to this incredible opportunity, and they would just say no.”
Even though Dlugacz did eventually get approved for an extended period away and arranged his schedule to make his trip work, he said during those first few weeks of planning, he was “shaking in [his] boots” hoping everything would work out.
“From the moment that I found out about this idea to booking the flight, it was about two or three weeks,” Dlugacz said. “It moved very quickly, and come Jan. 4, I was in Eastern Europe.”
A volunteer for the Caritas Fund charity, Dlugacz worked with The Greek Orthodox Eparchy of Košice, an eastern city in Slovakia. Dlugacz and other volunteers were assigned tasks each day, many of which included driving for hours across the country handing out supplies to refugees.
According to Dlugacz, the invasion’s impact was apparent as they handed out those resources to people in different communes.
“When I went to these communes, a lot of these villages had Ukrainians that had been there for so long, months even,” Dlugacz said. “Even though they had come from so many different parts of Ukraine, they'd banded together because they were now all refugees.”
The charity had been created prior to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
According to Dlugacz, the charity was set up to help those who didn’t have functional jobs and were below the middle class. But in the mid-2010s, Slovakia received a large influx of Middle Easterners like much of Europe, which led the charity to begin focusing more on the refugee crisis.
So when the invasion did happen, the charity was ready.
Dlugacz said by the time he had arrived, the amount of refugees seeking safety was “significantly lower” than at the start of the invasion. But for a couple of months, at the Slovakia-Ukraine border he visited called Vyšné Nemecké, the number of refugees coming out totaled about 110,000.
Though incoming numbers were lower, the work was still long.
“Even though he was driving all day and had a crazy schedule, he was diligent, on time and always had his homework,” Zotova said. “I keep in contact with my friends in Ukraine, but I had never heard from volunteers so close to everything like Aidan was.”
At 19 years old, his maturity continued to shine through as he sent updates back to Zotova.
“His accounts were quite emotional, and his compassion showed,” Zotova said. “I felt that it struck him, meeting people and hearing their stories.”
When the opportunity presented itself to go into Ukraine, Dlugacz didn’t even hesitate.
“As someone who appreciates and loves history, when you have the opportunity to go see something that you will read about in textbooks years and years later, saying that you were there, it’s transformative,” Dlugacz said.
According to Dlugacz, both American and Ukrainian embassies “strongly advised” against him crossing the border into the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod.
But Dlugacz said his stubbornness won out.
Using CNN and MSNBC as examples, Dlugacz said anyone can look for updates on their phone on what’s going on in Ukraine but said what’s not coming through enough is how the people themselves are feeling.
“In Ukraine, I would meet Ukrainians, and they didn’t have to say a thing, you just had to look at their face,” Dlugacz said. “It’s truly powerful to say that you looked war right in the face, even without looking at violence.”
The ongoing conflict began in February 2014 on Ukrainian soil with the protests and subsequent removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Feb. 22, 2014, according to Reuters.
As pro-Russian unrest escalated in many parts of Ukraine in the aftermath of Yanukovich’s removal, Russian soldiers began taking control of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
In February and March of 2014, unmarked Russian troops seized the Crimean Parliament, leading to the annexation of Crimea.
Then in April 2014, Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics escalated into an active war.
The conflict — which has claimed over 14,000 lives since 2014 — escalated once more after Russian military buildups near Ukraine’s borders were first reported in late 2021, and NATO accused Russia of planning an invasion — which Russia initially denied, according to Reuters.
But on Feb. 21, the Russian Federation officially recognized Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent states.
Three days later, on Feb. 24, Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine.
One year in, and more than 7,199 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and 11,756 have been injured, according to United Nations data. The U.N. acknowledged the real number of casualties is likely to be much higher.
During Dlugacz’s trip into Ukraine, the volunteers carried similar supplies to what they would bring in Slovakia: water, small perishable food items, regular food items, etc.
But Dlugacz said there were certain things he witnessed during that trip he’ll never forget, one being his trip to a field hospital in Uzhhorod for soldiers who had just returned from the front.
“You could watch a movie about war and see the scenes of the hospitals and react, but when you see it firsthand, you're not just using your eyes. You're hearing everything,” Dlugacz said. “You're feeling the humidity of the rooms and the smell. I will never forget it for the rest of my life. It was the first time I was emotionally challenged.”
Though entering Ukraine took about 45 minutes, leaving took over three-and-a-half hours, which was time Dlugacz said he spent reflecting on that experience.
“It gave me this new perspective on the world,” Dlugacz said.
At a recent candlelight vigil hosted by the Penn State Ukrainian Society to mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the war, Catherine Wanner, a professor of history whose area of research and teaching is on Ukraine, said though there’s an almost “total civilian mobilization in support of the armed forces” in Ukraine, it’s important to acknowledge the sacrifice from soldiers and civilians.
“Can you imagine if we didn’t have heat, only four hours of electricity per day, if your water supply was ruined, if your house was destroyed?” Wanner said. “They are paying an extraordinary price for attempting to live on their own land, in peace, with dignity.”
Dlugacz said he was all-too aware that the Ukrainians knew of his American privilege, and yet even so, they extended kindness and trust.
“They understood I was going back home to my first-world country, my very nice air-conditioned room,” Dlugacz said. “But they saw me as another human, and they saw me as someone that they could confide in and tell their stories to as well.”
Wanner said rebuilding so much loss will be a “long process.”
“To destroy is quick and easy; to rebuild is far more challenging,” Wanner said. “I believe they have given us quite a lot by demonstrating just how precious many of the values we take for granted really are.”
Even in cities like Medzev, where Dlugacz would regularly bring people supplies, he said their openness made all the difference.
“I could not even describe the feeling that I [got] when I [heard] these people talk,” Dlugacz, who used translators to bridge the language gap, said. “At one point, I was in a room with 45 Ukrainian refugees, all from the eastern part of Ukraine. And they so openly told me: We cannot go back to our homes because there is no hope to go back to.”
Toward the end of Dlugacz’s trip, residents of Medzev organized a town hall for Dlugacz to ask them more questions.
“Certain memories stick out to me most, like this one man [at the town hall] who spoke with such verbose, such pride,” Dlugacz said. “He said he’d grown up a Ukrainian, he would die a Ukrainian, and that he sent his sons to war to fight for Ukraine. Even with the devastation, it was clear: No invading force could ever impede on his glorification of who he is.”
Penn State Ukrainian Society President Maria Smereka is the youngest daughter of immigrants from western Ukraine and organized the vigil alongside other officers and members.
The one-year commemoration specifically highlighted Ukrainian students who “will never have the chance to graduate” due to the war.
One of many vigils organized as part of the Unissued Diplomas Project, Smerkea (senior-biology and Spanish) said the project gives these students a posthumous voice to honor the sacrifices they made.
“Many of them died fighting on the front lines; they dropped everything and went to the Eastern Front,” Smereka said, “and just so selflessly sacrificed their lives knowing the risk. We wanted to remember them.”
Smereka said events like these also bring out the strong State College Ukrainian community and those who support it.
Jamison Malcolm, a pastor at the Nittany Valley Church of Christ, along with other local partners, have worked to create a coalition called the Centre Coalition for Ukraine, which raises money through donations and has already been able to help several families escape the war and relocate to Centre County.
“I think it’s pretty profound that we are standing on a university, and we’re holding signs of college students who have lost their lives,” Malcolm said. “And to think that [it was] just a chance that it was those people and not anyone else. It’s a privilege to be here.”
Malcolm said they’ve been able to connect families with resources locally as well as housing through connections like the Woskob Foundation.
The Woskobs, shortened from Woskobijnyk, have placed a special emphasis on supporting Ukrainian connections in the arts, church organizations and at the university, establishing the Woskob Family Endowment in Ukrainian studies in the College of the Liberal Arts to name just one contribution.
Even with so much support near and far, Smereka said the one-year anniversary is hard to comprehend but shows the strength and fight of the Ukrainian people.
“It was Putin who predicted that his troops would take over Kyiv in three days,” Smereka said. “Two weeks after that, still nothing. One year later, and Ukraine is still standing. Not without loss, but I have hope, we all do.”
Dlugacz said even as the war continues, it’s apparent Ukraine is winning.
“A country like Ukraine, who is not associated with NATO, or any large foreign entity, has single-handedly pushed back and stopped the Russians from progressing into their country,” Dlugacz said. “The Russian government — the ones that Americans and practically every other country in the world had been fearing since the ‘50s — this country has kept them to a stalemate.”
Dlugacz returned to the states on Feb. 12, back to his normal routine — with an entirely new perspective.
“[My experience] changed me completely,” Dlugacz said.
Zotova, who has co-advised the Russian Club at Penn State officially since 2017, asked Dlugacz to speak on Feb. 24, the one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, to share his experience with the club.
“You don't have to be Ukrainian to help, and Aidan is the perfect example of this,” Zotova said. “We cannot possibly understand what's going on [over there] because we [have] never experienced it, but at least we got to hear from someone who did. I’m proud of him.”
For Dlugacz, since returning from eastern Europe, his career path has also changed.
“For the longest time, I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to work with politicians, which I still do,” Dlugacz said. “But, as I was meeting these people, writing these stories back to Yelena, that sparked the idea of maybe I can do this for a living.”
Zotova has no doubt Dlugacz can and will do whatever he sets his mind to, and Dlugacz said he’s planning to go back to volunteer this summer.
“He is a person who inspires and attends to his duties as a student [but also as] a mature, well-rounded individual and ambassador of peace,” Zotova said. “State College and Penn State will be proud of him in the future, [and] I feel very honored to have him as a student. He’s going places yes, but he has his heart in the right place — that’s what matters most.”
From heading out to formals to participating in a student-made holiday, Penn State students …