It took more than 24 hours for Daria Podzolkova to travel from her hometown of Dnipro, Ukraine, to a Polish town at the border of the two countries. She had to use trains and other transport since the airspace over Ukraine has been closed to civilian travel ever since Russia launched a full-scale invasion into the country in February 2022. At one point, her train stopped for four hours as the passenger train preceding hers was bombed.
While it was a long and harrowing trip across the country to get the visa that would allow the College of Communication and Information student to travel to Tennessee, Podzolkova said she and her fellow Ukrainians are resilient.
“Since I was in Ukraine during the first six months of the war, I can easily relate to all the feelings that people experience there. Thank god our region is not under occupation, but regions we border with are under occupation. For those, it’s something really horrible,” she recounted.
Being away from home isn’t new to the graduate student; she previously traveled to Wisconsin, South Carolina, Beijing, Germany, and Israel for undergraduate studies and work. But this is the first time she’s trekked halfway around the world for this long of a period, and the first time she has left her family in a war zone. She calls her parents almost every day and often hears the sounds of bomb explosions and air raid sirens, but both Podzolkova and her family continue on in spite of the interruptions.
While Podzolkova is thriving in her new role as a grad student and as a graduate teaching and research assistant, she is keeping a close eye on Ukrainian news. One of the reasons the international student wanted to attend an American graduate program is because she likes how laidback people are here, and she said the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has not disappointed. She likes that CCI faculty are not just approachable, but helpful and supportive when she needs their assistance—something she said isn’t common in the European schools she attended.
“I was trying to find a university that will fit my personal career goals and something more inner, so we’d be on the same wavelength, and the University of Tennessee was the one university that really targeted these inner values,” she said.
She first applied to masters programs throughout the United States of America with the aim to work at the United Nations in a communications role. She previously worked for AIESEC, a nonprofit under the UN that fosters leadership in young people.
“For me, probably one of the greatest things to know is that my work matters, that I can change things,” she said.
However, the war caused her to pivot on the goal of working at the UN; Podzolkova is disappointed in the UN response to the Ukrainian plight, and she’s broadening her future aspirations to what she says is a more “down-to-earth” career in the commercial space. If she could pick any place to work at right now, it would be at global giant Condé Nast.
Right now the grad student is taking Advertising and Communication Theory with Tombras School Professor Eric Haley, for whom she is also acting as a graduate teaching assistant. Haley said he and the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations are honored to have Podzolkova working and studying here.
“Despite all the stress she must be experiencing from the horrible war in her home country, Daria is focused, motivated and embracing her experience here at UT,” he said.
Another of Podzolkova’s courses provided an opportunity to tie the war in Ukraine to her current studies. She has a semester-long project in Social Media, Technology & Society with Tombras School Assistant Professor Matthew Pittman, and she picked Russian propaganda through the lens of biases and the illusory truth effect as a topic. It’s so broad an area she will have to narrow it down, but the grad student suspects there may be the seed of a thesis topic within it.
While school and working have kept her very busy, Podzolkova said she is excited to explore the region, the Smoky Mountains, and to see how an East Tennessee winter stacks up against the thick layer of snow she’s used to in her homeland.