Veronika Shevchenko: "I did it because they're my people. I could not say no."
Veronika Shevchenko is a senior Contemporary Communication major from Ukraine. On campus, she is known as an active, creative, caring, and curious student who loves drinking coffee and taking photos. Since the spring of 2022, she worked on multiple humanitarian projects to help Ukrainians in need. During her years of study at LCC, she worked as an assistant in the Corporate Communications office, has gone abroad with the exchange program twice (to South Korea and France), and now is enjoying her senior year while working for an HR office in a Ukrainian IT company. Here is Veronika’s story.Interviewer: You've been rather an active student ever since your freshman year. So, from your four years of study, what are your highlights or good memories about LCC, including the time you spent abroad with exchange programs? Veronika: I'm really grateful for my experience overall. I think all my years here have been great. I think the biggest highlights of LCC are the number of people, the diversity, and the cultural experience. I can see improvement in how I see the world now after studying here. I see that I am really open, I see the differences in cultures. It's easier to find common ground with different people when I travel or live abroad. Also, one of my highlights is my work in the Communications office back in my freshman and sophomore years. I had an opportunity to dive deeper into professional work, learn a lot, and just improve my practical skills in photography and visual content creation. The best part for me though was the summer of 2020, when I got stuck in the LCC dorms because of Covid. Interviewer: Was that really your favorite memory? Veronika: It was so fun. My best friends and I decided to stay at LCC. So, we were going through all this crisis together and it was actually really fun. We would do photoshoots in the kitchen, go on picnics, and do movie nights because the dorms were kind of empty. Then during the summer, Lithuania opened local attractions. So, we could go out and enjoy life in Klaipėda. Interviewer: How has this year been for you, given the circumstances? Veronika: It has been interesting, hectic, complicated. There are no words to describe the mix of emotions that I have experienced throughout these months. When the war started, I was in France on my Exchange semester, alone. I was on my way to the airport in Paris, to fly to Sicily to work on the Erasmus+ project. On the bus to the airport at 5 a.m. we accidentally stopped. And I woke up and I saw everyone just scrolling on their phones, and I saw Ukrainian flags on their screens. So, I opened my Instagram and the first post I saw was from one of the bloggers from Kyiv saying that they woke up at 5 a.m. because they heard the bomb sounds. I froze for a moment, and I tried to call my parents, but no one picked up. They finally answered later, and they were okay. But all my friends in Kyiv and the other bigger cities were hiding somewhere. They were in shock.I was looking around, and everyone was scrolling through the same pictures as I was. When I got to the airport all the TVs there had "Breaking News! Ukraine is under attack.” So, I was really lost. I was very scared because I was in an airport and I did not know what to do, debating, “should I stay here?” And then I just decided to get on my flight and figure it out later. So, when I arrived in Sicily, I talked to the Project Manager, I changed my flight, and I flew to Poland where I joined various volunteer groups at Krakow railway station. I was volunteering there, helping with the refugees, their coordination, and housing. It helped me a lot because I could put my physical effort and my mind into something to have it working all the time so I would not focus on other things. It was a strange adventure, I would say. Interviewer: So, when did you fly to Poland, was it the same day that the war began? Veronika: No, it was a few days later, on the first day of spring. There were no other flights initially as it was the first days of the war. Interviewer: How long was the Erasmus+ project supposed to run for? Veronika: This project was not connected to my Erasmus exchange from LCC. It was a different project for Erasmus+. I went to Sicily to work and prepare for a future project I was supposed to coordinate. But they saw me struggling there. I was in Sicily with my laptop helping my friends, organizing evacuation buses, and finding hosts for our friends in Europe. I was not working on the project at all. So, we agreed that I would just go, and someone will take over. They were supportive of this decision. They didn’t push me to do anything, as I was completely focused on the war-related stuff. Also, in France at the university for my exchange semester, most of the professors were understanding and supportive. Interviewer: So, how much time did you spend in Krakow volunteering?Veronika: Not much. I guess it was about 10 days. I don't remember for sure now. But you can’t really do it for a long time because it is really exhausting. You're drowning in emotions when you are there. I would work the night shifts because I had a remote job to do during the day. Also, I speak a bit of Polish. I understand everything, but I speak a just bit. So, I was interpreting sometimes. I was always helping with communication. When you see a bus or a train full of people who are coming from the occupied territories, the hot zones, and they are crying, coming to you, saying "Save us. Help us. We don't have anything," you begin to live their stories with them. It’s emotional and super exhausting. I was amazed and proud of the people who work there for longer periods, especially the Polish volunteers, who are the main volunteers organizing everything. Their job was extremely exhausting, and they were there for weeks, maybe even months.Interviewer: When you introduced yourself, you mentioned that you used to work with the organization UkraineNow.org, right? Tell me more about this organization. What it is and what was your function there?Veronika: I’m not working with them at the moment, as I need to finish my senior year, and because this job was emotionally draining. I had been there for six months and I wanted to have a bit of a break from the information and war-related projects. But I will for sure go back at some point. UkraineNow.org is a decentralized initiative from a Ukrainian named Artur Kiulian who at some point in his life moved to California. He was working there with IT start-ups and when Covid started, he founded an organization to help with Covid-related issues. And then when the war began, he reorganized it into the platform of UkraineNow.org to help war-affected Ukrainians. They gathered a team of volunteers who would help with evacuations. On the first day when they opened the platform, they got 15,000 requests for help. Then the team grew, and they created databases with hosts and volunteers all over Europe. They would help Ukrainians find accommodation and organize evacuation buses from Kyiv to Europe. And then a bit later, when a big number of Ukrainians were trying to get to the US, the easiest way at the time was to go to Mexico and cross the US border from Tijuana into California with humanitarian parole. At some point, the US changed its laws, and a lot of Ukrainians got stuck in Tijuana near the border. They couldn’t really go with the parole anymore but would have to apply for other types of documents, which was time-consuming. People just got stuck there in the harsh conditions of refugee camps. This was about the time when I joined the organization. We started to work as a team of five. We were Case Managers. We would coordinate the occurring needs with the on-the-ground volunteers. Two girls who were based in Mexico would meet people who arrived there. They would give them a QR code to an online form, and after filling it out, the people would automatically be transferred to the case managers. Then the other team members would proceed with them personally and see how we could help them. For example, if they needed accommodation either in Mexico or the US, or if they needed some help with the documents to reach the US. We would translate documents, and go through the whole application process with them since most of them did not speak English. We would find some new toys for kids, clothes, some food, and humanitarian items. So, basically anything they’d need to survive there. We would arrange it online and then they’d just go to the organizations to pick it up. We were their support to get from the refugee camp in Mexico to the US, and then continue the support after they’d crossed the border. We would help them with accommodations, Covid tests, and finding English classes. We’d help them with anything they would need help with. That was the case management. Now, we have eight more volunteers on this team. At the same time, there are fewer cases now, of course, because the situation got a bit calmer as some time passed. Additionally, there are two other projects I worked on at this organization. One project is called Fem-SMS. This project is for women in Ukraine. They can receive SMS with diverse types of advice: how to deal with military crimes, war crimes, how to support themselves mentally, how to support other people, what to do in case of abuse, and which organizations to contact for help. These text messages go out a few times per week. They received these support messages from us, which actually worked really well, I believe. One more project that UkraineNow.org initiated was called, "Mend and Rebuild." I was the Project Manager for it. The initial goal is bone replacements for soldiers. We were cooperating with a Ukrainian 3D lab that prints unique bone implants for injured soldiers. We’d raise the money and then send the money to the lab so they could do all the medical procedures with the soldiers directly. The UkraineNow.org itself is huge — there are about 6,000 volunteers. Of course, not all of them are continuously active. But there are a lot of different projects the organization takes care of. I worked with only three. There's also humanitarian storage in Krakow. There they organize rides from Krakow to different cities in Ukraine to deliver humanitarian help there, to whoever needs water, food, and medical supplies. There are a lot of organizations working to support Ukraine, but UkraineNow.org is the main one that I have been connected to directly.Interviewer: I am truly impressed by the amount of work you have put in and it is amazing that you were willing to donate your time and your effort and skills to help your country. We can see even not just in Lithuania, but throughout the world, there are a lot of organizations and volunteers who are helping Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. What made you choose UkraineNow.org to work with? Veronika: That's an interesting question. I didn't choose it myself. I would say, they chose me. I’d been contacted by a friend of mine suggesting it, and it sounded interesting. And you know, when you do this kind of job, you feel the major value is that you directly impact people's lives. The more important reason I did it is that they're my people. I could not say no. My studies were less intense at that moment and the summer was coming up. I knew I would have time to dedicate to this project, so I said yes.Interviewer: Now that you're a senior you probably have a lot of classes to take to finish up your degree. How do you feel? Is there a way in which your LCC experience equipped you for the volunteer projects you have taken up? Veronika: I think my work in the Communications office helped me a lot because I learned how to do professional email communications. This project work also required a lot of online communication with refugees. I would have to do a lot of formal emails, formal messages, and other related tasks. So, definitely, the Comms office helped me prepare a lot for this. Also, PR class and all the communication-related classes helped a lot because I learned how to construct a good message, and how to be clear with what I wanted to say. Interpersonal Communication class helped a lot with solving the conflicts that appeared in the first stages of project planning. Also, my Web design class was helpful. During the projects, I was helping our web designer with some edits for the website. I am proud of that. It is not about just the classes themselves at LCC that has been beneficial, but about the values that we are embracing here: community and servant leadership. I guess, it is more the environment here that gave me some kind of internal confidence that was needed. Interviewer: Has LCC been supportive during this time? Do you see any change in the community or the way LCC is approaching everything since the war began?Veronika: I'm sure I would have felt it more if I would have been here during that initial time but I was away on the Exchange program in France. But now, LCC helped a lot from the financial side with an additional discount for tuition. Also in the summer, when I was coming back here, they made accommodations for me and my mom for a few days on campus, which was helpful. But even being abroad, I could see how LCC was supporting people who were on campus, providing mental support, volunteering, etc. I know that when my friends organized a group to help, the Ukraine Care Initiative, LCC was very supportive of this student initiative. LCC really did a lot and even now, no one stays silent about the situation and you do feel that this place supports you.Interviewer: Since you are a senior, is there any piece of advice that you would give to the Ukrainian students in high school who are thinking of studying at LCC?Veronika: I would say, look into it. There are a lot of Ukrainians at LCC, so you will feel at home for sure. Also, it's a really safe environment in all possible terms. LCC is not huge, so you feel safe and calm here, and people in the community are really supportive. It is also diverse, so you will always find someone interesting to talk to every day.Interviewer: Before we end, who can people best donate to Ukraine?Veronika: There are a lot of different things you can do to help Ukraine. There are two main charity funds: "Come Back Alive" and "Prytula Foundation." Both help the military, with equipment and medical care. Also, I would encourage you to donate to UkraineNow.org because I have personally seen how dedicated the people are, and 99% of them work for free as volunteers and they dedicate a lot of time to this. They still do help a lot of people even though the number of donations is really low at the moment. So, donate there, for sure. And you can always support small Ukrainian Brands. It may be in fashion, ceramics, or home items. Most of them still have worldwide delivery even now because the post office is fully functional in Ukraine. So, if you don't want to send financial donations, please give your support through purchases. This money helps support Ukraine's economy.Interviewer: That is great. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers and our audiences?Veronika: I think the message I want to leave with is to continue to remember that the war is still going on. People are still dying, and our cities are still getting bombed every day, as it was in the first months of the war. But it seems we aren’t speaking about it that much anymore. So, ask your Ukrainian friends about what's happening and donate to Ukraine because our military defense has been progressing and with every dollar donated, we are getting closer to freedom and peaceful times.