Gracious donors help 16-year-old Ukrainian refugee pay for tuition at University of Arizona

Refugee's hope for the future
Published: Dec. 21, 2022 at 6:56 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Thousands of Ukrainian refugees fled to the United States this year in hopes of starting a new chapter in a new country.

16-year-old Kseniia Pankova knows all too well how hard that is after she was separated from her friends and family and left to figure out how to navigate her new life in Tucson.

Pankova is a freshman at the University of Arizona, and she’s been struggling with tuition costs.

“It was hard realizing that I don’t have money for next semester. It’s hard to plan for the future or have motivation to study,” said Pankova.

Dave McKeehan is a sponsorship volunteer, and he said Pankova has overcome numerous challenges since she has been a student at U of A.

“She’s got a very good scholarship, but her parents have lost their livelihood, lost their jobs, lost everything and they can’t afford to keep giving her money,” said McKeehan. “They don’t have any of that.”

Her mother became a refugee in Canada in late October and now lives in British Columbia. Her father is in Europe, and he’s working to reunite with her mother. Pankova hasn’t seen them since they fled from Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“She talked about waking up and seeing bombs dropping out of planes over Odesa, and having to flee and all of her friends scattered around the world and not knowing when, if ever she’s going to connect up with them,” said McKeehan.

Despite those circumstances, Pankova is thriving in her first year as a Wildcat.

“She’s having to go through and do all of this herself and study and I’m very proud of the fact she got straight A’s in all of her classes,” McKeehan said.

Pankova has two jobs on top of her studies, but she needs more than $11,000 per semester to keep her in school.

That’s unattainable with her minimum wage salary.

“Our church which is Northwest Community Friends Church, they’ve been able to help us in setting up an account for Kseniia, so that this money won’t in any way count as income for her in taxes, but just be a scholarship to go and pay her expenses. So she can stay here at the university where she’s doing so well,” said Julie Swarstad Johnson, her host family.

Pankova said she is grateful for all the donations.

“The fact I’ve gotten some donations and I have a chance to stay here for longer is my motivation to work hard, not to disappoint those people who help me,” said Pankova.

Now that Pankova is part of the Track and Field program at the U of A, the goal is to keep donating so she can compete as a Wildcat for years to come.

“One of the reasons she was interested in the University of Arizona was the track and field. She was in the top three ranked high jumpers in Ukraine for her age group. So not only smart but very athletic,” said McKeehan.

So far the GoFundMe has raised more than $10,000 with a goal of $23,000 for her sophomore year tuition.