Students from around the world attend the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Currently, there are nearly 70 international students enrolled at UAPB. Many travel to the university for its renowned Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries while others choose UAPB because circumstance intersects with opportunity.

Kennedy Abanihe grew up in Lagos, Nigeria with plans to become an anesthesiologist. He excelled at an all-boys boarding school, mindful of his professional aspirations.

“Competition was really tough… so there was no time for distractions,” he recalled.

When the time to apply for college arrived, Kennedy carefully weighed his options. He was accepted to schools in Australia, the United States and Ukraine. He chose Ukraine because he could become an anesthesiologist in six years while it would take 12 to 14 years in the U.S. But a few months into his studies in Ukraine, Russian troops invaded the capital city, Kyiv. It was February 2022.

He said, “Everyone was living their daily lives. Nothing was closed. Everything was open. It was just like a very normal day. There was no fear until the initial attacks. We all had to go to a bunker… in case of an explosion so you could be safe. We stayed there the first night, and the next day everything closed. It was weird like in a movie.”

After the third day, he had decided to leave Kyiv. Students were leaving the dormitories in mass returning to their homes and villages. However, Kennedy did not have family in the area. He and some friends chose the train as their transportation for escape. Kennedy and his friends became separated, but he pressed on and traveled to Austria and finally to Germany, talking with his family in Africa as his collegiate plans changed.

“I didn’t want them to panic, and I told them we needed to strategize about our next steps,” he explained. “I didn’t want my mom to panic so I said it was a very fine situation.”

While in Germany, Kennedy maintained his “zeal” for school. He applied to universities in Germany and the United States. The now 20-year-old didn’t know anyone in Arkansas and still hasn’t “reflected on the whole experience,” fleeing Ukraine and living in Germany for a short time. But he believes he made the best decision when he applied to UAPB.

He said, “I think it was God actually. I would have a better career here in the United States. The scientific community is better.”

When Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border, Timur Alanin was in Turkey but had an airline ticket to fly home to his native country. His mother told him to stay one more week in Turkey where he had wrapped up a golf tournament. At the end of the week, a friend in Bulgaria invited him to stay with him.

“I lived basically a month there [Bulgaria],” Timur said. “Then my mom said, “Let’s try going to the United States to play golf.”

For the next several months, Timur’s life was shaped by the goodwill and generosity of strangers. He turned to the internet, searching for the Top 50 Golf Courses in America. One of his teammates had found a way to Florida where he would play golf. During a TV interview about Ukraine and the war’s displacement of families, the teammate mentioned other golf players needed assistance. Offers poured in to help.

Timur explained, “We found a guy on Facebook who was buying some tickets for Ukrainian people to fly to the United States. My mom and I decided to try it, and he bought tickets for us for free. I was like, ‘Wow … it’s a scam or something.”

But it was a legitimate offer. Timur and his mom flew to Boston where his mom, who is a tennis coach, contacted a colleague. The Florida friend recommended Timur travel to California where other contacts were available to help. And the West Coast was the next stop.

In 2023 Timur graduated high school in California. By then he had met Justin Lee who plays golf at UAPB. Justin introduced Timur to UAPB’s head golf coach Roger Totten, and in August, Timur became a member of the university’s golf team.

“We won SWAC last year – without me, of course – because I was a freshman,” said Timur.

But this year when UAPB’s golf team teed up for what became another SWAC Championship, Timur was a contributing factor.

“Timur played very well throughout the season, which helped us win our 2nd SWAC Championship,” Golf coach Roger Totten said. “I am thrilled for the student-athletes and the university, for winning back-to-back SWAC Championships. I am proud of how the team stepped up and performed, bringing home the hardware.”

For the second consecutive year, Timur and his teammates will play in the NCAA Regional Championship. For a teenager whose world was upended by war, Timur has remained remarkably steadfast. Since he enrolled in UAPB, his mother has returned to Ukraine and his father died. Understandably, some days are emotionally difficult for the 18-year-old.

“I’m just trying not to think about it,” he added. “You know I’m here for one goal – to play golf and try to become a professional golfer, make my dream come true, study, get a good education and play golf.”

For information about UAPB’s Office of International Programs and Studies, contact Dr. Pamela Moore, associate dean for Global Engagement, at 870.575.8545 or [email protected].