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Ukrainian student who fled war finds the familiar in martial arts, resilience with Furman

An economics major at Furman, Anastasiia Savchenko ’27 won nine Ukrainian national Taekwondo titles before fleeing the war-torn country with her family. Photo by Owen Withycombe, Furman University

Last updated July 3, 2024

By Kelley Bruss

Anastasiia Savchenko ’27 is a contender.

A sideways introduction to Taekwondo turned into a 10-year career and nine Ukrainian national titles before she finished high school.

Then Russia invaded and her planned gap year turned into two, plus a move to another continent.

Applying to American colleges with her records in a war-wrecked country, not to mention navigating another language, was an uphill battle. But this summer, with her first year completed, she’s one of six students conducting undergraduate economics research for Furman University.

A young white woman with long brown hair smiles and holds a tae kwon do punch

Anastasiia Savchenko ’27. Photo by Owen Withycombe, Furman University

“She’s learned to notice what Furman offers and notice it early and tap into it early,” said Jason Jones, associate academic dean, professor of economics and mentor to Savchenko’s research group. (She also caught the attention of her fellow students. Ella Harrison ’25 produced a story about her as an assignment for her broadcast communications class. You can watch it here.)

Savchenko’s proposal to study the economic impact of sanctions and war, specifically on wheat export disruptions in Ukraine, intrigued the team evaluating applications, Jones said. She was the only freshman accepted into this year’s program.

This is not how Savchenko expected her story to unfold. She planned to continue her education after high school, but with a start in an average school in an average city in Ukraine. She never considered an American university.

Her gap year was supposed to be focused on Taekwondo, with an October to August training regimen that ran six days a week.

But war changes plans.

“My parents decided to leave Ukraine while it was still possible to do that,” she said.

The family’s first months in Duncan, South Carolina, were intense and lonely. Then Savchenko’s aunt brought them to English Crossing, a ministry of Hope Point Church in Spartanburg that provides English language lessons to immigrants. Savchenko was placed in the most advanced class, where Amy Bernhardt Henderson ’95 was teaching.

“I knew she was bright, but I didn’t know the extent of who she was,” Henderson said.

She was about to find out.

When Savchenko was ready to start applying to colleges, she asked Henderson to read her essays. When  Savchenko nailed the SAT, they celebrated together.

Now Savchenko aimed for a big school in a big city, but Henderson suggested she also consider a place just down the road. Savchenko’s first impression of Furman was that it was “so peaceful, so comfortable” it might not challenge her enough.

Henderson told her that college “will be stressful enough for you. If the place feels comfortable, that’s not bad.”

With Henderson cheering her on – she thought Anastasiia was a great fit for Furman – Savchenko won a full scholarship.

“She’s everything we look for in a student: academic excellence, drive and resiliency,” said Emily Schuck, vice president for Enrollment Management at Furman. “She has been an incredible addition to our community.”

Savchenko embraced the liberal arts model and soaked up the variety of her first semesters, especially math, economics and data analytics.

“She lights up when she tells me about every class and every professor,” Henderson said.

Staying busy with classes helps Savchenko keep from fixating on what’s happening at home in Ukraine. Besides the dangers of war, friends and family members also live in the chaos of recurring blackouts and water shortages.

“The war is still going on there and a lot of people’s lives depend on it,” she said.

And she finds refuge in her sport.

Savchenko’s devotion to martial arts began as an obligation. Her younger brother was starting Taekwondo classes but was too nervous to attend alone. Her parents asked her to go along until he felt settled.

“Then you can come back to your musical studies and we won’t bother you,” they told her.

That was a decade ago. Savchenko started competing at 9. She earned her black belt and won her first Ukranian national championship at 12. Since then, she has won eight additional national titles, five world cups and a European championship.

She grieved the loss of Taekwondo when she left Ukraine. But a friend here introduced her to Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art. The sparring is more precise, with lighter contact than Taekwondo, but Savchenko felt a rush of familiarity.

She misses the intensity of Ukrainian training but appreciates the coaches here who are disciplined and respectful versus “scary and angry.”

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to practice here,” she said. “It’s my passion.”

As she adjusts – to a new martial art and to every other aspect of the last two years – she reminds herself it’s “not my choice, not in my power.”

But some things are.

Her family continues to connect weekly at English Crossing. Her father is still a student, her mother is a teacher, Savchenko works with a beginners’ class and her sister helps care for the children of adult students. Savchenko has even pulled in her boyfriend, who teaches a class for Spanish speakers.

For her, there’s a direct line between her desire to give back to English Crossing and to Taekwondo, which emphasizes attributes such as integrity, perseverance and indomitable spirit.

“It’s like an engine inside of me that keeps me going,” she said.

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