September 15, 2023 — 

International business major Will Lazarenko’s Asper School of Business experience has been remarkably unique: he adapted to remote learning during pandemic closures, studied abroad through Asper’s international exchange program and lived beneath the sounds of war in Ukraine on a self-initiated humanitarian mission.

Lazarenko’s next new experience is, oddly enough, completing a full year of course work, in-person, in the Drake Centre, in Winnipeg.

“I’ve sort of done it backwards,” he says. “It will be my final year of the Asper program, but my first full year on campus.”

Normal is not something Lazarenko was seeking from the Asper BComm program. In his very first term, he knew that he wanted to go on an international exchange trip.

“I wanted the discomfort of being somewhere totally unfamiliar, and I knew that I wanted to travel while I could,” he says.

He applied for exchange as the program navigated shifting public health measures and unpredictable futures brought on by the pandemic. With support from Amber Pohl, Asper’s coordinator of student exchanges and international cooperation, Lazarenko finally began an exchange study term in 2022 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after living and traveling in Israel independently since 2021.

“My experience was amazing. The university programming was so personalized, and I had opportunities to learn from world-renowned researchers and network with global leaders,” he says. “In Israel, students begin university a few years later than in Canada, so I was in classes with ambitious people who had more life experience.”

On exchange, Lazarenko could pursue his education while learning how to adapt to and understand another culture. It wasn’t simply that he learned more about Israel outside of a North American lens; it was that he learned just how limited understandings of a culture or context can be from afar.

Lazarenko met students from around the world as well—sharing a living space with four roommates from as many countries—and immersed himself in the culture while navigating the unfamiliarity of Israel.

“An important takeaway for me is how quickly we can get used to something that feels so strange and different at first,” he says.

From international exchange student to foreign relief volunteer

During his exchange term, Lazarenko was following media coverage of the devastation and conflict in Ukraine. He wanted to help in any way he could, and so, earlier this year he began volunteering for humanitarian initiatives starting at the Poland-Ukraine border and eventually moving further into the country, eventually joining initiatives delivering humanitarian aid essentials to Ukrainians still living near the frontlines.

“In my first few weeks, I was living and working in a refugee shelter near the border, then I worked as a disaster recovery volunteer in the de-occupied areas surrounding Kyiv,” he says. “I helped clear the destroyed remnants of people’s homes, carrying pieces of their lives away in my arms. It was often incredibly emotional.”

 

 

He describes the devastation and gratitude the locals conveyed, often simultaneously.

Lazarenko was struck by how daily life persisted even as the thundering sound of air strikes remained in the background. “It would feel odd to just go to a coffee shop, but what else could you do?” he says.

He met internally displaced Ukrainians who had left their homes after hoping to ride out the war, who might go for coffee in Kyiv while listening for air raid alarms, and who, despite ongoing missile strikes, drone attacks and military-set curfews and power outages, had no plans to leave Ukraine.

He saw first-hand how the daily rhythms of life continue in ways that media and second-hand reporting can’t ever quite capture. He agrees that although the experience had a dramatic impact on his personal development, it isn’t necessarily for everyone.

As he begins his final year at Asper, he grapples with returning to everyday rhythms in Winnipeg and bringing these lifechanging experiences back to a familiar setting.

He is excited to share his experience and offer advice to students interested in going on exchange to Israel and was even invited to participate in last year’s Arni Thorsteinson Student Exchange Program (ATSEP) event in Winnipeg.

Ultimately, Lazarenko is ready to complete his BComm and discover his next adventure—he’s not exactly sure what that is, but he’s proven that he can embrace uncertainty, adapt and learn no matter the context.

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