A student poses and smiles for a photo in front of the SMUS sign

Less than three weeks since arriving at SMUS, Grade 11 boarding student Ilona Stukalo is already making a positive impact. Her arrival and embrace by the SMUS community is the result of many people from all areas of our community giving of themselves to help ensure she has the opportunity to study and live here.

“It feels nice that there are people – students, teachers, staff, families – helping. And I know if I need something, a lot of people are going to help. That’s really precious,” she says. 

Ilona says she is so thankful to the members of our community who have helped support her and her family, to allow her to be at SMUS.

“I am really grateful to have this opportunity to study and thrive here, and to explore my potential.”

Studying abroad was always something that interested Ilona. But it wasn’t until earlier this year, after her family fled from Kyiv, Ukraine to Poland, that she started to look at boarding school as an option for the next step in her education.

“SMUS instantly caught my eye because of the campus, University Counselling and the range of subjects that you can learn. I was like, ‘I really want to study here,’” she says.

After reaching out to the Admissions department and going through the testing process, it was readily apparent that Ilona would be a perfect fit for SMUS; her skills, passion and ambition would allow her to thrive in our school community. At just 16 years old, Ilona speaks five languages. She taught herself economics during the pandemic (and now wants to study economics at university), and she was a top-level ballroom dancer in Ukraine, most recently finishing fourth in the national championships!

With the financial support available through generous gifts to the Vivat Foundation and Annual Fund, Ilona received a full scholarship to attend SMUS and continue her education in Canada. These important programs help eliminate financial barriers for families and ensure the school can both attract and support incredible students from around the globe.

A student sits in the Graves Hall dining hall wearing Number 1 uniform during a beautiful evening ceremony

It was more than just financial support that helped ensure Ilona could seamlessly join our community. Admissions Associate Kevin Mennie connected with the SMUS Parents’ Auxiliary and boarding staff to help ensure that Ilona would have everything she would need to attend SMUS and live in boarding – from uniforms to bedding.

He also reached out to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Victoria and, coincidentally, was linked with a SMUS alumni family that was eager to host Ilona when she arrived during the Thanksgiving weekend, while the boarding houses were closed.

The Hagkulls (Sarah ’16 and Matt ’18 are alumni, and Blair is the former SMUS Board chair) not only took Ilona in and treated her to her first Thanksgiving in Canada, but Sarah and mom Tracey also travelled to Vancouver to pick her up at the airport.

In three short weeks, Ilona has quickly become an integral part of the Senior School and boarding communities. She is thriving in her classes (despite arriving four weeks late, she earned 100% on her first AP Macroeconomics exam), and she is looking to both direct a play and perform in the musical.

“It's really different from my Ukrainian high school. We have fixed subjects – 15 to 16 subjects each year – and we have to take everything. That's why I was really surprised that here you can choose and you can explore yourself in different ways,” she says. “The thing that I like the most is the support the teachers give. They really care about their subjects and they want all the students to succeed. They give all their energy to the students during class to help and teach us.”

Ilona has also approached the Middle School to start a ballroom dancing club to teach younger students.

“I'm so excited for that because I want to share my experiences and keep the connection with ballroom dancing. I’m excited to see how they are eager to learn!”

Ilona’s first community event at SMUS was a timely one: the Founders and Benefactors Dinner. This event celebrates the philanthropists in our community who support financial aid and endowment, and brings them together with the current students who benefit, as well as our prefects.

Thank you to all members of our community who give of themselves to ensure Ilona, and all of our incredible students, can thrive in our school.