Ukrainian student reflects on one year of war

Masha Smahliuk finds home, community at CMU

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Central Michigan University student Masha Smahliuk’s hardest days of the last year were right after Russia invaded Ukraine. With her family back home in the country’s center, she watched the war unfold from Mount Pleasant.

Smahliuk came to Michigan to spend her final year of high school as an exchange student. She expected it to be a year of adventure before returning home to spend a summer hanging out with family and friends and attending a Ukrainian university.

The war made that impossible, so last fall she enrolled at CMU. Smahliuk always knew she wanted a career in writing, and she said the war brought her academic focus to journalism.

“It was journalists who were telling the truth in Ukraine,” she said the day after the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion. “I feel like I should give something good back to this world.”

Student Masha Smahliuk wears a cream-colored coat, smiling at the camera while standing in front of Warriner Hall.
CMU freshman Masha Smahliuk
Finding community at CMU

Smahliuk was nervous before she moved into her residence hall but found the experience welcoming. She surrounded herself with familiar things like books and a Ukrainian flag, but most of all was warmly welcomed by her roommates.

One highlight is nightly dinners with friends from her residence hall. Another is going to class.

“I really enjoy my classes because I can do what I love,” she said. In addition to journalism, she’s taken English and political science courses.

She also found a home writing for the student newspaper.

“I fell in love with CM Life,” she said. It’s been the best part of her experience and through it, she said she’s learned a lot about journalism, the world and even herself.

So far, she’s covered elections, human rights issues and campus events.

In particular, she said that CM Life’s faculty adviser, Regan Foster, has provided critical support and advice.

In March, Smahliuk was named the 2023 Michigan Press Association Foundation student fellow for the National Newspaper Association’s Washington, D.C. fellowship program.

As a fellow, she will travel to Washington, D.C. in September for the NNA’s three-day 2023 summit, where participants will discuss issues related to democracy and the media.

Watching war at home from afar

But while achieving success at CMU, she also had to contend with events happening back home. Smahliuk’s hometown was briefly threatened by Russian ground forces during the war’s first days.

Now, new threats have created hardships in keeping in touch. For example, sometimes her family gets electricity for two hours and then loses it for two hours. Masha would make plans to call them at the start of class but find them unavailable when she got back to her room.

And, while her home was relatively safe, she was concerned about the parts of Ukraine still affected by the ongoing conflict. She has confidence that, in the end, Ukraine will win.

“I definitely have a lot of faith, hope and belief in our army,” she said. “They have just been angels.”

With Ukraine’s future uncertain, Smahliuk plans to get her degree from CMU and pursue a career in reporting on international affairs.

“International journalism is important for me because I want to give voice to people in the parts of the world where they don’t always have it and tell their stories so that America can also know their perspectives,” she said. “It is also my way of doing something good and life-changing for the world because a lot of kind people helped me and changed my life.”

She’s not yet sure where she wants to live after graduation. She said she’d like to visit Ukraine but that once the war ends, the work of rebuilding will start. It’ll also take a long time for the country to heal.

“I think it’s important to understand that the next generation and the generation after that will carry the war trauma with them,” she said.

View latest news