Going off to college is a “rite of passage” experienced by thousands of high school graduates every year. Throughout the country, junior/community colleges serve in a vital role for students to complete transfer courses or to complete programs of study leading to gainful employment.
Tyler Junior College, one of the first such institutions in the state of Texas, has been serving that purpose and providing thousands of students with their freshman and sophomore educational levels since 1926. TJC now enjoys one of the highest rankings among all the junior colleges across the country. In recent years, TJC has added baccalaureate degrees to its roster of more than 120 Associate Degree and Technical Certification programs.
However, in an effort to exert their independence, many students choose a college that is as far away from home as possible. Some take going off to college to the extreme by traveling to a foreign country to begin the higher education phase of their lives. Going abroad offers students an incredible opportunity to develop their skills with a foreign language, as well as experiencing a culture that is much different from that with which they are familiar. The opportunity of being an “exchange student” provides students with unique life experiences that go far beyond mere classroom education—they get to learn about life from a different point-of-view. The International Program at TJC is a two-way street: offering students from East Texas to learn abroad; and also serving as host to foreign students wishing to spend time in the United States.
Just forty years ago, students were able to remain in touch with home only by either long distance telephone calls or writing letters. Today, with the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet, students are able to be in touch with their loved ones at home almost instantly. Something that most of us have never given thought to is how students might react to unforeseen circumstances that might arise while they are students in a foreign country. Recent events have brought just such a circumstance close to home. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Naturally, the news of Russia’s provocative action was reported immediately, with live televised feeds beamed from Ukraine across the globe. Dr. Juan E. Mejia, President of Tyler Junior College, was immediately approached by his wife, Meela, who asked whether there were any Ukrainian students enrolled at TJC. What many people in Tyler don’t know is that Meela is a native of Ukraine. She came to the United States thirty years ago, and her mother and brother joined soon after. “When I heard about the hostilities in Ukraine, the first thing I thought about was whether we had any students from Ukraine at the College. My husband told me we had two students who were both here on athletic scholarships as members of the TJC Tennis team,” Meela explains. “Fortunately, my friend Shae Connell, wife of TJC Tennis Head Coach Dash Connell reached out to share contact information on the students,” she added. The Mejias, Connells, and Athletic Director Kevin Vest and his wife Alicia, invited the girls to dinner, which is how Meela and Dr. Mejia got connected with eighteen-year-old Yeva Kononovych and seventeen-year-old Yeva Kramarova. Because they share the same first name, we’ll call them YevaKo and YevaKram. They arrived on campus last August, joining the TJC Tennis Team and beginning their classes. “When war began in February, nobody expected this to be happening. It was so sudden,” YevaKo says, absent mindedly flipping her long brunette hair. “It is so scary to see what is on the news, to see all the destruction with a lot of buildings destroyed.” YevaKo is from Nikopol, in the eastern part of Ukraine, very close to the Russian border. “The first message I see from family is that my city was bombed,” says blond-haired YevaKram. “I would never think my city would be in such danger. It is so surprising that they got there. The first couple of weeks was stressful,” YevaKram states emphatically. Her family is hosting ten refugees whose homes were destroyed. “The government says no one can leave the country. Mom and dad don’t want to leave.” YevaKram is from the western part of Ukraine, a small town called Ivano-Frankivsk, near the border with Poland. During the first two weeks of the war, YevaKo’s father sent her mother and twelve-year-old sister to Germany, where they have relatives, until it is safe to go back home. In the meantime, her father stayed behind to take care of her two grandmothers.
“Our friends, parents, and everyone we know is in the middle of this terrible thing going on. In the beginning, I did not know what to do. How could we help? It was impossible. Stressful. The family said, ‘Take care of yourselves.’ They are happy we are here and safe.”
YevaKram says the whole situation is such a waste. “More people will know (at school) that we are from Ukraine. I will talk more about this and spread the word about this situation that they will know the truth from us. That is how I will try to deal with this.”
For YevaKram, her initial reaction to Russia invading her country was anger. “Russia is going through a lot of propaganda, not the truth. All the people of Russia are related to this. They support this invasion.” YevaKo has a similar reaction, although, as she states, “They (the Russian people) have never been unwelcomed.” Both of these young ladies have expressed their bewilderment at what is going on in their home country. They are hopeful this tragedy will end and their country will return to a peaceful existence.
As the weeks of war have gone on and on, the girls have been keeping up with their studies and have been working out daily, getting their tennis game ready for the tournaments that come at the end of the semester before the summer break. Tennis coach Dash Connell is proud of how well his two Ukrainian competitors have handled an extremely difficult situation. “They have been able to maintain focus without letting their emotions overtake them. Competing at their level is difficult enough without having to deal with a stressful situation, away from family and friends, who are in the midst of a war zone.” Coach Connell provided information about how each of these young ladies have performed while at TJC. “Kramarova is studying economics and competes on the nationally ranked TJC Women’s Tennis Team. As a freshman, she has earned a 4.0 GPA and has a 10-4 win/ lose record in singles and 6-4 record in doubles. She is undefeated in conference play and has several great wins in non-conference matches, including LA Tech, MSU and SAU.” Connell observes that YevaKram loves attending TJC and loves the people she has met at the College.
According to Connell, “Yeva Kononovych is majoring in General Studies, and also competes for the nationally ranked TJC Women’s Tennis Team. As a freshman, she has played at line 6 singles and line 3 doubles positions, with an overall record of 8-4 in singles and 7-4 record in doubles. She enjoys TJC for its education program, good people, great tennis facility and its high level of tennis.”
Shortly after doing this interview for TYLER TODAY Magazine, the TJC Tennis team hit the road for national competition. The TJC Women’s Tennis Team won the National Championship, bringing the total to 68 national championships by TJC!
Meela and Juan have five children, all boys. The youngest turned 14 at the end of in May; the twins are 22; and the older boys are 28 and 30. Despite having been in the United States for so long, Meela maintains a long-distance relationship with friends and relatives who still live in Ukraine. “I do my best to keep up through social media, and I am in constant contact with my friends from school,” Meela says. “Ukraine is a wonderful country, with beautiful geography and lots of industry. The people are smart and hard-working, and among its greatest asset is its fertile land that helped it become the breadbasket of Europe through the cultivation of wheat.”
During the photo shoot for the cover of this issue of the magazine, a photo was made of the trio holding the Ukrainian flag. Meela pointed out that when displayed, the blue is at the top, representing the sky above Ukraine, and the yellow represents the wheat that grows abundantly from the Ukrainian soil. “One of my biggest concerns in recent weeks is ensuring these students are safe throughout the coming summer. Normally, international exchange students go home for the summer break, but that is not possible now due to war. I so very much appreciate the generosity of the people from Tyler who have stepped forward to assist us in making certain these two students will be able to stay throughout the summer break.” Neither of these two students thinks about playing tennis as a profession. Neither has any allusions that they can compete at the professional level. For both of the them, playing at the collegiate level is as far as they plan to go in tennis. Their abilities as tennis players served to get them this far and is the means for them to get an education. “We will be taking classes this summer,” say YevaKo and YevaKram adds, “We also plan to find a job to save up some money!” Although they are worried about their friends and family back home, they are also looking forward to continuing their studies at TJC. “For us, the education is the most important thing. More important than tennis or anything else is completing our education,” says YevaKram, who plans to use her major in economics to get a job in business as a data analyst or a financial counselor. “When the war stops, I feel like companies will look for us to go back to Ukraine to help rebuild our country. In the meantime, for two or twenty years, how long it may take, working here in the U.S. or in Europe would be my ideal goal.”
“America is best country in the world for opportunities,” says YevaKo. “I would like to stay here and work, maybe in some part of sports medicine or training, maybe coaching or physical therapy … something related to sports but not as a player.”
Coming to Tyler Junior College is like the crown jewel of tennis programs. I would like my little sister to have the same opportunities that I have had. She will be better at tennis than me.”
Dr. Mejia, Coach Connell, and Ann Brookshire, who serves on the TJC Board of Trustees, are currently working with local immigration attorneys Ginger Young and Daniel Ross to help get the girls through the legal red tape necessary to ensure their continuing visiting student status in this country. TJC’s Director, Public Affairs and Media Relations, Rebecca Sanders, said, “These young ladies have been caught up in a most unusual series of events. We want to help them achieve their academic goals and relieve as much stress in their personal lives as we can.”