Ukrainian student at St. Lawrence College exhibits ‘Unissued Diplomas’

Maryna Zalevska, a student from Ukraine in her final semester of the St. Lawrence College Music and Digital Media program, organized the exhibit Unissued Diplomas, part of an international commemoration of the lives of Ukrainian students who lost their chance to attend a graduation ceremony due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Mark Bergin Images.

Video journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol won an Oscar for Best Documentary at last week’s 2024 Academy Awards. The film is a heart-wrenching documentation of the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We can make sure that the history record is set straight, and the truth will prevail, and that the people of Mariupol and those who have given their lives will never be forgotten,” said Chernov during the Academy Awards ceremony.

In his native language, Chernov ended his speech with “Slava Ukraini.” It means “Glory to Ukraine.”

Closer to home, Maryna Zalevska, a Ukrainian student who is enrolled in her final semester of the St. Lawrence College Music and Digital Media program, wants to do everything she can to help her homeland.

She has felt that way since she landed in Canada in August 2022 as a war-weary 17-year-old, who was worried that she would have no friends here.

“I thought I would be an outsider, someone with an accent,” she said, “but I have made so many friends. My classmates have become like family, and there is another Ukrainian student, Valeriia Barinova, in the program.”

A talented opera singer, Zalevska soon became well known for her vocal skills, and she performed with the Kingston Youth Orchestra during her first few months in Kingston. She also honoured her homeland and Canada when she was invited to sing Canada’s national anthem during Remembrance Day ceremonies at St. Lawrence in 2022 and 2023.

Maryna Zalevska will receive her diploma at the college’s June convocation ceremony. However, many Ukrainian students never have such an opportunity.

Over the past month, Zalevska organized an exhibition called Unissued Diplomas, part of an international commemoration of the lives of Ukrainian students who lost their chance to attend a graduation ceremony. These students’ lives were cut short after February 24, 2022, when Russia launched war on the people of Ukraine.

The Unissued Diplomas project began in 2023 and has now spread around the world.

A friend of Zalevska’s in Ukraine was one of the organizers of the original Unissued Diplomas exhibition.

The exhibition curation material states: “Unissued Diplomas is an international project aimed at commemorating the lives of students lost due to the russian invasion of Ukraine. These students, who were supposed to receive their diplomas, were killed and never had the chance to graduate. They sacrificed their education, life goals, aspirations, and dreams for the sake of their country. This exhibition aims to remind the world about the ongoing war and the price we, as a nation, are paying daily. Through the unissued diplomas, the exhibition unveils the stories of 40 Ukrainian students killed in the full-scale russian invasion.”

Maryna Zalevska explained that the term “russia” in the curation is not a spelling error.

“Using the spelling ‘russia’ is a common idea in Ukraine now,” she said. “It is part of the Unissued Diplomas’ statement. It is also my personal opinion. We don’t see russia as a country; we view it as a terrorist state. Many of our people feel the same way.”

Although the exhibition hopes to share the stories of students who have died, some stories remain untold as there is no one left to tell them.

Leah Krylova, 20, is one of the students honoured in the exhibition who never received her diploma. A Russian missile killed her along with her entire family and some friends. According to the exhibition curation material, “We don’t know Leah’s story because she died with her whole family and now there is no one to tell her story. A russian shell hit her father’s house directly. Leah, her little sister, mother and father, Leah’s boyfriend and several of their friends who were with them during the shelling were all killed.”

The image of Leah Krylova, a 20-year-old Ukrainian student killed by a Russian missile, and the information known about her as presented in Unissued Diplomas,” an exhibition held at St. Lawrence College honouring Ukrainian students killed since the Russian invasion. Photo by Mark Bergin Images.

Much of Leah Krylova’s city, Mariupol — one of the hardest-hit areas of Ukraine — lies in ruins.

The exhibit at the college wasn’t Zalevska’s first work to honour her country. In her first semester in her Music and Digital Media program, a major project requirement involved combining sound/music with other art forms.

“My first big project involved a poem in English about Ukraine,” she said. “I am not a native English speaker, but I wanted to convey what it’s like being not just homesick, but also being from a country going through war and never knowing if I will have a home to return to. There could be no home.”

She created a film that combined her poem with sound and music, as well as digital motion graphics that made a powerful statement. It impacted those who witnessed it.

When she presented this project in front of her class, her own emotions told much of the story. She said, “It made my Ukrainian friend cry and made me cry, even though I had done the project and knew what was in the film. But when I watched it with my class, I cried.”

Word spread about her film, and she and Barinova were asked to speak to a class in the Behavioural Science degree program about life in Ukraine. Zalevska was also asked to show her film.

“Even the professor cried. It is hard to understand what life is like in Ukraine, and when people start to understand, they don’t know what to say,” she said.

This year, international exhibitions of Unissued Diplomas launched around the world on February 24.

“I wanted to help bring this exhibition to Canada,” said Zalevska. “When the war started, I didn’t want to leave my country behind. I didn’t want to move from Ukraine. I was just 17, and I realized I can do more to help from abroad.”

After being accepted into the St. Lawrence College program in early 2022, she still spent several months in Ukraine, through ongoing air raid warnings and at various times living in bomb shelters, while waiting for her September 2022 entry into the program.

Reaching Canada wasn’t easy.

Her home, Dnipro, is almost 400 kilometres southeast of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. This meant travelling through Kyiv and a country that was constantly under attack. A train took many hours to get her from her home in eastern Ukraine to Poland. Once inside the Polish border, she spent another five hours on a train to Warsaw; then she took a nine-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to get to Kingston. She’d been on the road (and on the rails and in the sky) for the better part of a full day.

“Ukraine is a beautiful country with brave people, with honest people,” she said. “War is still going on. The media doesn’t talk about it as much anymore. When the media is silent, it doesn’t mean there is no war. People are still dying. It is a harsh life.”

She went home last summer to find that much had changed. Her father had been a lawyer, but in 2022 he joined volunteers fighting for Ukraine. He is now a formal member of the military.

“My feelings have changed,” she said. “When I was in Ukraine, there were ongoing air raids and explosions.”

After spending the year in Canada, she was shocked when she returned home. “It’s not okay to get used to it,” she said.

Now in her final weeks of her Music and Digital Media diploma program, Zalevska’s capstone project, which must combine sound and other art forms, is a reflection of life in Ukraine. She and Barinova are combining their skills in designing a series of three-dimensional scenes using miniatures, to create images of what life looks like in Ukraine after more than two years of war. Her installation, along with her classmates’ works, will be in a public exhibition at the college in mid-April.

Organizing the Unissued Diplomas exhibition at St. Lawrence College was just a beginning for Maryna Zalevska. Originally, the exhibition was scheduled to be displayed at in the front lobby of SLC near the library, however, due to a groundswell of positive feedback, the timeline for the exhibit was extended. Unissued Diplomas will remain on display at the college until the evening of Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2024. In addition, Zalevska hopes to find a local setting where the Academy Award-winning 40 Days in Mariupol can be screened alongside a second Kingston exhibition of Unissued Diplomas.

For more information on the international exhibitions of Unissued Diplomas, visit unissueddiplomas.org.


Mark Aidan Bergin is a Kingston-based photographer, writer, and educator. He is currently a professor at St. Lawrence College, and his works have been published throughout Kingston and Frontenac County, across the province and country, and around the world. His ‘Street Ballerinas Performance Art‘ project is well-known locally for featuring local professional ballerinas juxtaposed against some of Kingston’s most iconic and unique backdrops.

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