Chernobyl resident secures place at Durham


Nineteen-year-old Olenka Bordakova, who was raised near the site of the infamous 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has secured a place to study international relations at Durham this academic year.

Miss Bordakova arrived in the U.K. seven years ago, speaking limited English. Helped by the Chernobyl Children’s Lifetime charity, which aided children affected by the fallout from the disaster, she was placed under the care of foster parents Chrissi and Thomas Kelly. She gradually learnt English reading children’s books such as The Gruffalo.

With the help of her school, Bishopstrow College, a school for international students, she was successful in her GCSE examinations and won a full bursary to study for her A-Levels at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 2017.

She received her grades whilst at home in Ukraine and successfully secured a place on her course, achieving AAB in politics, maths and economics respectively. As an international student she is obliged to pay the full £19,250 tuition fee yearly for her course, and is being helped to fund her studies by her former foster parents and through fundraising. 

Ms Bordakova described how different her life as a child was to living in Britain, describing how tasks often taken for granted here were incredibly difficult under the shroud of Chernobyl. Speaking to The Times, she remembered how access to fresh fruits and vegetables was difficult due to them having a “really low quality” or having “a lot of chemicals”.

Looking to the future, she also mentioned how she wishes to go into a political or diplomatic career, mentioning how she wishes to “do something for my country” and going to Durham was for “the benefit of everybody” and not just herself.

Speaking to Palatinate, Olena described how she adjusted to life abroad and what finally made her choose Durham:

1) What was the most difficult thing about adjusting to life in the U.K.?

The most difficult thing about coming to the UK, I guess, was adjusting to the British culture which was completely new to me. Learning to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ so many times a day was difficult at first, but I did get a hang of it in the end. Also, the language. Before I arrived, I’d have never studied anything in English and so doing Maths and the sciences turned out particularly hard. However, I did have the best possible tutoring at Bishopstrow College, where they taught me all I had to know.

2) What are you most excited for/nervous about coming to Durham?

It’s funny, but the thing I’m most excited but also nervous about is making friends and fitting in with the community. What’s exciting is that I know we’re all in the same boat, we’re equals, which means it will be easy for us to get along with each other. I look forward to all the new experiences at Durham. Lectures and classes, enjoying but also failing at being independent. It is the learning process of being on my own that excites me in both educational and living aspects. On the other hand, it’s so scary and I’m even a bit apprehensive about being in a new environment and living a completely different life. Dividing my time appropriately so that’s it’s not all work and no play, but a healthy balance. Although I’m sure I’ll learn everything when I get to Durham!

3) What would you say to someone in a similar situation to yours who doesn’t have the confidence to strive for higher education?

I would definitely recommend to just believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter what the odds of your success are, if you just go towards your aim, you’ll get there one way or another. I’ve had numerous setbacks on my journey and I’m sure I’ll have many more. The secret is to keep going, keep pushing through and not let anyone stand in your way. Higher education is what gives us specific knowledge that so many people don’t possess. And knowledge is power, so pursuing it means becoming powerful. Powerful individuals thrive and push others to thrive with them!

4) Who was your biggest inspiration on your journey to Durham?

The biggest inspiration on my journey to Durham would have to be Chrissi Kelly, my all-time supporter. Ever since I stayed with her and her husband for the first time in 2012, I knew she was a fascinating woman. From her I learned perseverance and resilience. I thank Chrissi for all the work she’s put into me. Every word of hers makes me believe in myself and what I’m capable of. One should never let such people go.

5) Where do you see yourself in the future after graduating?

As I chose to do International Relations at Durham, I see myself internationally involved in the future. By this I mean that I want to keep learning and working with people from all over the world, but at the same time stay connected to Ukraine, where I’m from. Being educated in the UK is not a selfish endeavour for me. What I want most of all is to give back to the community I grew up in and the community that helped me on my way. I want other Ukrainians to follow my example and believe in themselves, because we are not just a post-soviet nation, we are the future of progress.

6) If at all, how do you think your upbringing makes you different from other young people?

It’s hard to say whether I’m much different from other young people. I like to think that I’ve had two upbringings: one back at home and one here, in the UK. Although, I guess, I do sometimes see things differently than others. My parents brought me up to know the value of money, to learn that before you spend, you have to earn. I was also taught to love education. No matter whether I enjoy it or not, it’s one of the most useful things in life (luckily I do enjoy education). Living in the UK, however, taught me to be adaptable. Today, I can get used to anything, and that I think is a strong trait.

7) What made you choose Durham as your firm choice?

I’d never been to the north of England before I chose Durham. Going somewhere new really excited me. This, however, wasn’t the reason I actually chose it as my firm choice. I luckily had the opportunity to hear from someone with the firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a student at Durham. It was Chrissi Kelly’s son who told me all about it and verbally made me fall in love with the place and the environment. He himself did PPE, close enough to what I wanted to study, and so I knew it was a place for me. Having visited Durham only confirmed my feelings about going there, and so now I’m over the moon!

8) Which college did you decide on and why?

It didn’t matter to me which college I would be allocated to, as I knew every one of them would be a great home for me. Having researched all of the colleges, I simply couldn’t make up my mind as all of them presented a superb environment for a student like me!

Photograph by and Nicola Woolcock via The Times

Olenka will join the university in the new academic year of 2019 amongst thousands of other successful applicants. She has created a GoFundMe page in the hope of raising £60,000:

Photograph : Matthew Clayfield via Medium


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