Global Haven Students Find a World of Opportunity at Pomona

Prince Bashangezi and Stanislav Vakulenko in outside settings on campus

Stanislav Vakulenko ’27 has been sleeping better since he arrived at 鶹Ů from Ukraine last August. When the war started in February of 2022, he saw a rocket fly by his family’s apartment building in Kiev. “It was like being in a World War II movie. I could see black smoke, residential buildings burning down,” he says. “What I heard will change me forever.”

Vakulenko is one of six students who enrolled at Pomona this academic year through the (GSHI) because their access to education is challenged by conflict in their home country. Pomona is one of eight colleges and universities in the U.S committed to accepting and supporting students through the program. The others are Bowdoin, Caltech, Dartmouth, New York University, Smith, Trinity and Williams. The founding members hope more schools will follow suit.

When the initiative was announced in 2022, Pomona President Gabrielle Starr wrote, “This is about opening doors and helping people through them. The global disruptions of recent years have tested American higher education’s long commitment to reaching out to the world. We seek to reaffirm our global ties, starting with the urgent needs of students facing the devastation of war.”

From Africa to Pomona

Prince Bashangezi ’27 came to Pomona from Africa, where he had spent his later teen years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe near the border with Mozambique. Schools in the camp had scant resources, and Bashangezi says students were “basically doomed to fail” the national exams needed to move ahead. He had to get creative to fill in the learning gaps. Every day he removed the battery from the cell phone he had brought from his home country, Congo. He charged it using a small solar source the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had made available to power lighting in the camp. The phone allowed him to access the internet and its extensive educational resources, and he passed the national exams.

The flight from Zimbabwe to South Africa to Amsterdam to Los Angeles took about 24 hours. By the time Bashangezi arrived it was dark on the Pomona campus. He was tired, and he got lost. “But I was also excited,” he says, “just to see the place and touch the ground.”

Finding a campus that seemed vast

To Vakulenko, the Pomona campus seemed vast. He’d expected one or two buildings. Instead, there were 70—and those are just the ones with addresses, some of which he found confusing. During his first week he faithfully showed up to a class and even went to the professor’s office hours. “It’s interesting,” the professor told him—“you’re not in my class.” Turns out he had misunderstood the building names. “I’d attended the first two or three classes of a section that I’m not even in,” he explains, now finding it humorous. He got reoriented and into the correct class, with an invitation from the kindly professor in the class he’d “left” to “please come next year!”

Over the semester and a half he’s been at Pomona, Vakulenko has found a number of favorite nooks and crannies around campus for study and fun. His favorite hangout is a small study area in Pearsons Hall. But Vakulenko has discovered that the border between coursework and extracurriculars at Pomona “almost doesn’t exist.” He goes to lectures and films and runs into professors outside of class. The contrast with his earlier experience is striking. “In Europe,” he says, “a professor is like God in human form,” and “if you want to talk to them, it’s got to be super formal.” Pomona professors are, to his amazement, far more accessible.

Bashangezi, for his part, has discovered that the , a collaborative center of The Claremont Colleges, is an inviting place to study for his classes that this semester include computer science, macroeconomics, comparative politics of Africa and African American literature. His favorite class, however, is swimming, something he’d never learned to do on his home continent, though he’d taken occasional dips into the rivers of Congo. “It puts me in a mental state that makes me ready for all the work that I have for the day,” he says.

Beyond the classroom

The days are not only filled with academics. Bashangezi is also an active member of the first-year student committee and the executive board of the African Student Union. He also works for the Office of 鶹Ů creating social media content and leading campus tours.

Both Bashangezi and Vakulenko spend several lunch hours each week at the language tables in the Oldenborg Center, Bashangezi speaking French and Swahili (two of the many languages in which he is fluent) and Vakulenko practicing Russian and learning Spanish. For Vakulenko, languages—he can converse in Russian as well as his native Ukrainian—could possibly lead to a future career as a translator. His English is nearly flawless, having been honed not only in school in Ukraine but by watching Cartoon Network as a child. Along with Google Translate, “it helped me increase my vocabulary,” he notes—which amazed his teacher at school.

Neither Vakulenko nor Bashangezi has settled on a major. Vakulenko still marvels that Pomona students can take classes across The Claremont Colleges and change majors with relative ease. At home in Ukraine, students enter higher education already having settled on a major, and making a change is very difficult. Law seems interesting, and “I’m leaning toward a politics major,” Vakulenko says—he’s currently enrolled in Prof. Sean Diament’s U.S. Congress course. And he’s thinking about a second major in Russian and Eastern European Studies. Next year he also wants to take a class in astronomy.

Bashangezi is considering a computer science major and maybe politics as well. This summer he has landed a 12-week internship at Microsoft near Seattle. Down the road, he sees himself working with technology to help underserved communities. His experience in Africa is helping to shape this goal. He and others created “a youth center in the refugee camp for refugees to have access to the internet and a few computers, tablets and textbooks,” he says. “And seeing them using the resources to pass the national exams, to apply for scholarships and get out of the refugee camps to go study outside, I think that’s what I call social impact.” It is not money or food alone, Bashangezi says, but “something they can rely on for a longer time.”

Joelle Balthazar is the dean of first-year students and a mentor to the Global Haven students, who she says “are bringing their experiences and knowledge and intelligence to the classroom and the broader community and exchanging ideas with their peers.” And they are discovering all that the College has to offer. “Every time I meet with one of them,” says Balthazar, “they are telling me about something cool, something new I didn’t even know Pomona had.”

Making connections

Bashangezi says that he has “grown at a personal level a lot since I came here—having those human connections with my peers and my professors and everyone in the community.” The result is “day-to-day gratitude” and “hope that I can have resources that I need to achieve my dreams. I don’t feel stuck as I would feel when I was back in the refugee camp.”

For Vakulenko, being at Pomona means mixing studying with enjoying karaoke at the Smith Campus Center—“Cold as Ice” by Foreigner is his go-to song. And he loves making friends with fellow students from around the world, getting to know their cultures and even their local humor. It is, he believes, “a perfect place for me to be.”

In Southern California, where mild winter temperatures are a sharp contrast with the bitter cold of his homeland, Vakulenko loves the palm trees. “I must have 100 pictures of palm trees,” he remarks. “And mountains—they enrich your soul. Seeing mountains on a daily basis makes me so happy.”

Vakulenko doesn’t want to remember the war: “I wouldn’t want my biggest enemy to experience that.” But, he believes now, “I must have survived for some reason. I am so grateful and so happy to be here and have this amazing opportunity to study what I like,” and he expresses gratitude to the U.S “for accepting me and being able to start fresh.”

Says Vakulenko with his trademark optimism, “I love life!”