Date September 22, 2022
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Hlib Burtsev: From Kyiv to Providence, over a few tumultuous months

Tempered by concern for a homeland in crisis, Ukrainian undergraduate Hlib Burtsev has delved into his studies, work and life at Brown, with an eye toward a career in evolutionary biology and ecology.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Exhausted by the tense and arduous journey that took him from Ukraine to Providence, first-year Brown undergraduate Hlib Burtsev is nonetheless brimming with curiosity and excitement about the possibilities his arrival at the University has opened up for him.

The 18-year-old is plunging himself into studies in biology and ecology, and pursuing other interests such as visual arts and photography. But he’s also channeling his love and concern for his homeland into education for others, looking for opportunities help the campus community learn about Ukraine, its culture and language.

When the war in his country began last February, Burtsev fled the threatened capital city of Kyiv with his mother and sister, settling in the western part of the country. Admitted to Brown’s Class of 2026, he left Ukraine in May, crossing the border into Hungary on foot.

“It was quite an adventure, and I was very tense and anxious,” Burtsev said. “I had problems with crossing the border. I didn’t cross the first time. They declined me, despite having all the documents.”

He eventually made it through on foot and traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, to apply for his student visa. A month later, after extensively preparing for and finally obtaining his visa, he flew to Boston, rode the train to Providence and began a new chapter in his life at Brown.

“It was a difficult, and now I’m feeling a bit better,” Burtsev said. “Brown is the best fit in terms of everything: location, size — just everything. It’s exceeded all the expectations I had. I’m really, really grateful and happy that I got here.”

A quest for “freedom in education”

Well before the war’s start, Burtsev had applied to Brown with support from the Ukraine Global Scholars organization, which serves Ukrainian high school students from low- and moderate-income families through intensive college application process support and scholarships. In exchange, students commit to return to Ukraine and work there for five years, according to the organization, which aims to “drive the critical mass of well-educated Ukrainians.”

He chose Brown for its innovative Open Curriculum, its diversity, the student support services, high rankings in student happiness, and “freedom in education,” as he described it.

“In Ukraine, you choose your specialization at 17 and then it’s very difficult to change it,” Burtsev said. “The educational approach is very different, focused more on memorization of terms and theory. But here, you focus more on how you understand and how things work.”

He said Brown is an ideal fit for someone like him with limitless passion and curiosity.

“One of the professors here said, ‘Don’t focus on getting an A. Focus on studying the subject, and you’ll eventually get an A,’” he said. “I feel people here are happy — and I’m happy, too.”

He’s interested in evolutionary biology; in Ukraine, he studied insects, flowers, ants, reptiles and plants. He even grew 300 different plants in pots in his home. He engaged in research, including the study of dragonfly wings and an exploration of ways that algae and seaweed can be used to extract pollution.

“I like to study diversity and evolution,” Burtsev said. “I love exotic animals and plants. Snakes, lizards, big spiders — they all have different patterns of behavior. I want to study ants as well.”

I feel people here are happy — and I’m happy, too.

Hlib Burtsev First-year Brown Undergraduate
Hlib Burtsev talks to a classmate in a classroom.

He also likes visual arts and enjoyed taking a photography course and a course in classics during Brown’s summer session, when he lived in Sternlicht Commons and Brown University Health and Wellness Center, the newest student residence on campus. As a work-study student, he secured a job in Residential Life, working in the Key Office in the Grad Center.

Those experiences came as part of extensive support that Brown provided to Ukrainian students in response to the war — financial assistance, summer housing, counseling and more, including covering the cost of a Brown education for all nine Ukrainian members of the undergraduate Class of 2026.

“I’m living now in Emory Hall, which is very nice,” Burtsev said. “I’m very grateful I got the opportunity to be here.”

Living in the moment, looking to the future

When Burtsev isn’t in class or working at the Grad Center, he is volunteering as a college counselor for high school students with Ukraine Global Scholars, the same organization that helped support his journey to Brown. It’s an important way for him to contribute to his homeland while he lives in the U.S., he says.

“I was very anxious because I left everyone there so I felt I wasn’t doing anything meaningful for Ukraine,” Burtsev said. “Working for Ukraine Global Scholars helps me and gives me the feeling I’m doing something.

“I’m really anxious about my family, and I’m trying to help them as much as possible,” he added.

He’s developed bonds with the handful of other students from Ukraine, in addition to making connections in his residence hall and around campus, and among the large international student community. Nonetheless, at times, it can be hard to find people who truly appreciate the gravity of the situation in his homeland.

“I don’t think most people understand the scale of the events that are happening now in Ukraine,” Burtsev said. “There have been thousands of missiles. People are dying every day. You can’t feel really safe anywhere. There are air raid sirens. You feel very sleep deprived and everyone is very exhausted. It is very, very difficult.”

He strives to raise awareness during conversations on campus, and he and his Ukrainian peers at Brown are seeking opportunities to educate the community about Ukrainian culture and language.

“We’ve talked to the Slavic studies department and the history and sociology departments about creating something like an academic expo,” Burtsev said. “They’re very open to discussing things with us. I’m very passionate about languages and cultures, and we’re trying to make more initiatives at Brown relating to this.”

Given his energy, resilience and commitment, he is likely to make an impact both inside and outside the classroom: “I’m trying to take all the opportunities that I can,” Burtsev said.