It’s logical to ask this question to a UCF student on the verge of graduation: How do you plan to celebrate? Posing the question to Mia Willard, however, feels uncomfortable, even naïve. She candidly responds to questions very few people will ever have to answer, but “How do you plan to celebrate?” catches her by surprise.

“When I saw that question before our conversation, it was the first time I contemplated it,” Willard says. She pauses for a moment, which is something she has rarely taken time to do since Russia began bombarding her Ukrainian homeland more than two years ago. “You could say my educational journey has not been a traditional one.”

Mia Willard

Willard isn’t referring to a transfer or to taking online classes for four years — she hasn’t thought much about those twists in her path toward a degree in international and global studies. She’s been trying to focus on classwork from some of the worst war-torn areas of Ukraine. The assignments, honestly, have been secondary to providing aid for people, narrowly surviving landmines and missiles, rescuing animals from the rooftops of homes underwater and recovering from the shock of finding the bodies of civilians in villages and small settlements.

Here comes another logical question: Why didn’t you leave Ukraine, especially since you have U.S. citizenship? She doesn’t need to think very hard about this one.

“I have a high stress resistance,” Willard says. “In some ways I feel more comfortable going into danger and fighting for what I believe in than trying to escape it.”

Let’s back up for some much-needed context about this nontraditional educational journey. Midway through 11th grade in Ukraine, she moved to Florida to finish high school while living with an aunt she’d met only once.

“I knew that earning a diploma in the United States would provide the best runway into college and the career I envisioned,” Willard says.

She saw herself one day facing the challenges of international affairs, legal matters, and politics. For her freshman year of college, she attended American University in Washington D.C., the epicenter of all the topics that excited her, before personal reasons pulled her back home to Ukraine — Kyiv, to be exact. There, she landed a job with a think tankand became involved in journalism and research.

“At that point it made sense to stay in Ukraine and pursue a college degree online,” Willard says. “I chose UCF because the university offered a broad online program that allowed me to continue working fulltime.”

Threats from neighboring Russia had been hovering over Ukraine for centuries     , first in attempts to abolish Ukrainian artists, thinkers, even the language. But Willard, like many people, did not think Russia would act on its “imperialistic ambitions” and start a full-scale war, even as its military built up an ominous presence along Ukraine’s eastern border. In fact, she remembers nothing out of the ordinary in and around her office on February 23, 2022. After work, however, she was told an invasion was imminent. It would happen at 4 a.m.

As night quietly ticked toward morning, Willard poured herself a glass of wine and stayed awake by updating her news feeds every 30 seconds.

“Nothing happened,” she says, “so sometime after four o’clock, I tried to go to sleep.”

At 4:57 a.m., a friend from Florida texted to ask if everything was OK. Willard sensed      that everything was not OK. Three minutes later, she heard the first bombs falling on Kyiv. Her 15th floor apartment shook. The explosions grew louder and more frequent.

“Everything became a blur,” Willard says. “Like most people, I’ve read historic materials about wars and watched documentaries. But I never imagined waking up to a war outside my windows.”

And yet she did not panic or flee on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022. Her first move was to try helping a friend who ran a morning news show, but she found out the bridges near her home were closed. Next, she contacted Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force to sign up for duty and help protect Kyiv.

“They already had such an influx of volunteers that I was dismissed in about three seconds.”

At some moment during the most surreal, incomprehensible day of her life, Willard sent an email to her UCF professors with the following request: “Can I please have an extension on my assignments because of the full-scale war here?” Then Willard went out to find water and to offer help to anyone who needed it. For the next week, whenever evening came, she sheltered in a basement with her sister and their mother.

“Leaving was not a choice we wanted to make,” she says. “My mother has no relatives or sponsors to take her in. She would not want to be a wandering refugee. But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t scared about Chechen forces closing in on Kyiv — they’re known for brutality and rapes.”

A friend from the U.S. would check on Willard every day.

“His check-ins kept me sane,” she says.

The blur that began the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, has never fully subsided for Ukrainians. In her work and volunteerism, Willard has seen things that cannot be described here, all from a war she and her countrymen did not choose. The power outages that have altered her sleep patterns and interrupted online classwork are inconsequential in the bigger picture that she wakes up to every day.

“Our world has been altered,” Willard says, “but it does not stop.”

As she finishes her degree from UCF while working full time, Willard is also weighing an offer to work at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. This leads to another question often asked of new college graduates: “Have your experiences uniquely prepared you for your career?”

“Going through any type of conflict would give applicants a benefit, that’s the pragmatic answer,” she says. “But the real answer is, I have no idea. I’m still wondering when and where the next mortar might land when I’m by the frontlines with aid.”

After answering these questions during a phone call at 11 p.m. in Kyiv, she will complete her last final exam for the class Emerging Space Powers.

“In the midst of my life, I haven’t stopped to think of this as a major culmination.      And honestly, I do not consider my story to be brave or heroic. It takes away from the actual heroes: Our military, energy workers and emergency personnel. I’m just doing my best, like everyone else.”

Asked once more, perhaps encouraged this time, about celebrating graduation, Willard lets out a deep breath and a gentle laugh, and says, “Maybe I’ll sip the glass of red wine that I never had a chance to finish.”