Oleksandr Nikolenko
’22 M.S. Computer Science

By Kim Lamb Gregory

Oleksandr Nikolenko (center), stands center, flanked by his wife and Comp Sci professor Brian Thoms

CSU Channel Islands alumnus Oleksandr Nikolenko’s start-and-stop educational journey began in Ukraine and ended up halfway around the globe with a new job in Seattle, Washington, as a software engineer for Amazon.

“I feel this journey here and this journey overall has changed me,” Nikolenko said. “I have a new direction. I have meaning in my life.”

His friends and family live far from the area being hit hardest by the Russians, but when the war is over, he hopes to be able to help the country recover.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to help the country rebuild one day with my education,” he said.

Nikolenko completed his Master of Science in Computer Science through CSUCI Extended University in December 2022. As he walked across the stage in May 2023, his new wife, Yelyzaveta (Liza) - who had gotten out of Ukraine - cheered him on.

The road, which now includes a war, has been a long one.

Nikolenko’s journey began in a small town in southern Ukraine where he was born the son of a Ukrainian army soldier who was half Ukrainian and half Russian. Nikolenko’s mom was Bulgarian and ran a small textile shop. Neither parent had a college degree, but his father was heavily involved in Nikolenko’s education.

“My father was an intellectual and he made a profound impact on me,” Nikolenko said. “When he got older, he realized he had dreams of exploring. He wanted me to be somebody in this world — to be smart and educated. He died in 2006, but I think he would be proud of me.”

Nikolenko attended college in Odessa as an international relations major, but dropped out in 2013 and went to work as a lifeguard in Woodbridge, New York, in 2015. When he returned to Ukraine, he began dating Liza, who had grown up in the same small town in Ukraine. The two moved to Moscow for three years as it was considered an intellectual hub.

In 2019, Olkesandr returned to Odessa and completed his degree in international relations but had figured out where his career passion lay.

“I decided to change to something more technical. I was interested in artificial intelligence,” Nikolenko said. “I decided on a master’s degree in Computer Science, but it’s hard to get one if you don’t have a bachelor’s in computer science.”

Nikolenko wanted to explore the western half of the U.S., so he applied to master’s programs around California.

“I was looking for a calm and chill place. I’ve always lived in a place with colder weather where there are not that many sunny days,” he said.

CSUCI was perfect, and responsive when he contacted Extended University as “international students need fast replies,” he said.

He enrolled in 2019 and was able to fill educational gaps he had as the result of not having a bachelor’s degree in computer science. The faculty members of the M.S. Computer Science program were supportive of both his education and the career he hoped to pursue. 

Everything was going well, and then Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, and Liza was still back in their hometown.

“It was a shock,” he said. “Liza was very afraid, and I was constantly scrolling the news. But one good thing was my family lives where there is nothing bad happening. The biggest inconvenience was with lack of electricity and blackouts. I have just one relative in Kiev who didn’t want to move.”

Two months after the war broke out, Liza was able to get out of Ukraine with a humanitarian parole program and traveled six days to get to the U.S.

“There were no planes flying through Ukraine at that time, so she had to go to Romania, from Romania to Italy, then to Spain, then to Mexico, and finally to the U.S.,” Nikolenko said.

They were married at the Ventura County Courthouse at the beginning of 2023, and they plan to return to Ukraine someday to have a wedding in Odessa, which has some scenic locations and good restaurants, on the coast of the Black Sea. And hopefully, Nikolenko can use his education in Computer Science to help shape a new Ukraine.

“I feel the country has changed, not only because of the war and destruction, but because people want to move on,” said Nikolenko, 27. “We want to rebuild our country on a new foundation.”

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