Child of Chernobyl

Maryia Pupko is proof that good comes from even the worst disasters.

Pupko, a second year politics and human development and social relations double major, is from Belarus. At the age of 7, she lost her mother to breast cancer, which likely was caused by the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986.

Pupko says that after her mother’s death she experienced so much love and compassion that sharing these became a large part of who she is. So much so that she took a gap year before coming to Earlham to volunteer in the Bangkok slums to massage dying AIDS patients, mentor orphan boys, and care for a blind 12-year-old AIDS patient who was never taught to walk. Changing diapers was part of the care for the girl, with whom Pupko grew very close. She recently completed training here in Richmond to become a Hospice volunteer and is looking into training to gain additional nursing skills.

“This kind of volunteer service forces us to step away from all the formalities of life,” she says. “In these situations we are no longer playing roles in society, at jobs or in school. We are no longer women or men, or this or that. It is you and me here together; this is the problem and we need to make it better.”

“These on-the-ground experiences help to not spoil a person,” she continues. “As we grow and mature we may have a family and bills and often these begin to close the little box inside but when you do these kinds of things your little box becomes so much bigger.”

Learning From Service

Pupko says she learned two important lessons from the Bangkok experience.

“I learned that compassion is good, but it should not be patronizing,” she says. “This situation is their reality. I had to step into that reality without feeling sorry for them. This is a regular person with a different reality.”

She also learned that the little things matter. Friends and family advised against the gap year experience suggesting she wait until after graduation because she would have more influence.

“I found out that the small things matter,” she says. “Getting that little girl to smile or seeing people get so happy just because I came, that showed me the importance of the little things.

“In the end, it’s all about the people. The small things — a smile, a touch or just direct contact — mean so much, especially to people who have been disregarded.”

Child of Chernobyl

Pupko says she felt emboldened to volunteer in Bangkok partly because of her experience with Chernobyl Children International (CCI), a project that offers support and hope including long-term medical and economic assistance to children living in the aftermath of the Chernobyl meltdown.

As part of the program, Pupko spent one summer month and one winter month each year with a family in Ireland. The program, which she began when she was 10, ends when a participant reaches age 18, but she and the family have continued their relationship and visits.

“These people opened their lives and their home to me out of their own good will,” she says. “This family showed me that problems can be solved if you are willing to work toward solving them. From this family, I learned that I can make a change.

“Nowadays society is so individualistic it seems that people can’t do anything without getting something in return. These people stepped out of their comfort zone to help try to give us a better future and to improve our lives.

“Youth are more willing to give of themselves to a greater cause, especially here at Earlham. People are not self-centered here,” she says. “Students here want to get good grades, yes, but it is not about being No. 1 in the class. It is more about working together to change the world.”

A couple of friends from her United World College-Adriatic chose to attend Earlham, and she says she is glad she followed their lead.

Proud to be Studious

“Last year was the first time that I found myself excited to be studying, and I couldn’t wait to do the homework,” she says. “I am so proud to be a nerd now. Professors here are interested in teaching, and they all have personal experience, which is more interesting than learning from the textbook.”

Through her CCI experience she also gained a love for social work and HDSR.

“This led me to HDSR,” she says. “HDSR is about how people and individuals interact. HDSR looks at aspects of social life and how individuals behave and adapt to it.”

She says HDSR covers the social dynamics while politics covers the power of dynamics.

“When I graduate I hope to go to grad school to study law focused on human rights and international law, which will cover the legal dynamics. These are necessary when you are trying to advocate for someone or for some problem. My biggest interest is working in unstable countries or areas that need some structure. This could be a country in conflict or an impoverished, underprivileged country.”

Maryia Pupko
Maryia Pupko 2016

Hometown: Zaslavi, Belarus

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