Home Is Where the Mind Is: Supporting Students from Countries in Crisis

Posted on 8/20/22 6:00 AM

By Mary Ann Slater

a four panel portrait collage of students including a dark-haired woman standing in the shade of trees with her arms crossed, a woman with long, blonde hair in a peach-colored shirt and a jean skirt, looking off to her right, a man with short, dark hair and glasses, wearing a black and white checkered shirt and tan pants, sitting on a chair with a built-in desk, and a woman with long, dark hair, wearing a white blouse with large, red flowers and looking into the camera

Panel Explores War’s Effects

IUP’s Office of International Education knows how important it is for students to understand the social, political, and economic changes happening around the world. The office is partnering with the Department of Political Science on a panel discussion, “21st Century Conflict, Global Consequences,” on how the actions of global powers affect people’s everyday lives. Topics will include the rise of new weaponry, cyberwarfare, and the impact of economic sanctions. Led by faculty members Rachel Sternfeld and Terilyn Huntington, the discussion will be part of IUP’s Six O’Clock Series on October 3.

Although IUP doctoral student Oksana Moroz lives almost 5,000 miles from her father, she makes it her mission to stay in daily contact with him.

Her father lives in Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, which was attacked by Russia in late February. To keep tabs on his well-being, Moroz uses a cell-phone app that sends her alerts when air-raid sirens go off in her hometown.

“As soon as I receive them, I text my dad: ‘Are you hiding? Are you in a bomb shelter?’” said Moroz, who is studying composition and applied linguistics in the English Department. Her father sometimes ignored the sirens, she said, but he has been more vigilant since a recent bombing targeted Ivano-Frankivsk.

Moroz, a graduate of IUP’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages master’s program, said she was in shock when the war started. She never imagined Russia would attack Ukraine.

“The first two weeks, honestly, I don’t remember if I showered,” she said. “I worked at the Writing Center [at IUP], and they were nice enough to tell me, ‘You can take a break. You can come back when you’re ready.’”

As the war entered its sixth month, Moroz still struggled with direction and purpose.

“I wish I could move on with my life. I have to do things I did previously, the routine things.”

But returning to the routine has been difficult, she said. “In my mind, I’m all there [in Ukraine], and all I can think about is what is going on there.”

Michele Petrucci D’05, IUP’s associate vice president for International Education and Global Engagement, has worked with international students for 25 years. She and other members of the International Education office understand how students like Moroz can be overwhelmed when crises erupt at home.

A dark-haired woman with glasses works at a laptop computer with six large stickers on the back, including a blue and yellow "Stand with Ukraine" sticker.

Oksana Moroz, of Ukraine, is a student in IUP’s Composition and Applied Linguistics doctoral program.

A collage picture frame in light brown, with 10 photos of various people, hangs near the top of a white wall.

A collage of photos of Moroz’s family and friends is displayed in her Indiana home.

“A lot of students are very concerned about their families back home, but they are trying to make academic progress,” Petrucci said. “I think it is hard for them to focus. It’s the trauma they are going through—and the uncertainty. No one knows when it is going to end.”

Emma Archer M’20, director of International Student and Scholar Services, tries to help students in these situations. She provides information on maintaining immigration status, pursuing special work permits, and connecting with resources on and off campus. When students face particularly complex situations, her office may recommend consultation with an immigration lawyer.

Moroz found support within her department when her program director, Gloria Park, and other faculty members staged a rally at IUP for Ukraine. At the rally, Moroz talked about her personal anguish and how the war affects not just her country but also the security of the global community.

A woman sits on a small, tan couch, reading a children’s book with a yellow cover and words in Ukrainian to a little girl on her right and a toddler boy on her left. A hallway and stairs are visible on the right, and a medal with a blue and yellow ribbon and a blue and yellow wreath hang on the wall above the couch.

Oksana Moroz reads a book on the history of Ukraine’s independence to her children, Emma and Mark.

She has also received support in the wider community, including at area school districts where she spoke. After her visit to the Homer-Center district in the spring, students began selling T-shirts in Ukraine’s colors of blue and yellow and raised $1,500 for medical supplies.

Before the war began, Moroz had completed research for her dissertation, which concerns the digital identities of multilingual speakers. Now she has little motivation to write it.

“I would rather write about the experiences of war than my actual dissertation,” said Moroz, who lives in Indiana with her mother, husband, and two children. “My dissertation topic has nothing to do with what I am going through.”

The war with Ukraine has also been hard on Alexandra “Alex” Krasova, who came to IUP from Omsk, Russia. She first came to IUP on a Fulbright scholarship and taught Russian in the Critical Languages program. She is now pursuing her doctorate in composition and applied linguistics.

Portrait of a woman with long, blonde hair in a peach-colored shirt and a jean skirt, looking off to her right, with her left hand on her hip, surrounded by trees in a park-like setting, with a grassy area and a sidewalk visible behind her

Alexandra “Alex” Krasova

Like Moroz, she was caught off guard when the war broke out.

“I was in shock for the first several weeks, maybe months,” said Krasova, who feels bad that Russia began hostilities in Ukraine. “I would like people to understand . . . that being from Russia doesn’t mean being an aggressor or supporting Putin’s actions.”

Krasova is heartened that the IUP and Indiana communities have supported her. Because both are relatively small, it has been easier for people to get to know her, she said. “No one has ever said bad things to me.”

When the war began, she had difficulty concentrating on her studies. She said several faculty members in the English Department understood and helped her complete her classes.

“The instructors and my supervisor for Russian language let me skip some classes, but I refused, because I said it was better for me to do my work and stay busy,” she said.

Krasova is in Indiana alone, and the separation from her family in Omsk has been difficult. Her plans to visit over the summer fell through. There are no direct flights from the US to Russia, and the cost to travel home via connecting flights is very high.

The war has been equally hard for her family. “Nobody knows what is going to happen,” she said. “Everything is unpredictable, and it is impossible to plan on anything.”

Besides the emotional strain, Krasova has faced financial concerns. Through sanctions against Russia, the US and its allies have prevented certain Russian banks from accessing the global financial system that supports the transfer of funds across international borders. With those sanctions, Krasova’s family cannot send her financial support. She also cannot use her Russian credit card in the US.

Last school year, her teaching, research, and graduate assistantship partly covered her tuition, but she struggled to pay for housing and food. She earned more money tutoring international students at IUP’s American Language Institute.

“It is only twice a week, but everything helps,” she said.

Portrait of a man with short, dark hair and glasses, wearing a black and white checkered shirt and tan pants, sitting on a chair with a built-in desk, folding his hands on top, and looking into the camera. His left side is partly shadowed, and he is in front of a black background.

Sayed Ali Reza Ahmadi

Sayed Ali Reza Ahmadi, also a doctoral candidate in IUP’s English Department, struggled with his studies as he watched chaos unfold in his home country of Afghanistan.

Ahmadi, who goes by “Ali,” started at IUP in the fall of 2018. After completing his master’s degree in TESOL, he decided to stay to study composition and applied linguistics. By fall 2020, he grew fearful he could not return home to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

“Back home in Afghanistan, the situation was becoming worse and worse, day by day,” Ahmadi said.

His long history of working in academia runs counter to the Taliban’s anti-education stance, he said. He was a university lecturer in Afghanistan in 2012 and taught Farsi/Dari undergraduate courses at the University of Georgia. But even more to his detriment in the eyes of the Taliban, he said, is that he worked for the US as a teacher in the government’s English Language and Computer Learning Center in Afghanistan.

“I believed if I went back, my life would be under threat,” he said. “They [the Taliban] know I have a strong affiliation with the US. I was hired by the US government and for different US projects in Afghanistan.”

All of this has made not just Ahmadi, but his wife, children, parents, and younger brother, targets of the country’s new rulers, who seized control in August 2021.

“Because of me, because of my affiliation [with the US], their lives are under threat,” he said. Some family members have been hiding, staying in different locations in Mazar-i-Sharif, because of fears for their safety.

Ahmadi’s concerns for his family have caused him enormous stress. Last fall, he strongly considered withdrawing from IUP, but friends encouraged him to continue.

Ahmadi applied for, and has been granted, asylum in the US. The application process was difficult, and while he awaited the government’s decision, he was not allowed to work. Now he can look for a job and is pursuing a teaching position at IUP.

Still, worry for his family gnaws at him.

“I am not good emotionally or psychologically,” he said.

He completed the first few chapters of his dissertation over the summer and hopes to defend them this fall. Meantime, he keeps constant tabs on the safety of his family and is working with US Citizenship and Immigration Services to make possible their travel here.

Farzaneh Jahangiri, a candidate in the Doctor of Education in Administration and Leadership Studies program, came to IUP from Iran in 2016, full of hopes and dreams. After receiving her master’s degree in TESOL, she planned to complete her doctorate and return to Tehran to open a private school with her mother, a retired teacher.

A woman with long, dark hair works at an office desk, where she is holding a notebook open with one hand and writing on a piece of paper with the other. A computer keyboard, mouse, and two large monitors are on the desk in the background.

Farzaneh Jahangiri at work in IUP’s International Education office, where she assists with a Fulbright program for international teachers

Previously, retired teachers had often been granted government permission to open private schools. But, Jahangiri said, new restrictions on the education system favor friends of the government for roles as teachers and school administrators.

“My dreams keep shattering in front of my eyes,” she said, “and every day I have to change my plans for the future.”

The turmoil in Iran has caused her anxiety. Beset by trouble sleeping and concentrating on her studies, she sought counseling for stress and loneliness. She has not been home to Tehran since 2016, and she worries what could happen if she did return.

“Right now, it is not safe going home, because I have been studying in the United States,” Jahangiri said. Her fears stem from stories she has heard about other Iranians who returned from abroad and faced challenges from governmental authorities.

Jahangiri dealt with financial woes after the US banned monetary transactions with Iran. As a result, she could not access her savings from her bank in Tehran. Even if she could have, the devaluation of the country’s currency has greatly reduced their worth.

To make matters worse, the money she earned through her graduate assistantship stopped when she completed her doctoral coursework.

“With all these things together, I was facing very difficult times,” Jahangiri said.

IUP’s International Education office helped her obtain an economic hardship work permit, issued by the US government, which allows her to work off campus. She found employment with the Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment program.

“I can work off campus, and I am able to support myself,” she said. Now, she also works with IUP’s Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program for International Teachers.

Although her past dreams have faded, Jahangiri thinks the future can still be bright if she stays open to new opportunities.

“I need to be flexible,” she said. “I can be myself. I can create a home for myself. I can have a new life.”

Besides helping students with special work permits, the International Education office provides information about the US government’s Temporary Protected Status program. If a nation in crisis receives the TPS designation, eligible nationals who are in the US can apply to remain for a limited time and request work permission. As of August, 15 countries, including Ukraine and Afghanistan, had the TPS designation. Moroz expects to be at IUP until next summer and is not seeking an extension.

The kinds of problems international students face are often determined by circumstances in their home countries, Petrucci said. That’s why her staff suggests a variety of avenues of support.

Archer may refer them to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a nondenominational agency in Pittsburgh that deals with refugee and immigration concerns. Or, she may encourage them to seek support from campus groups, such as the Graduate Student Assembly or the International Friendship Program, which pairs them with community residents, who serve as resources. Petrucci said some students find solace in campus faith-based groups or through the Counseling Center.

“We are here to listen and assist as much as we can,” Petrucci said. “We want them to know all the resources across campus that can support them.”