EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the February issue of GCU Magazine.
Veronika Solovei was at home watching television in the suburbs of Kyiv, Ukraine, when the first missile struck.
The windows exploded, glass suddenly shattering into pieces, the force of the missile strike so powerful, the noise of it deafening.
“It was SO loud,” Solovei recalled of that horrifying day. “We barely could hear anything else. I remember this big hole right next to our house.
“We just hid in the basement for all those days. I put on all the clothes I could because it was really, really cold. It was SO cold.”
Just a few days before, the Solovei family awoke at 5 a.m. to explosions. It was the birth of a new phase of the war that had been simmering between Russia and Ukraine since 2014.
Solovei will never forget the date the Russians invaded: Feb. 24, 2022.
“We honestly did not expect that at all,” she said.
Like many Ukrainians, her family thought the war would be contained at the borders. “We woke up from explosions all over Ukraine. We were terrified.”
Solovei — her family and friends call her “Nika” — paused and started to cry, recalling those early days of the invasion and the decision her mom and grandparents made for her, the only one in the family with travel documents.
To keep her safe, they would send the 19-year-old, then a student at Kyiv National Linguistic University, away from the war.
Away from them.
That decision, and the people God placed in her path to make sure she was taken care of, would lead her to Grand Canyon University.
Toting a single backpack, Solovei boarded a train for Germany to stay with her boyfriend at the time. She sheltered there for a month until their relationship fell apart and then alone in a foreign country, she made a decision of her own.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was so lost.”
That’s when she thought of her godmother, Julia Minutolo, who had been her mother’s best friend since they met in law school 20 years ago in Ukraine.
Minutolo immigrated to the United States a decade earlier. She told Solovei her family would buy her a plane ticket to get her to Phoenix. Solovei prayed to God that this was His will for her.
She boarded a plane from Germany to Paris, then from Paris to Mexico City. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data gathering organization based at Syracuse University, almost 21,000 Ukrainians sought entry to the U.S. through Mexico in April. More than 90% of them came through the San Diego Customs and Border Protection port authority, as Solovei did.
She was detained, not once, but twice, first in Mexico City, then again in Tijuana, where Mexican officials took and tagged her belongings. She was headed for jail, though she didn’t know why. They told her godmother, who had arrived to pick her up, to leave her.
Solovei thought of her family. They would wonder what became of her: “What should I do? How will they know what is happening to me?”
But a short time later, on April 3, she was able to cross into the U.S. on humanitarian parole. The designation allows refugees to enter the country for humanitarian reasons when they lack required documents.
Then, just a few months after arriving in America, she was at GCU.
Her one wish
Solovei believes what has happened in her life is God’s will — because God has a plan for our lives, and He has a plan for her, placing the right people in her life at the right time.
One of those people: her godmother, who invited Solovei to services at Christ’s Church of the Valley.
“I believe God answered my prayers,” Solovei said. “It all started in May.”
On Mother’s Day.
Jaime Wooldridge, wife of senior pastor Ashley Wooldridge, spoke that day about studying Russian in high school, then in Siberia during college.
Drawn to that story as a language student who also speaks Russian, Solovei introduced herself to the Wooldridges.
He asked her: “Nika, what do you miss the most about home?” With tears in her eyes, she said, “I just miss school.”
Wooldridge immediately thought of GCU, where he is a regular Chapel speaker.
The church connected Solovei with GCU Director of Government Relations Dana Drew Shaw, who called her to arrange a tour. Shaw sought out two Ukrainians to join them on the tour — Anya Cofrancesco, the Honors College and Study Abroad Program Manager, and former GCU men’s basketball player Dima Zdor.
“She had to leave her education, her family, her grandparents, to come all the way here herself,” said Cofrancesco, who spoke her native Ukrainian with Solovei during the tour.
“She was super fascinated with the campus. She said, ‘It’s SO big,’” Cofrancesco said. Schools in Ukraine might occupy one building. “I think at that moment, she saw herself studying here. Before I knew it, she enrolled. She was incredibly excited to be able to come.”
Through its Ukrainian Fund, Christ’s Church of the Valley is paying for Solovei’s first year on campus, including room and board at Saguaro Hall.
Solovei appreciates GCU’s peacefulness. She loves that she can escape into these pockets of calm that she couldn’t find back home, and it’s that kind of peacefulness and grace she hopes to bring to others.
So many people helped her — her family, her godmother, her church. “They wanted to help me build my life here,” she said. “That’s how I got to GCU. That’s why I decided to help people as well and become a nurse.”
The onetime foreign languages sophomore traded her study of French and English for anatomy and physiology, meaning starting college over as a freshman.
Not only does she have to memorize medical terms, but she has to do so in a language that isn’t her own.
“Probably the first month was the hardest for me because it was all in English. I just had to dive into it and get used to it.”
And GCU dived into it, too, to get her into college.
“It was a process trying to track down all of her scholarships,” Shaw said of moving Solovei through admissions. “Sarah Boeder (Executive Vice President of Operations) and her team were excellent in just making sure things didn’t get dropped — and working with a little bit of a different situation because I don’t think her transcripts were readily available. There was so much going on in her home country.”
When Solovei was unsure of her next steps, Shaw said, Boeder assured the community that had embraced her: “She’ll be taken care of. We’ll make sure everything is good.”
And it has been for Solovei, who knows she ended up where God meant her to be.
Since coming to GCU, she has felt that special thing students have told her about — that sense of joy that has countered the terror and sadness of war.
“I’ve heard from a lot of transfer students that they moved here just because of the community. I completely understand them, because since I’ve been here, I honestly have never felt happier.”
What made it even clearer that God placed her here was the GCU CityServe meal-packing event in October with partner No Child Hungry. More than 2,600 GCU students, staff, faculty and community partners packed nearly 500,000 meals to send to Ukraine as winter approached and access to electricity, heat and other vital services had been interrupted because of the war.
“I was so touched,” Solovei said, tears welling in her eyes. “It just made me cry because I know it’s a hard time for Ukraine.”
Said Cofrancesco, “That meal-packing event, it was so emotional for both of us, seeing all these people getting together, wrapping their arms around Ukraine.”
Just as so many have wrapped their arms around Solovei, who was baptized this fall and whose mother, Svitlana, joined her in the U.S. in late August.
“Her faith journey was really exciting to be a part of,” Shaw said. “My husband and I and my daughter all got to go to her baptism and celebrate a new, fresh start.”
Wooldridge remembers that first dinner he and his family had with Solovei: “At the end of that night, I’ll never forget looking at Nika. I said, ‘Nika, God has you here for a reason, a very specific reason. He’s going to move big in your life.’
“She said, ‘I want to believe that.’”
With all the people God has placed in her life, it’s hard NOT to believe that.
“These people gave my daughter a second new life and, most importantly, they saved her life,” said Solovei’s mom, who said she had only one goal when she sent her daughter away: to save the life of her child. “Thank God for every sent person on the difficult path of my daughter.”
Solovei misses her country. “But I’m so thankful to God I have this opportunity to live in peace and have this great family here that helps me and supports me. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have made it here.”
They’re still making sure she’s taken care of.