Campus president knew refugee lifestyle firsthand


Luba Chliwniak, newly hired president for Downtown Campus, has endured a life trajectory that in some ways resembles those of Pima Community College refugee students.

Chliwniak  and her older brother were born in a displaced persons center in Belgium.

Her parents, both natives of the Ukraine, lived in two displaced persons centers after being liberated from a German labor camp at the end of World War II— first in Germany, then in Belgium.

Chliwniak’s mother and father met in the German labor camp, where they resided as prisoners of war.

After liberation, her parents had a choice of returning to the Ukraine, which was under Soviet rule, or staying in a displaced persons center and waiting for sponsorship to another country.

“Ukraine was a captive nation of the Soviet Union,” Chliwniak said. “If they lived in Ukraine, they’d be under communism and that was not where they wanted to be. They wanted to be in a democratic society.”

They waited.

She estimates her parents spent six to seven years in the centers. Eventually, a family in Canada sponsored her family as refugees. Her father worked in a steel mill.

“I was 3 years old when we landed in Canada,” Chliwniak said. “My father worked in the coal mines in Belgium, then we were sponsored into Canada and he worked in the steel mills in Canada. They brought a lot of refugees to work in the steel mills.”

Chliwniak finds her mother’s situation inconceivable. She questions how her mother survived the German labor camp and doesn’t believe she personally could have survived.

She said horrible things happened in the camp, especially to women. “It is hard to conceive of what life must have been like for them through no fault of their own.”

Her parents’ background has influenced her perspective on taking things for granted.

“While I was growing up, we didn’t take even a piece of bread for granted,” Chliwniak said. “Some days, even a piece of bread was a special treat for the laborers.”

Second-hand purchases were another fact of life.

“They didn’t care if they bought second-hand furniturethey were just happy to have furniture,” she said.

“All of us kids wore second-hand clothes from the refugees that came before us,” she added. “As their lives got better, they handed down their clothes and their stuff to those of us who were coming in.”

Chliwniak’s childhood memories begin in Canada.

“English was not the language we spoke at home, we spoke Ukrainian,” she said. “I didn’t learn English until I went to school.”

The refugees considered learning English and acquiring an education as ways to improve their circumstances.

Chliwniak earned a doctorate in higher education from the University of Arizona, a master’s in counseling and guidance and a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

She served as a dean and then executive director at Cochise College in Douglas, and has been a vice president at community colleges in New York, Maryland and Tennessee.

Money was always the constant barrier to achieving her academic goals.

“I was paying my own way. I was working the whole time,” she said. “That’s a challenge. I really appreciate our students who have to work, go to school and raise their own tuition and textbook money. I really appreciate the position they’re in.”

Her advice to students who must work and go to school is to “keep the end goal in mind.” She understands how easy it is to toss aside long-term goals but knows that rewards are waiting.

“Attend classes every day, even though you’re working… keep up with your studies,” she said. “It’s hard, I know it’s hard, but you have to keep both going. You just have to.”

Chliwniak advises students to keep their investment in mind, and remember where their education will take them.

“They used to say, back in the old days when we applied for loans to go to school, ‘if you can earn the equivalent of your student loan in your first year, you made a good investment.’”

Luba Chliwniak stands outside her office at Downtown Campus.

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