Nataliya Bugayova: How to get into Harvard? These Ukrainians know

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March 31, 2015, 10:40 a.m. | Op-ed — by Nataliya Bugayova

Dan Pasko (center, waving at camera) graduated from Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Post 20th Anniversary Series continues with an article originally published on Aug. 30, 2012 by Nataliya Bugayova on how to get into Harvard University. The former Kyiv Post staff writer graduated with a master's in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government. Bugayova is now the newspaper's CEO. She also wrote about Olga Belkova, another Harvard graduate, who is now a member of Ukraine's Parliament. Bugayova's advice and informational links have made this a popular story.

Getting admitted to Harvard and securing financing is improbable, yet not impossible, for Ukrainians. In May, I graduated from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with a master’s degree in public policy. And I would like more Ukrainians to have this chance.

To pre-empt skepticism, a logical aftermath of the corrupt practices of the Ukrainian education system, it did not take connections or money to get in. Stamina, conviction and brute luck were the keys.

When I submitted my application to Harvard, the odds were against. I was 21, while the average age of students in the program was 26. I had two years of journalism experience, not five or more serving in a war zone or government or running a nongovernmental organization, as many of my Harvard Kennedy School fellows did. There were no scholarships for Ukrainians admitted to Harvard graduate schools either.

It was a months-long application process – tests, essays, transcripts, and recommendations – almost another job, which I had to combine with reporting work at the Kyiv Post and studying full-time at Kyiv National Shevchenko University.

However, I knew that I needed Harvard, why I needed it and how I could contribute. The university supported my conviction and in April 2010, I was admitted.

Harvard University graduates Nataliya Bugayova, the author of this article, and Misha Lemesh are back in Ukraine seeking employment opportunities.

That, however, was just the beginning of the challenges.

By July 31, I had to secure $130,000 (tuition and living expenses for two years). It seemed like an insurmountable task. “On the other hand, it is just the price of many of the luxury cars in Kyiv,” I thought.

Luckily, in 2010 the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation launched the Worldwide Studies Program to sponsor Ukrainians who get admitted to the world’s top universities. I won a grant, which covered part of my tuition.

A week before the deadline, after near 300 requests to whomever I could think of asking, I received a matching grant from a private foundation to cover the rest. Later, a third scholarship came from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Applying to Harvard and securing financing in Ukraine are painful processes. The chances of success seem remote. However, this game is worth the pain. Two years at Harvard have been the most rewarding in my life. I am left with knowledge and became like family with some of the most intellectually powerful and inspiring people in the world.

Fellow Ukrainians

A total of about 70 Ukrainians graduated from Harvard University and only about a half-dozen from Harvard College (bachelor’s level). Many of those admitted succeeded with the help of the USA/USA program, founded by Bohdan Oryshkevich, which supports talented Ukrainians through application process at the college level.

Misha Lemesh, a 22-year-old from Zaporizhia, is one of them. A decade ago, with no knowledge of English and coming from a family with an income of less than $1,000 a month, Misha decided to become a Harvard student.

By the age of 15, after countless attempts at improving his mediocre test scores, he was selected as the Future Leaders Exchange Program scholar to study in the United States for year. He spent the time wisely. By the end of the FLEX program, Misha was admitted to the private Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, one of the most respected high schools in the world, with all expenses of $50,000 per year covered by the school.

In 2008, after graduating at the top of his class at Deerfield and excelling in rowing, Misha received a full scholarship of $50,000 a year to spend the next four years at Harvard College. “The crucial thing,” Mikhaylo says, “was to not constrain myself within Zaporizhia or Ukraine but to rather have the courage to think globally.”

He graduated this May and is back in Ukraine seeking employment opportunities. Hopefully, Ukraine will appreciate his talents as much as Deerfield and Harvard did.

Olga Belkova, Harvard Kennedy School graduate

Dan Pasko, a Harvard Business School graduate and the President of Harvard Club of Ukraine, started his media business in Odessa at the age of 22. Soon he realized his venture outgrew his experience, and with an aspiration of upgrading his knowledge, he decided to go for the top and was admitted to HBS in 2008.

For Pasko, who today is a principal at Horizon Capital Private Equity Fund and a person who unites Harvard Ukrainian community, Harvard was a true transformational experience shaping his worldview, values and even the understanding of purpose of life.

Olga Belkova, my fellow Kennedy School graduate, finished the master’s in public administration mid-career program, designed for people with an average 10 years of experience. Today, she applies her skills to develop innovative human capital and foster entrepreneurship in Ukraine, as a managing partner at EastLabs, an accelerator for startups.

Belkova says: “To get admitted to HKS you have to love people more than numbers, have a really big dream and strive to get a Nobel Peace Prize for achieving your dream for millions of people!”

Harvard Club of Ukraine is ready to support

Harvard left me not only with a global family, but one within Ukraine in the face of the Harvard Club of Ukraine (HCU).

The club, founded in 2009, includes 69 members – both Ukrainians and expats. The club unites those who completed full programs and shorter executive degree programs, with a minimum requirement of one semester.

Aside from social activities, one of the main goals of the club is to increase the number of Ukrainians at Harvard.

There are many reasons there are few Ukrainians at Harvard. The application process is strenuous and drastically different from a Ukrainian one. Few believe in financing opportunities, which, indeed, are scarce at the graduate level. There is almost no funding within Ukraine. Also, few return, as Ukraine is not always ready to absorb the talent.

Today only a few bold ones make it through. Thus, the first step toward increasing the number of admits is raising awareness.

It is not general knowledge in Ukraine, for example, that if a student gets admitted to Harvard College (bachelor’s level) and his family income is less than $65,000 a year, the student receives a four-year scholarship covering tuition and living expenses.

It is also not widely known that admission to a Harvard Business School guarantees a loan of up to $150,000 to finance the two-year program. The club is planning a first Harvard University Fair in Ukraine to bring such information to the wider audience.

The second step is providing guidance to those pursuing admission.

The club is ready to support with guidance for those applying to Harvard Kennedy, Business and Law School.

For those who have excelled professionally and academically and have already made steps to apply, please send a CV and a 250-word statement of purpose to There may be opportunities for Harvard alumni to provide guidance. We are looking for those already in the process, with conviction and readiness to accept the risk of being rejected.

Helpful Links:

· Information on admissions, financial aid, different Harvard schools and programs can be found through

· USA/USA program (for applying college students):

· Pinchuk Foundation WorldWide Studies program:

· Helpful resource for applying to U.S. colleges and grad schools: American Councils for International Education, Ukraine:

Nataliya Bugayova was a Kyiv Post staff writer from 2008-2010.

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