'There is a healthy culture of learning.'
Every year, approximately 18,000 Indian students travel to Ukraine to pursue higher education. Indian students form a major quarter of the number of international students, a majority of them travelling to study medicine.
Two weeks ago after tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, Indian students who had just commenced their education in Ukraine stared at an uncertain future.
Sneha Kodassery, 18, a native of Thrissur district in Kerala, was among the first batch of 200 odd Indian students who were successfully evacuated from Ukraine. Sneha who arrived in Mumbai on February 26, via a special Air India flight calls herself "lucky and fortunate" to have come home safe without any hurdle.
But hours later, when she reached Gujarat (where her father Biju is employed), Sneha and her mother Liji are worried if things will ever be the same again.
"The last few days have been nothing short of hell for us," homemaker Liji Biju tells Rediff.com's Divya Nair.
"Although Sneha kept telling us not to worry, we had been praying day and night for her safety," Liji reveals over a telephone call.
After securing 90 per cent in her Class 12 CBSE examination, Sneha realised that she could not afford a career in medicine in India.
"I've always been clear that I want to be a doctor. But unfortunately, the cost to study in India is too high. Even after clearing the entrance exam, there are limited seats in the general category. So I started looking at international universities. After shortlisting a few universities I chose the Bukovinian State Medical University in Chernivtsi where I'd only have to pay 1/3rd of the fees I'd otherwise have to pay in India."
Sneha flew to Ukraine in December 2021 to pursue a 6 year master's course in medicine (MBBS including internship) at BSMU.
"The student life is very good in Ukraine. Earlier, I had spoken to a friend who had travelled there. There is very little distraction (in terms of social/party life) so there is a healthy culture of learning among students," she says.
"Students are generally divided in batches. There are decent number of Indian and Nigerian students. We have both written and oral exams for 5-6 marks every day where we are required to score at least 3 marks to pass. In my batch, there are 13 to 15 students, all Indians."
Due to the pandemic several international students like Sneha had started their first academic session three months late. "I had signed up for the September intake, but I could only join in December. And our exams are due in June 2022. We were trying to catch up as we had very little time to prepare," Sneha shares.
Although Sneha stayed on the western side of the country, when tensions between Ukraine and Russia peaked, the atmosphere changed almost drastically.
"In the last one week, suddenly there were huge crowds at supermarkets because people panicked and wanted to store essentials. There were long queues outside ATMs," Sneha adds.
"Even though we were in a safe place, the atmosphere around us was pretty tense. My parents were constantly calling to check and I kept reassuring them that there was nothing to worry. On the other hand, our college was immensely supportive. They told us that if any of us wanted to travel home, they'd arrange to get RT-PCR tests done. We were well taken care of."
In February 2022, when the news of evacuation reached Sneha, she took her parents's advice and decided to travel home.
A form was sent out to all students to seek their consent and views on evacuation.
The college had announced a study break from February 26 to March 11 and made all arrangements for the safe transportation to the airport overlooked by the government.
Sneha was among the first batch of international students who were evacuated from her college.
"It was an 8-hour drive from Chernivtsi to the airport with check posts and other formalities. The flight from Ukraine to India takes another 10 hours. I was constantly in touch with my parents updating them about my whereabouts," she tells us.
When her parents heard the news that the flight had taken off, Sneha's family immediately left for Mumbai where they were united on February 26, 2022.
"After I reached home, I came to know that several of my batchmates who left after me were stuck midway. They had taken shelter somewhere near the border and seemed really worried. They were telling us that the airport was crowded with students who were scared and just wanted to come home," Sneha adds.
While Sneha intends to travel back to Ukraine after her study break (post March 11, 2022) to continue her education, her parents are anxious and want her to look at alternative choices.
"We are not entirely sure if it would be safe to travel back there. We don't know if things will get better or worse," says her worried mother. "I don't want her to be stressed because it will affect her studies. We want her to look at a few options here as well."
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com