Maria Smereka, a third-year student at Pennsylvania State University, spent late Wednesday and early Thursday watching the news come in as Russia launched missile attacks near Ukraine’s capital.

Her parents and siblings were born in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States before she was born. The 20-year-old grew up in a Ukrainian community in Pittsburgh, where she adopted Ukrainian as her first language. She considers the country her home.

Smereka said she stayed up late messaging members of the Ukrainian Society, a cultural group she leads on campus. “Many of us did not get sleep.”

Hours later, Smereka would help organize a demonstration near campus. At its peak, about 50 people were in attendance.

“Ukraine needs support more than ever,” Smereka, who is studying neurobiology and Spanish said Friday. She said her family, in central and western Ukraine, is safe – but it’s unclear for how long. “It’s surreal to see bombings and innocent people being killed in Ukraine. Being in the U.S., with an ocean between you, it’s not much you can do.”

Events from protests to fundraisers to panels, have sprung up on college campuses throughout the U.S. since Russia began its assault. As of Friday, more than 130 Ukrainians had been killed, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Gunfire and explosions have upended neighborhoods and forced citizens to flee.

Demonstrations unfolded at schools including Columbia, Stanford and Northeastern universities, as well as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More than 300 people gathered Thursday in the atrium of the building that houses Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for a town hall and panel discussion about the invasion. And a student group at Ohio State University advertised a Friday afternoon bake sale to support humanitarian and defense efforts in Ukraine.

More than 1,700 Ukrainians studied in the United States during the 2020-21 school year, according to the Institute of International Education, which tracks the number of foreign students in the United States. The group counted 4,805 Russian students that year.

Pavlo Illiashenko, 36, who has lived in Ukraine for most of his life, was among 200 students who gathered Thursday outside the Low Library on Columbia’s campus. He spoke out about Russian propaganda that has cast Ukraine as the aggressor.

While many expected Russia to invade his home country, the news was still shocking, Illiashenko said Friday. He moved to New York in August to earn a master’s degree in public administration.

“When it actually happens, it’s hard to believe,” Illiashenko said from his apartment. Behind him, a Ukrainian flag was attached to the wall.

Some of Illiashenko’s friends back home are plotting escape routes, he said. Others, including his 63-year-old godfather, have joined local territory defense squads to stand up to Russian forces.

Illiashenko’s father, a former military doctor, is staying behind to treat soldiers. He and Illiashenko’s mother live close to Russia’s border in northeastern Ukraine, where they spend nights on the floor and block the windows of their apartment with books to protect against shelling, Illiashenko said.

“It’s not very shocking,” Illiashenko said, “but it’s out of this world that your parents are going through that.”

The crisis overseas can be traumatizing not just for Ukrainian students, but also those from countries throughout Eastern Europe, said Calvin R. Chin, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University. The office held its first listening circle for affected students on Friday. Another is planned for next week.

“It’s really just to create a supportive space where people can talk with other students who are having feelings about whatever the listening circle is about,” Chin said. The university offered similar support to students in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, protests against police brutality and anti-Asian bias incidents.

University counselors have also extended drop-in hours for students who need one-on-one attention, Chin said. The International Center is also offering support, said Mike Hotchkiss, a spokesperson for the university in New Jersey.

In Washington D.C., an event at Georgetown brought together a panel of faculty experts on topics including war and foreign policy. Joel Hellman, dean of the School of Foreign Service, expected about 20 students to attend. More than 300 people arrived.

“I think the students felt a need to come together and physically be together,” Hellman said. He added students are eager to understand the implications of Russia’s invasion.

“Russia has returned to the world stage as a belligerent power that is seeking to expand and recreate an empire that long ago ceased to exist,” he said Friday. “We’re assuming that there’s going to be a steady diet of efforts to understand the implications of this set of events.”

Katerina Sedova, a Georgetown alum who was born and raised in Ukraine, shared her story with the students and other community members.

“I wanted to them to know that Ukrainians have had a long, long, long journey towards statehood, towards sovereignty. They’ve been going towards this point for centuries, not 30 years, and they’ve fought hard for it and they will never stop fighting for it,” Sedova, a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said in an interview.

The past few days have given way to a range of emotions, Sedova said. “I’m angry. I feel exasperated. Watching what’s happening around Kyiv is really difficult.”

She said her family is sheltering in place.

“Everyone in Kyiv that is able to bear arms is picking up AK-47s to be part of the territorial defense, whether they have experience and know how to use a weapon or not,” Sedova said. “My family is staying because they wouldn’t imagine leaving.”

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