Behrend library exhibit shares stories of lives lost in Ukraine

Students look at posterboards with information about victims of the war in Ukraine.

“Unissued Diplomas,” a new display at Penn State Behrend’s John M. Lilley Library, highlights the hopes, dreams and unmet goals of college-age Ukrainians who have died in the war.

Credit: Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Ivanna Obodzinska, 19, was the mother of twins and a garden design student at Polissia National University. She planned to be a landscape designer.

Serhii Molchanov, 19, was a student at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy who volunteered to fight for his country. While serving, he collected stories and photos for a book he hoped to write.

Oleksandra Borivska, 18, was an international relations student at Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University. She dreamed of a diplomatic career and traveling the world. She hoped to see the Grand Canyon.

None of them achieved their goals. All three, and Obodzinska’s twins, were killed after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Obodzinska, Molchanov and Borivska are three of 40 Ukrainian students whose stories and photos are highlighted in “Unissued Diplomas,” a new exhibition in Penn State Behrend’s Lilley Library. The display honors the memory of Ukrainian students who will never graduate.

The display is one of dozens installed at institutions worldwide to remind people about the ongoing war in Ukraine and the price Ukrainians are paying daily in their fight for freedom. The exhibits were installed on Feb. 24, the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion, which has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 70,000 Ukrainians.

Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of psychology, saw “Unissued Diplomas” as an opportunity to put lessons into practice. Her class visited the exhibit as a group.

“We talk a lot about how important it is for those who study trauma to bear witness to horrible events,” Hetzel-Riggin said. “Hearing and seeing the impact, elevating victim voices and keeping space for those people affected by it is at the core of what trauma-informed work is.”

Hetzel-Riggin said the display was particularly moving for Behrend students, who could see parts of themselves in the Ukrainian students who are featured.

“The subjects of the exhibition are about the same age and might have had similar hobbies or majors or dreams and aspirations,” she said. “It brings the lessons from the course from abstract theory to affecting real people.”

Lena Surzhko-Harned, an associate teaching professor of political science and associate director of The Public Policy Initiative at Penn State Behrend, worked with Lilley Library to present the exhibition.

“The Russian full-scale invasion is also a war on Ukraine’s future,” Surzhko-Harned, a Ukrainian native, said. “The lives of the young Ukrainians, their future, their hopes and dreams … all were turned upside down on Feb. 24, 2022. Many young people are losing their lives at the front lines, and many more are dying as civilians targeted by artillery and drone strikes.

“With this exhibit, I hope we can honor this brave generation and remember to live our own lives to the fullest, because your entire world can change in a moment.”

The “Unissued Diplomas” exhibition is located on the first floor of Lilley Library and is accessible during library hours. The exhibit will remain in place through the end of May.


Heather Cass

Publications and design coordinator

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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