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.
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.
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.
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
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.
social activities, one of the main goals of the club is to increase the number
of Ukrainians at Harvard.
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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
· Information on admissions, financial
aid, different Harvard schools and programs can be found through www.harvard.edu.
· USA/USA program (for applying
college students): http://ukrainianscholarships.org/.
· Pinchuk Foundation WorldWide
Studies program: http://worldwidestudies.org/en/.
· Helpful resource for applying
to U.S. colleges and grad schools: American Councils for International
Education, Ukraine: http://www.americancouncils.org.ua/.
Nataliya Bugayova was a Kyiv Post staff writer from 2008-2010.