International students feel welcome in community

Ukrainian George Safonov, front right, a UMFK sophomore, teaches hockey lessons at the Fort Kent ice rink in January, 2017. Contributed photo)

Ukrainian George Safonov, front right, a UMFK sophomore, teaches hockey lessons at the Fort Kent ice rink in January, 2017. Contributed photo)

FORT KENT, Maine — University of Maine at Fort Kent sophomore George Safonov is known on campus for his stylish wardrobe. An international student from Kyiv, Ukraine, there is one accessory Safonov almost always wears — a UMFK pin.

“I wear it to represent UMFK, because I am part of it,” Safonov said.

He and fellow Ukrainian student, Oksana Hyrniuk of Chernivtsi, both said they feel accepted in the St. John Valley, and on their college campus.

“Our school is a team. They all help us out. We just work all as a team,” Hyrniuk said.

A business management major, Safonov said he has benefited from the guidance of UMFK Professor Leo Trudel, who serves as his adviser.

“I didn’t have a goal. He helped me open that up. He encouraged me and helped my confidence,” Safonov said. “He definitely changed a lot of my priorities and my goals — even my strength of character.”  

Since coming to UMFK, Safonov has contributed to the community. He coaches hockey at the Fort Kent ice rink, for which he secured funding from the university. A left defender back in Ukraine, Safonov said he is “not the best coach” but wanted to allow others the opportunity to learn a new sport and keep active during the winter months.

“Some of the soccer players never skated before and are now able to pass the puck — the girls too,” he said.

Safonov has also contributed to the local arts scene, acting in several plays at UMFK. He is a beatboxer with tens of thousands of social media followers on Pandora and shared his beatboxing skills at the 2017 UMFK Talent Show.

“Since I got here I wanted to be a part of the community, to add something significant,”  he said.

Hyrniuk is studying biomedical science at UMFK and plans to attend medical school and become an anesthesiologist.

“I just study hard,” she said.

UMFK President John Short said international students are not only welcome at the university, but a valuable human asset to the campus community.

“With students from 27 different countries in our current student body, UMFK is able to benefit from diversity in many ways … our students benefit from being exposed to and learning from diverse viewpoints that promote global understanding,” he said. “In addition, learning with international students will help them understand different cultural traditions that can affect health care, educational behaviors, family life, and ways of conducting business that will be very helpful to the careers of all students.

“Finally, campus and community interactions help break down stereotypes and misunderstandings.  Personal interactions with diverse people can result in dramatically different ways of thinking about our global environment,” he said.

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January banning citizens from the countries of Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia from entering the United States, it did not immediately impact UFMK, as no students from the targeted countries are currently enrolled at the university.

Still, Hyrniuk admitted to feeling uneasy when she learned about the ban, and unsure about whether to travel back home to Ukraine.

“I was kind of scared. I have all the legal documents and rights to be here but I don’t know if I’m safe to come back again,” she said.

Although President Trump’s ban does not currently include citizens of Ukraine, Hyrniuk expressed concern about future executive orders the president may sign.

“I don’t know what might happen to me tomorrow,”  she said.

Safonov said that he feels at home in the St. John Valley.

“I’m not treated any differently than other people,” he said. However, he is concerned that Donald Trump being elected president of the United States will somehow legitimize violent acts authorized by Russian President Vladimir Putin toward his countrymen in Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine have for years been involved in a  bloody conflict during which thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, and which  resulted in Russia annexing the region of Ukraine known as Crimea. He too has some concerns about being allowed back into the United States if he visits his family in Ukraine.

“We might have a hard time coming back. What concerns me more is the interpersonal relationship Trump has with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, that it gives him more influence with the world,” he said.

Safonov expressed the complexity of being a foreigner in this country during this current political climate.

“I feel like I belong in this community, maybe not the United States, but this community for sure,” he said.   

President Short said that as far as UMFK is concerned, students from all over the world will continue to be welcomed.

“I hope that our international student community will continue to grow and that our entire campus community will be even further enriched by their presence and engagement.  In this process, we are committed to nurturing a caring inclusive community in our area,” he said.

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