Ukrainian Freshman Joins Schar School Community, Looks Forward to ‘Whole New Life’

A young woman in front of the Lincoln Memorial drapes a Ukrainian flag in the wind behind her.
Ukrainian student Gabriella Grabovska: ‘Sometimes, when my [Mason] friends see me, they will say, Slava Ukraini [Glory to Ukraine], and I’m so touched in this moment.’ Photos by Ron Aira/Creative Services

Gabriella Grabovska always dreamed of attending college in the United States. Working hard on her studies, the 17-year-old from Ukraine pored through lists of American colleges and set her sights on George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“It seemed like it was the right fit,” she said. “The level of education, the community. It’s a perfect match for me.”

Grabovska felt the strong support of Mason Nation even before she set foot on campus.

Last February, she and her family left their home in Kyiv to travel to the town of Borodyanka. They had planned to return to Kyiv in a couple of days. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began and Borodyanka was bombed repeatedly. The barrage destroyed roads and bridges, eliminating any way out. Grabovska and her family were trapped without electricity or heat.

“It was one of the most difficult periods of my life because we had very limited amounts of food and water,” she said. “We were bombed every hour. We had no way to even call our relatives to let them know we were alive.”

She and her family managed to escape to Ternopil, where they remained for more than two months. They finally returned to Kyiv and Grabovska wrote about her terrifying experience in an Instagram post.

“So many people from George Mason supported me,” she said of the post. “They said that my story was eye-opening. They finally realized what the war was really like and I was so grateful to all of them because they started donating money to support Ukraine.”

A government and international politics major and member of the Democracy Lab learning community, she’s immersed herself in her classes, attended extracurricular and social events, and expanded her network of friends.

“I love the people here,” she said. “I’m really interested in talking to lots of people. I’m 100 percent extroverted so it was easy for me.”

One of her favorite courses is GOV 103, taught by Jennifer Victor, an associate professor who also serves as the director of the Democracy Lab. Grabovska recalls being inspired by one of Victor’s early lectures.

“For the first time in my entire life, I had this thought, I want to be her one day,” she said. “She is a professional in her area of interest. She is so energetic. She is always ready to answer our questions.”

One of Grabovska’s preferred spots on campus is the Johnson Center, especially in the evenings when the building buzzes with students.

“It’s kind of motivating to study there because everyone is typing and you’re like, I’ll do that too. I love it,” she said.

While Grabovska is “just looking forward to my whole new life,” the ongoing war in Ukraine and concerns about her family’s safety are never far from her thoughts. She talks to her parents daily.

“I read the news about Ukraine and the war every day,” she said. “I still get notifications about air alerts. So, when I see an air alert in Kyiv, I text my dad, Are you in a bomb shelter?”  

Grabovska feels grateful that she is safe in the U.S. and able to pursue her education as a member of the Schar School community, many of whom are aware of what she has been through.

“Sometimes, when my friends see me, they will say, Slava Ukraini [Glory to Ukraine], and I’m so touched in this moment,” she said. “That’s so cool. They understand what’s going on and they support us. That’s just Mason Nation and I’m happy I ended up at this university.”

A young woman in a Mason tee shirt sits in front of the statute of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.
Grabovska’s journey to Mason was fraught with danger: ‘We were bombed every hour. We had no way to even call our relatives to let them know we were alive.’