Though she’ll be attending her convocation this week from half-way around the world, Sofiia Shcherbyna is every bit as proud as the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Sport graduates who’ll receive their diplomas in person.
Studying Sport Management wasn’t even Shcherbyna’s original plan. When she came to Niagara College from Kiev, Ukraine in 2020 because her parents were eager for her to receive an education in Canada, she thought she’d be setting herself up for a future in hotel management.
“I came to study Hospitality and Tourism (Management),” Shcherbyna said. “When I was 16 on holiday in Greece, we had a tour around the hotel. I thought I wanted to work as a hotel manager. But on orientation day, I decided I’m not interested in that.”
Just a month before arriving in Canada, Shcherbyna landed a job as a rhythmic gymnastics coach – a sport she’d been doing herself for 12 years. That’s when she started to rethink her education plans.
“I realized (coaching) is what I want to do in life,” she said. “My dream is to have my own gymnastics club, and I truly believe (studying) sport management could help me achieve that goal. I knew sports only as an athlete. I wanted to understand sports from a business point of view.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent Shcherbyna back home to Kiev, where she continued her studies remotely just as her peers did. She returned to Canada for a week in January 2022 to settle some paperwork issues. It was while she was here that she was granted an interview to do her final semester placement with the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation in Kiev.
“It is incredible how this placement changed me,” Shcherbyna said. “I combined my placement with my work as a coach. At first, it was so hard, but then this experience became incredible.”
Then, just as Shcherbyna began helping the Federation prepare for the Deriugina Cup, a large rhythmic gymnastics event, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Shcherbyna fled to France for three months, then returned to Kiev – and her job with the Federation. It ended up helping her stay positive during a difficult time.
“My boss created a foundation, the Always Believe Foundation,” she said. “We help Ukrainian people and athletes. My boss, Ireesha, changed me. Her energy helped me to not fall into depression because of the war, and even to become more strong and mentally older.”
Although her time in Canada was cut short, Shcherbyna has fond memories of living abroad and of studying with her classmates.
“I came when I was 17; I did not have any experience living abroad,” she said. “But now, I understand that it was incredible. The professors are incredible. They are always there for you and the classes are both very interesting and fun.
“Preparing for exams (was) always so fun,” she said. “My classmates and I were sitting in the library, writing at a desk to memorize and test each other.”
Shcherbyna is now studying engineering in Ukraine at the State University of Infrastructure and Technology while she continues to work as a coach.
“I also work with the Foundation and I hope after the war we will have the event we were preparing for before (it started). It is in honour of the legendary coach Albina Deriugina, who started Ukrainian rhythmic gymnastics. (She) is the grandmother of my boss. Their family is a rhythmic gymnastics coaching dynasty. I wrote essays about them (as) my heroes and now I work with them. Isn’t life just incredible?”