Ilona smiles whilst wearing her Harvard hoodie

In the past four years, Grade 12 student Ilona Stukalo has experienced more major events than most. At age 13, the pandemic happened, and daily life as she knew it ceased. At 15, the war in Ukraine broke out, causing her and her family to flee to Poland. Later that same year, she travelled by herself to Canada to attend SMUS as a new boarding student. Now in 2024, at age 17, she was admitted to Harvard with a substantial financial award from the university.

“Not a lot of people get the opportunities to come to SMUS or Harvard, especially from my background, but I was able to. So hopefully I can inspire or motivate people that if you want to achieve something, it’s worth it to try. You don’t need to be afraid to ‘reach for the stars’ kind of thing, there are always people who want to help you succeed.”

Despite the obstacles she has faced, Ilona’s persistence and desire to thrive in any environment is one that embodies the spirit of character education at SMUS. Her resilience and ability to learn from these experiences, and grow with compassion and determination, emulate what it really means to flourish.

Thriving Amidst Turbulence

Affected by the pandemic as many around the world were in 2020, life settled into a new variation of normalcy with online school, and even the ability to continue with her passion of ballroom dancing. Ilona was also able to discover and learn economics through YouTube videos, and the flexibility of online school meant that she had a bit more free time to explore this new interest. “Doing online school, I learned a lot about responsibility, because no one is making you study or attend classes when they’re online. It made me focus more, and take more responsibility for my education and success.”

Ilona takes a selfie with her family

Her pursuit of personal and educational growth during online school continued until February of 2022, when the war began in Ukraine. As residents of Kyiv, Ilona and her family saw it unfold in real time. “The first month felt like a fever dream… it was a lot of moving, a lot of not knowing how tomorrow is going to look, or even the next hour. We were lucky enough to leave Kyiv on the first day, so we didn’t see much of the worst things there, but we did see some as we left. We went to my grandparents’ place, then to the west of Ukraine.” Within a week, herself, her mother, and her younger brother were crossing the border to Poland. Unfortunately, her father was required to stay in Ukraine. 

“I had to step up and help us adjust, because my mom was raising both me and my brother alone. It instantly made me grow up; I learned Polish and helped my mom figure out how to do things like taxes, or open a bank account,” With the kindness of the Polish people and government, she and her brother were able to attend school in Poland to finish out the school year, and she even joined a dance club. Despite the circumstances and limited time left in the school year, Ilona took this as an opportunity to specifically choose an economics-focused high school in Poland, to get more academic exposure to her field of interest.

Growing With Resilience

“By the end of spring, reality started to hit and I realized that the conflict wasn’t going away, this was going to be our life for some time.” She was able to visit Kyiv in July of that year with a new lens. “It was just so different, it felt more gloomy and dull, really empty. Around Kyiv, places were shuttered and there were holes everywhere. It was a shock. I realized that I don’t really see myself living there anymore, or at least not for some time, because it’s not the home that I knew before.”

Ilona dances with her long time partner

With the help and support of friends, family, and Mr. Mennie of the SMUS Admissions team, Ilona made the decision to study abroad. It was something she had been interested in doing beforehand, but the timing now seemed ideal. “I had to stop and think about my goals and future, and how I was going to achieve them. I was getting really comfortable at home, and I want to be challenged. I chose SMUS because I felt really supported by the staff and community, and could make the most of the resources and opportunities like AP classes.”

Having been an accomplished ballroom dancer, it also came with an additional personal sacrifice of retiring from an activity she loved so much, one that had been a constant in her life during even the most stressful of times. “It was heartbreaking… my coaches are like my second parents, and I’ve been dancing with my partner for seven years. We all cried. It’s been such a big part of my life, but I had to do it if I wanted to go to school abroad.”

Blossoming at SMUS

Ilona received a Vivat Merit scholarship, and was embraced by the SMUS community with open arms as she settled into life as a boarding student in Grade 11. “The first thing I wanted to do was take the AP Macroeconomics class, to see if it really is my ‘thing’. I took the class with Mr. Heffernan, and it was so much fun; I realized that although it’s not second nature to me, the concepts were easy to understand and perceive. It’s really interesting to me how it combines sociology and math, learning how money flows in the economy and how these decisions influence people.”

Ilone serves customers donuts and coffee at a fundraiser event

Now in her second year at SMUS, she is also the Co-Head of Service Council and a beacon of positivity on campus. “Economics can be applied to lots of different aspects in my life, even Service Council – I use economic principles to figure out how to attract more people and organize events.” She helped lead Service Council in raising nearly twice as much money as last year, and her insightful optimism contributed to other clubs and campus events like the school musical.

“Compared to September of last year, I’ve become more confident in myself, and more open, because I was able to meet so many different people with different backgrounds. It changed my worldview a lot, being at SMUS really broadens your horizons and your mindset of how the world can be different from what you thought.”

“Being away from home and living in boarding, I’ve made a lot of great friendships. It really made me think of what I wanted in the future, my values and beliefs, and trying to form who I am as an individual and an adult. I started to ask more questions, and to not be afraid of asking for help or guidance.”

Harvard on the Horizon

“Harvard is the best school in the world for economics, and I started to think about maybe applying there for University a couple years ago. My dad always used to say that it’s better to try and to not get in, than to not try and always wonder ‘what if?’ So I decided to go for it and actually apply.” Through University Counselling at SMUS, Ilona crafted her Harvard application meticulously, leaning on her family and peers for feedback, and even some friends she made from last year’s SMUS graduates currently in university elsewhere.

“Back home, applications and acceptances are only based on your grades, and applying for and coming to SMUS was the first time I saw that schools look at you holistically, your character as a person matters too. It really helped me prepare for this process with Harvard.”

Once the application was submitted, anticipation mounted. “The closer it got to decision day, and the more research I did, the more I fell in love with the campus and the school.” The decision email came while she was in Poland over Winter Break. With her mom by her side, and many of her SMUS friends watching live through FaceTime, Ilona opened the decision letter with excitement–and happy tears–as she read her acceptance.

Beautiful architecture in one of the Harvard University libraries

Several weeks and additional documents later, she received her scholarship and financial aid offer. “It finally hit me for the first time: I could actually go to Harvard, I have everything I need to actually accept my offer.” Ilona was able to accept her admission to Harvard while home with her parents, including her dad, during Spring Break in March. Shortly after, she hopped on a plane to finally see Harvard in person during Visitas, their new student welcome weekend in April.

“It was a lot to take in, so many professors and people to meet, and the architecture was beautiful, you could feel the history. It was overwhelming.” Seeing where she was going to spend the next four years of her life also gave Ilona the opportunity to revisit passions she had to sacrifice previously. “There was also an extracurricular fair going on, so you could learn more about clubs and programs on campus, including their dance clubs and how I can pursue it while I’m in university there. I’m really excited about that.”

Embracing the Future

Ilona stands outside a building at Harvard University

When it comes to the future, Ilona’s is bright. “I’m going to major in economics at Harvard, and I’m thinking of a minor in data analytics and sociology. I don’t know for sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I think something in policy building in Ukraine and developing nations… that’s what my heart is telling me to do. Long term, my goal would be to work with the United Nations or the European Union to develop policy.”

“I want to be a kind person. I had to learn to adapt, to stop myself and think, ‘how can I do what I need to do in order to achieve the best outcome in this scenario?’ I learned more kindness, I started to believe in more positive things, that good things will happen to you. I saw how volunteers in Poland are helping people, how much support is shown towards people in need, and that makes me want to give back to the community and help people if I can. Hard work can pay off, and sometimes dreams do come true.”

Read an earlier story about Ilona after her first 3 weeks at SMUS: Community Connections: From Kyiv to Canada