Yan Starodubets ’24 featured in Newsday

From Jim Merritt, Newsday.com

Yan Starodubets made friends and turned heads at The Stony Brook School by going head over heels — literally — for his classmates.

“I became famous for doing my backflips,” said Starodubets, 18, a self-taught gymnast in his native Ukraine. He regularly performed the move — on request — on the school lawn and at special events. He became so renowned for his signature somersault that, he said, “The flag football team asked me to do a backflip every time they made a touchdown.” He also leaped into action at the senior prom and at commencement exercises — in his graduation gown.

“Yan Starodubets might initially appear to be a typical teenager,” said Stacey Lingle, assistant director of college counseling at The Stony Brook School, a private, Christian college preparatory boarding and day school for grades 7 to 12. “But when you learn about where he’s been and where he’s going, you realize how extraordinary he really is.”

Two years ago, Starodubets was living in a war zone, at home in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. He said he was preparing for the finals of the All-Ukrainian Chemistry Olympiad when Russian bombs started dropping day and night, killing many Ukrainians. It was “hell on earth,” Starodubets recalled.

The chemistry and mathematics whiz, who’d won top academic prizes and tutored grade school kids in STEM topics (science, technology, engineering and math), suddenly found himself facing an uncertain future.

“A lot of good teachers and my classmates went abroad, and I did not know what to do, because I needed education, I needed to get a diploma,” he said. Too young to serve in the army (Ukraine’s draft-eligible age for men is currently 25), Starodubets said he decided that “education is what I can personally do now as a teenager” to serve his country.

The teen said he found that educational opportunity with Gravitas, an online extension program of The Stony Brook School, to which he received a full scholarship in 2022. By day, he studied and worked as a STEM teacher for younger students at a school in Ukraine. At night, he said he attended Gravitas classes and clubs.

Studies were often interrupted by air raid sirens and a retreat to underground shelters, he said. At times his building lost electricity, and he couldn’t read or connect to his online classmates, he recalled.

A chance for respite came last summer after Starodubets was named one of 50 finalists for a global student prize. The Stony Brook School invited him to finish his high school career that fall in person on its Long Island campus.

During his time studying online, Starodubets said he developed a lightbulb that can operate without an electricity source and was on a student team that worked with NASA to send experiments to the International Space Station.

After completing college in the United States, Starodubets said he looks forward to peacetime reunions in Ukraine.

“When the war started, it was the last time I saw all my friends”, he said.

WHAT’S NEXT? University of Richmond in Virginia, majoring in chemistry on a four-year scholarship.

I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO: “Going to college football games and cheering for our school’s team.”

THE PAST FOUR YEARS HAVE TAUGHT ME: “How limited our ability is to predict what is going to happen.”