Our Campus: In-person school has meant anything but a homecoming for Anastasiia Lapatina

Raising her hand in her international relations seminar, Anastasiia Lapatina knew that, yet again, no one would agree with her. She was scared of coming off as “an obnoxious, emotional Ukrainian,” and was so nervous she was shaking. But she knew her opinion was well-considered and felt she needed to say it.

"Everyone constantly talks about all of the hideous crimes committed by the US, but then no one ever talks about Russia, and moreover, no one ever recognizes that the US has actually done a lot of good in many places, including Ukraine,” said Lapatina.

As she anticipated, no one else in the class agreed that the US is not always the villain.

“It is extremely lonely being [at UBC],” said the Ukraine native to The Ubyssey in October. “Especially because as a politics student, class discussions touch on topics that are very related to what’s happening at home, and very often I have very unpopular opinions.”

Once the seminar ended, she broke down crying.

“When it gets to Ukraine, I obviously get emotional, and it was a very difficult day. I cried a lot and smoked a lot of cigarettes,” said Lapatina, finishing her sentence a little sheepishly.

The reasons behind her tears were far more complex than one disagreement in a seminar.

“It’s so easy to dismiss Ukrainians as just being emotional because there’s a war. That’s a huge issue that Ukrainian influencers, academics and journalists are dealing with — people just don’t trust our authority,” said Lapatina. “They don’t trust us with our own history. They don’t trust us with our own analysis of what’s happening on the ground.”

The fourth-year political science student isn’t just taking classes and planning for graduation. As a national correspondent for The Kyiv Independent, Lapatina has been reporting on the Russo-Ukrainian war since Russia invaded Ukraine this past February and has worked as a journalist in Ukraine for the past two years. Lapatina is still reporting on the war while she is on campus.

Lapatina never planned to be a journalist. Her career is an accidental consequence of the pandemic, the war and a newfound love of writing.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Lapatina moved back home to Kyiv for the first time since she left for high school. Lapatina attended Brentwood College School, a boarding school on Vancouver Island, and then spent the pre-pandemic half of her first year at UBC Okanagan. While she was living in Canada, Lapatina hadn’t kept up with the “local scene” in Ukraine. “[I knew] the broad things, like that we elected a comedian.”

Lapatina needed something else to do besides online school, so she tried to catch up with what had happened while she was away and get involved locally.

“I started looking around and I found this little Ukrainian youth-run media [group],” said Lapatina.

The group was an Instagram account that, at the time, had a few thousand followers and was run by about three dozen people writing news, according to Lapatina. She decided to join.

“I wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’m gonna be a journalist.’ I just knew that I had the skill, and I could try applying it somewhere temporarily while I figured out how to get like ‘a serious job,’” Lapatina said.

While writing for the Instagram account, Lapatina decided to apply for an internship at the Kyiv Post, the oldest English-language newspaper in Ukraine. She got the internship in September 2020 and worked for the paper until its brief closure last year. Lapatina now works for The Kyiv Independent an outlet started by some of the journalists who were fired from the Kyiv Post for defending editorial independence, according to its website.

For the last two years, Lapatina has been working full-time as a journalist while studying, so she hasn’t felt like a ‘normal’ student. This year, when the UBCO transfer student came to the Vancouver campus for the first time, she meant to take a break from writing, especially as she started to feel burnt out this August.

But her sabbatical lasted less than two weeks. As her boyfriend had predicted over the phone, Lapatina began to feel restless after a week and a half of enjoying student life in Vancouver and felt the need to write again. Now she’s back to balancing school, writing and podcasting.

Lapatina once envisioned that she would stay in Canada after her undergraduate degree to get her master’s and PhD, but now she just wants to get back home. She’s not quite sure what her future will look like, but she knows she wants to be back in Ukraine.

“It’s a very cool experience to be a student, but it also feels very lonely,” said Lapatina. “And I also know that this is not where I belong, and this is not where I should be. [Being in Vancouver] is just a temporary measure for me to get my degree.”

Lapatina was granted special permission to take three of her finals early so she could have a full month and a half at home during the winter break.

As Lapatina talks about going home, the weight of her isolation from living abroad is clear.

“You sit in your room, and something happens like an air strike or something [else] tragic and you’re upset. Or you’re scared that your boyfriend might die because he’s a soldier and he’s fighting. Or you’re scared that your country can get nuked, and your mom bought a gas mask and you have to deal with that and all of these emotions and you can’t really share it with anybody,” Lapatina said.

“In the moment, I feel like that’s so unfair. I just want to curl up and cry and be sad and [for] people to take care of me. I don’t want to go out of my way to find support,” said Lapatina. “I don’t expect Canadians to [understand]. It’s impossible to feel what we’re going through.”