Danylo Solomentsev, who graduates from USF on Dec. 9, returned to Ukraine when the pandemic started but came back to Tampa in January, weeks before the Russia-Ukraine war began.
Danylo Solomentsev, who graduates from USF on Dec. 9, returned to Ukraine when the pandemic started but came back to Tampa in January, weeks before the Russia-Ukraine war began. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Danylo Solomentsev knows that graduating from the University of South Florida is a milestone in his life. But as he thought about his time in college, many of the 22-year-old’s thoughts returned to his home in Ukraine.

His college journey, he said, was nothing compared to what some of his classmates back home were facing.

“What do I have to complain about?” Solomentsev said. “My classmates are fighting a war.”

Still, a college graduation is undoubtedly a big deal. His mother, Natalia Solomentseva, now a refugee in Slovakia, traveled to Florida to watch as he and 4,500 other USF students graduated this weekend.

Solomentsev arrived in Tampa from Ukraine as a marketing major in 2017. He’d always imagined studying abroad and said he grew up watching Disney movies and consuming American pop culture. He enjoyed campus life and the diversity on campus. He said he’d never previously met people from Bangladesh, India or Kazakhstan, and Russians only once before.

“It was one of the reasons to come here, to exchange and grow with people.”

In the early days of the pandemic, though, faced with online classes and limited social interactions, Solomentsev opted to return to Kyiv and enroll in a university online. It was nice being home and near family again, he said; he and his mother adopted a dog from a construction site and named him Simon.

But Solomentsev wanted to complete his marketing degree at USF. He returned in January 2022.

But back home, tensions were rising as reports of an impending invasion from Russia grew. From the U.S., he heard news of Russian troops amassed at the Ukrainian border. He called his mother with advice: Put gas in the car. Stock up on medical supplies and food. Put documents in a backpack.

Five weeks after Solomentsev returned to Tampa, Russian invaders entered Ukraine in a “special military operation.”

His mother, Solomentseva, said she felt like she was in “an apocalyptic movie,” with sounds of bombs and sirens and with cuts to electricity.

Danylo Solomentsev, with his mother Natalia Solomentseva, who is visiting to see her son graduate. She will return to Slovakia, where she has sought refuge after the Russia-Ukraine war began. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

She, her dog, a close friend and the friend’s young daughter left by car to stay with the mother of an English teacher who lived in a village at the Slovakia border. Solomentsev’s father stayed behind; men aged 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave. Other family members also remain in Ukraine.

In Tampa, Solomentsev battled with fear, anger and guilt. His classmates were fighting the war, he said, and if he were there, he might be too. He wished he could do more for his family, friends and country.

“You feel so many emotions, you don’t know which one to pick,” he said. “I was trying to stay strong and just keep everything on track.”

On campus, he tried to help his country in the little ways he could. He sold cupcakes and wristbands to raise money for bandages and first-aid supplies. Some of his Russian friends at USF helped; together, he said, they raised more than $7,000.

His mother is returning to Slovakia following the graduation ceremony. Solomentsev plans to stay and continue in a master’s program at USF. If he returns to Ukraine now, he may not be able to leave, he said, but hopes to return one day and use his education at home.

“If everybody would leave because of war, because of economic hardship … what would happen to my country?” he said. “What would happen to my people? What would happen to my culture?”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.