As the war in Ukraine rages on, the University of Waterloo has found a way to welcome a group of students who have had their studies disrupted.

The university will see 34 Ukrainian students take part in an academic internship led by the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute, also known as Waterloo.AI. The first 17 students have arrived and the others are expected in the next couple of weeks.

“We heard a lot of missiles land about 10 kilometers from our home and we realized we needed to leave fast because the war had begun,” Severyn Balaniuk, one of the 17 Ukrainian students already on campus, told CTV News.

Balaniuk is a fourth-year computer engineering student who had been attending National Ukrainian Technical University in Kyiv. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Balaniuk, his mother and younger brother fled Kyiv and made their way to Smoky Lake, Alberta. It’s there he received his offer to attend the University of Waterloo’s internship program.

“For me, personally, I see this like a [once-in-a] lifetime chance,” Balaniuk said.

For Harold Godwin, the managing director of Waterloo.AI, who has been coordinating the Waterloo Academic Internship, the response from the campus community has been overwhelming. Within minutes of sending the initial email requesting support for the Ukrainian students, he started receiving offers to host and mentor students.

“Instantly the emails started to chime as the responses came back,” said Godwin.

Godwin recognizes the amount of courage it took from the students to take that leap of faith and accept the internship.

“Think of what they had to do,” said Godwin. “They had to make a choice to step forward, get on that plane, come to a foreign country. In many cases they leave behind their family, everything they’ve known.”

Some of the students who have arrived say they already feel a sense of home on campus.

“We have managed to create our own Ukrainian family from students,” said Anastasiia Avksientieva.

Avksentieva is a third-year applied math and system analysis student from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Once the internship wraps up in August, she herself along with the rest of the students taking part, she will have to consider the next steps of their journey. The students do have work visas so their options range from finding jobs, to continuing their academic career, or returning home, depending on the status of the war.

“That’s something we feel that once they’re here, we can work with them one-on-one to figure out an action plan for what’s next,” said Godwin.

For Balaniuk, the options are endless and he’s excited for the future and what this opportunity provides.

“It gives us hope, and we see this hope around every corner.”

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