Ukraine to Illinois…
Exchange student from Ukraine with mother and host family in Vienna, Illinois

Superintendent shares inspiring story of exchange student in U.S. during Russian invasion

Mark Sharovarov started school at Vienna High School in August 2021 along with several other exchange students from various countries who were attending the school. Generally, exchange students participate in the exchange program for one school year; however, for Mark that year turned into two and culminated in a high school graduation with the Class of 2023.

During Mark’s first year of exchange, he was welcomed by host family Don and Carol Stockdale, lifetime Johnson County residents and active members of the community. Mark quickly made friends and started participating in the school’s cross country team. As his original school year progressed, he took full advantage of being actively involved in the school and community while staying in contact with his family and friends in Ukraine. In February of 2022, while Mark’s exchange life in Illinois was going well, his home country experienced a military invasion during the rapid escalation of the Russian Ukrainian War.

Vienna High School has hosted numerous exchange students throughout its history, but this was a new experience for everyone involved.

Vienna has hosted numerous exchange students throughout its history, but this was a new experience for everyone involved. The Stockdales stayed in close contact with the school, Mark’s family, and PAX - Program of Academic Exchange, which is designated by the U.S. Department of State as an exchange visitor program sponsor. Don Stockdale recalls, “There were many unknowns and sleepless nights for everyone involved. With the time change, Mark was up all night attempting to keep in contact with family and friends in Ukraine. Carol and I did our best to support him, but it was still difficult to know what to do with all of the unknowns.” As things continued to unfold in Ukraine from February through the spring, the biggest unknown seemed to be if Mark would be sent back to Ukraine as planned on the original schedule. Carol Stockdale said, “It was heart-wrenching to know what was going on and to think that Mark might be sent back into the war-torn country. In all actuality, we didn't even know how he would get back to Ukraine at that time.”

Prior to Mark’s scheduled departure date, the United States Government entered into an agreement with Ukraine that allowed Ukrainian exchange students to remain in the U.S., which opened the door for Mark to remain for an additional year. School superintendent Joshua Stafford shared that he remembers a call from the Stockdale family with the news: “Mr. Stockdale called and shared that Mark was going to be able to stay for the coming school year, and I was elated. We then talked about school details and ensured that those were worked out; however, the thing that stuck out to me most during that call was when I asked Don about if we would need to help Mark find another host family since the Stockdale’s had only committed to one year. Don’s immediate response was that Mark had a home with them as long as he needed it. It was one of those moments when you just become flooded with emotions and don’t know how to respond.”

Don’s immediate response was that Mark had a home with them as long as he needed it. It was one of those moments when you just become flooded with emotions and don’t know how to respond.

Fast-forward to May 2023 and graduation season when most families are making plans to travel and gather around their graduates to celebrate. Would Mark’s family be able to enjoy the same experience? The Stockdales got word that Mark’s mother was going to attempt to travel to the States to attend the culminating event of her son’s academic career through high school; however, Mark’s father would not have a chance to make the trip, because all Ukrainian men are required to stay in Ukraine as a result of the war. Maryna Sharovarov arrived stateside on Monday, May 15, giving her time to attend her son’s graduation on Friday, May 19 where Mark addressed his classmates as one of the salutatorians.

Mark has been admitted to Murray State University where he will major in computer science, and Vienna High School remains committed to enriching their community with exchange students. Any local families interested in hosting can reach out to the school.

—Joshua W. Stafford, Superintendent of Vienna High School (IL)

 

[Editor’s note: J-1 visa high school exchange students are only able to stay in the U.S. for one academic year and are never guaranteed an opportunity to graduate from their American high school. This was, like so much of Mark’s incredible story, a special situation.]