By Barbara Kay
TW: mentions of war, violence, genocide, death
During winter break, an international student received an academic dismissal, leaving her in her home country of Ukraine, only weeks before Russia’s invasion.
“On February 24, 2022… at 7:30 I woke up after my friend called me and said, ‘Putin started a war! We need to run away,’” wrote 22-year-old Mia Vegnur, a former arts management major, in a series of Google documents she referred to as her “war journal.”
During winter break, Vegnur was academically dismissed after being put on academic probation. Purchase defines academic dismissal as, “A student who is dismissed may not take any coursework at Purchase College for one year following dismissal.”
Jennifer Shingelo, Vegnur’s former academic probation adviser, described the appeal process as three to four days of various voting faculty members from each area (e.g. Natural Science, Humanities, School of Arts) and “non-voting” representatives (e.g. Counseling Center, Office of Disability) reading, and taking notes on student appeals.
“We convene for about 8 hours (divided into two days) in January for fall, and June for spring appeals,” stated Shingelo, who does not cast a vote, and who was unable to discuss the specifics of Vegnur’s case. “We discuss them, look at students’ academic transcripts, and then the faculty vote on each student’s appeal in terms of whether to reinstate or dismiss.”
In her appeal, Vegnur described the language and cultural barriers, her declining mental health, the difficult classes she was left with after coming a week into the semester, and the pandemic– which began a month after she came to Purchase in 2020.
“Although I know my actions have not shown it, I am unbelievably grateful for this opportunity at SUNY Purchase, and given the opportunity to stay, I would make sure to prove that through my academics and actions,” she wrote. “I can only hope that you will view me as worthy of another chance, one I would never take for granted.”
Her appeal, which was denied, preceded a second email where she said she was given a limited amount of time to collect her belongings from her dorm room.
With no means of transportation to re-enter the U.S., her best friends, freshman Elizabeth Estony, and junior Ethan Bautista packed her things and shipped them from the mailroom on Feb. 10. There, a mailroom employee, who happened to be Ukrainian, “was the only person to help [them]” safely ship Vegnur’s belongings, said Estony. Two weeks later, Vegnur’s home, Kyiv, was bombed. She didn’t receive her belongings until April 21.
Shingelo stated that the school “didn’t know” that Russia would invade Ukraine, even though there were reports of tension as early as November 2021.
According to an article in The Washington Post, on Dec. 3, 2021, a U.S. administration official saw a Russian “plan for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022.”
When made aware of this Shingelo said, “That’s a good point, however, we had to follow the guidelines, and what was happening then wasn’t like what’s happening now. We would’ve never sent her into a war.”
Vegnur spent 13 days underground, begging for potatoes and onions, and splitting pills in half once medication grew scarce.
“During these terrible 13 days, we were constantly under fire,” Vegnur wrote in her journal. “Tanks and artillery were bombing us. Planes and combat helicopters were also dropping bombs and shooting rockets while they were flying so low that our whole house was shaking.”
“Every day the fight around became more intense. We escaped from the occupation on the 13th day,” she continued. “Not all of us, even from our house. Grandmothers were taken out on the 14th day.”
Vegnur was able to escape to Bucha, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, and eventually made her way to the Polish border. She described how only “150 to 200 people in [her] village survived.” Others were brutalized by Russian soldiers.
An entry from Vegnur’s journal stated:
“A dozen cars from the village of Krasne (Mykhailivska Rubezhivka) broke through the occupation ring. Less than an hour after leaving, cars with women and children returned with red eyes full of fear and pale faces. And it was only half of them. The men did not return. Orcs forced our men to dig trenches in Zhytomyr. Then they took all [their] clothes off and put them in their own cars between their fucking tanks, using them like a living shield. Only a few minutes after coming back to our village they were able to tell all this. They were shaking, had petrified faces and trembling hands. Not everyone could actually speak. Then they began to have seizures and panic attacks.”
Estony and Bautista, who hadn’t heard from Vegnur in those 13 days, feared that she had been killed.
“There was a period we didn’t hear from her and we thought she died,” said Bautista. “Accepting that she could’ve died was tough. I didn’t deal with it well.”
Estony reached out to Shingelo, Marjorie Ramirez, head of advising for international students, and Anne Kern, dean of international students, to find out what could be done for Vegnur.
“This process is taken very seriously and done with the utmost care and concern for students’ well-being,” Shingelo stated. “Sometimes students are not in a position to be able to handle the rigors of academic life on top of whatever is going on for them personally. The most ethical thing to do is to have them take a break to sort things out, get counseling, work and earn some money, or perhaps seek another path. We don’t do this to punish students, let alone [send them to] their deaths.”
Kern suggested Estony write and send an email to Milagros Peña, president of Purchase; Dennis Craig, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management; and Barry Pearson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, to voice her distress.
“I thought Liza had great and interesting points,” said Kern. “Putting them in writing gives campus leaders something to respond to.”
Kern and Ramirez had no comment on Vegnur’s dismissal, a process which they had no part in, but “share [Estony’s] concern for [Vegnur’s] situation,” says Kern.
Since informing the school of their friend's survival and location, Estony remains hopeful that Vegnur may get a chance to return to campus prior to the one-year mark of her dismissal. Vegnur says that although she and her family are now facing financial issues and seeking refuge elsewhere in Europe, if she could, she would "definitely" want to return to Purchase.
"I just hope [Purchase] will understand [other countries are] supporting Ukrainian refugees, and giving them opportunities to still be human,” Vengur said. “We are all mentally drained, we lost our homes and now have to go place to place… I wouldn’t wish this [on] my worst enemy.”