Former Mississippi-Ukraine exchange students reconnect, recall memories from 20 years ago
Published 7:05 am Saturday, April 16, 2022
Concern for a nation under attack brought eight former Oak Grove students together more than 20 years after living in Ukraine as exchange students.
To those students, now adults in their late 30s and early 40s, Russia’s attack on Ukraine brought back vivid memories of the places they saw and people who opened their homes to the teens.
The group drifted apart after graduation but reconnected last month on social media after Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.
Kacey Cole, who graduated high school in 2001, is the only one who still lives in Hattiesburg. She tracked down her host family, including sisters Alena and Viktoriya, in Ukraine to make sure they were OK and has been able to stay in touch with them since the war started.
Only the Ukrainians’ first names are used in this story for fear of retaliation.
“Currently, they are safe and scared, but proud of their army and hopeful for peace,” Cole said in an email. “They tell me about sirens and bombings in the mornings and the fear that ‘No one knows where the next rocket will arrive.'”
Cole said in a phone interview that some of the host families moved to other countries over time. The ones still in Ukraine are safe.
“Any time they show these pictures of Kyiv and there’s a church there called St. Sophia’s, I can remember going there,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.
“To have that connection has been interesting, horrible — so many different emotions about it. It’s just so stressful. I can’t imagine living in that situation.”
Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick, a professor of gifted education at the University of South Florida, was the teacher who accompanied the students. Now 53, Shaunessy-Dedrick remembers the natural beauty of Ukraine.
“I recall driving through the vast fields of grain and recalling my elementary education and teachers telling us that Ukraine was the ‘breadbasket’ of Eastern Europe,” she said in an email. “I could see why. Bread was a cornerstone of the Ukrainian diet and identity, and we were greeted at the airport and celebrated at events with symbolic gestures that included fancy loaves of bread and youth dressed in their country’s headscarves and ribbons.”
Lindsey Topp, now a property-casualty attorney in New Orleans and former Oak Grove student, said Sasha, one of the teens she connected with in Ukraine, is serving in the army.
“I can’t help but think of the friends we made then and how their lives are parallel to ours,” Topp said. “Many are parents now, working and supporting families. I hate to imagine how I would feel if my life were disrupted by war on my doorstep.”
Cole, assistant director of the English Language Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi, worries about her friends’ safety as they navigate life in a time of war.
One of Cole’s friends had taken her children to stay in her hometown while her husband remained at the family home in Dnipro, southeast of Kyiv. Once she realized nowhere was safe from Russian airstrikes, she and the children came home to be with her husband.
“She told me Ukraine is fine when it comes to ground troops and ground safety, but until air space is closed, we’re in danger no matter where we are,” Cole said.
Topp represents home and business owners in hurricane, fire and related cases. Her time in the exchange program helped shape her ideals as an adult.
“That trip helped me reevaluate my values and priorities and appreciate the freedoms and excesses I had completely taken for granted to that point,” she said.
Cole, too, said although she didn’t think about it at the time, her experiences in Ukraine had an impact on her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies at the University of Mississippi.
“Ultimately, I believe the experience influenced my choice of study in college and my career path of working with international students,” she said. “I’m so thankful for that experience and the way it opened my eyes to another culture and the world.”
Ukraine was a young nation in 1999, having declared its independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union. The students were traveling to a country largely unknown to those who were not allowed behind the Iron Curtain.
“We set off with some trepidation about what we were getting into and found a country that differed in many ways from our own politically, socially and educationally,” Shaunessy-Dedrick said. “But we found people who were genuinely interested in our world, in sharing their culture with us — particularly the Ukrainian values that had for so long shaped their people.”
The student exchange was through the Mississippi Consortium for International Development, which no longer operates a high school exchange program. Students from several Mississippi schools were invited to participate, including Oak Grove.
The students spent three weeks in Ukraine in October 1999. Ukrainian students returned the visit, coming to Hattiesburg, in Spring 2000.
In 1999, some of the older Ukrainians had trepidation over the nation’s independence for economic reasons, including how they would get their pensions. Shaunessy-Dedrick’s host, Ludmylla, also shared the “tensions her family experienced related to wars with Russia.”
“Our purpose in visiting was to provide a model economic market of Mississippi goods so that our Ukrainian host youth would come to the U.S. and have a similar market and enjoy financial gain,” Shaunessy-Dedrick said. “I believe the U.S. sponsored this trip as part of a larger strategy to support the economic independence of Ukraine.
“I have wondered recently how far those efforts went, and the geographic threats to Ukraine given their proximity to Russia.”
Topp said the Ukrainians were excited to connect with Americans and “show us their culture.”
“They were so proud of their history, but equally proud to be a democratic nation,” she said.
Being able to freely express who the Ukrainians were and how they lived was a highlight not only for the Oak Grove students but also for their host families.
“Looking back now, especially with the war with Russia, I am reminded of how proud the Ukrainian people were of their distinctive identities as separate from Russians,” Shaunessy-Dedrick said.