Note: This story was updated on Sept. 28 to correct the field of study for Nina Klimenkova.
Russia's February invasion of Ukraine had barely begun when Takeo Suzuki started texting and messaging.
The executive director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Global Education said he wanted to check on former students from Ukraine, many of whom were back home.
"When I asked what I could do for them, everyone just said, 'Pray for us, think of us,'" Suzuki said, "except one – she wanted weapons and arms.
"This person looks like a regular college student, the last person you'd think would say something like that," he said. "I couldn't respond. I couldn't sleep."
Suzuki said he went the next day to see UTC Chancellor Steve Angle. That meeting led to subsequent talks with the university's undergraduate and graduate student leadership and community fundraising and eventually begat the UTC Global Response Assistantship.
Per UTC's website, the program was launched in April and is the only one of its kind in Tennessee. It offered $600 per month and free tuition, room and board to two Ukrainian students wanting to pursue master's degrees in one of four disciplines – public administration, business administration, computer science or engineering management.
Suzuki said there were some 300 inquiries and 50 applications. The first two awards ultimately went to 23-year-old Arsen Martyshchuk, who's studying public administration, and Nina Klimenkova, 21, who's pursuing a master's in business administration. They arrived in the U.S. about 30 days ago and have begun their respective two-year programs.
The choice was "hard, very difficult" for the five-person search committee, Suzuki said, but Martyshchuk and Klimenkova distinguished themselves.
"Arsen's goal to be a civil servant in his local government after the war, his dedication to go back and assist really touched our hearts," Suzuki said. "And Nina also wants to establish that credential and take it back home.
"They're seeds for the future" of the UTC program, Suzuki said.
Klimenkova said she was born in Odessa but was living and studying in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. A missile hit just a half-mile from her home at 5 that morning, she said. She and her family moved south, they said, but the fighting followed and, at one point, they hid in a basement for two days.
"I have a little sister," Klimenkova said. "She's 9, very active. I miss her a lot."
Martyshchuk said he comes from the Carpathian mountain range in the west of Ukraine. He said that region has been fairly quiet to this point.
"I was really ready to go," he said, "and my family was really excited. There are a lot of higher-ed opportunities in Ukraine, but those are mainly online and pretty unpredictable."
Both students said they learned of the UTC opportunity through EducationUSA. According to its website, EducationUSA is a State Department network of more than 430 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries and territories.
"It's all over the world," Martyshchuk said. "I was looking for different opportunities to study abroad when I came across this one. When I got selected, I couldn't believe it.
"I've never studied in English, and I'm the only international student in my class, but all my classmates and professors are really supportive," he said. "They encourage you to make mistakes so you can learn from them."
Klimenkova lauded the "unlimited access to information" she enjoys at UTC.
"As much as you want to study, you can study," she said, adding the university's program affords her and her countryman an "amazing" opportunity.
"Our country has the greatest potential in a lot of areas – research, education, art, agriculture," she said. "We can tell people about Ukraine. It's an opportunity for us to tell our stories about how powerful and how unique our country is."
Suzuki said for all the benefit Klimenkova and Martyshchuk may derive from the UTC program, they're enriching their fellow students as well.
"COVID separated us," he said. "We all hid behind our computers, but they're creating an interesting, unique circle of true kindness, and I'm very happy to see that happen spontaneously.
"They're reminding us how important it is to really get to know each other, and they're reconfirming that we have really good lives. Sometimes we forget that."
Financial contributions to fund the academic program can be made online at give.utc.edu/Ukraine, Suzuki said.