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Northgate HS student from Ukraine continues his "If I Could Change the World" project this summer linking local teens to those in his native country

Northgate HS student from Ukraine continues his "If I Could Change the World" project this summer linking local teens to those in his native country

By Theresa Harrington Brandt, MDUSD Public Information Officer

Northgate HS student Mark Burenko's "If I could change the world" project was so successful when he was a sophomore that he continued it last summer and during his junior year in 2023-24 - and is now recruiting teens to start it up again on July 1st, with a goal of ending in mid-August. However, those interested can also sign up after July 1st and participate on a rolling basis. The project connects local teens to others in Ukraine via Zoom, helping Ukrainian students learn to speak in English and giving American students the chance to socialize with their counterparts in a war-torn country, while talking about things they have in common, as well as their differences.

"We refer to it as a 'speaking club,'" Mark said. He began the project with the idea that he would try to help Ukrainian students get better access to education, after moving to Walnut Creek four years ago from Ukraine at the beginning of the pandemic, when he was finishing up 7th grade. Mark was already in the United States when Russia started the war in Ukraine, but he visited last summer and experienced what it was like to go into a basement during an air raid, while visiting one of his childhood friends.

"I started the project because there is in fact a lot of trouble with access to education in Ukraine right now," Mark said. "The war destroyed a lot of schools, and even in the schools that are still there, students either have to work online because they don't have a bomb shelter or have to frequently interrupt classes to hide during air raid warnings. In general, learning English is very important for Ukrainians right now, since that is what's used to communicate internationally."
Although life for his peers in Ukraine is stressful, Mark said they enjoy talking about music, movies or books, which helps reduce their stress and relax them. He compares life in Ukraine to being stuck inside during the pandemic. "Everything feels very small and you don't feel like there's a lot of people outside your tiny place," he said. "But you get to speak to people somewhere else and know what the weather is like in California while you're in a village in Ukraine and it makes them feel the world is big and there's a lot of interesting things in it."

Since Mark still has family and friends in Ukraine, he initially contacted his old school and spoke to his former English teacher, who helped to put him in touch with some students he could speak to so they could practice their English. "It was really nice to see how excited they were to have something like this," Mark said. During the second semester of his sophomore year, more students from his class got involved and he reached out to a tutoring center director, who helped coordinate students in Ukraine to speak to the Northgate students. The woman who helped coordinate the talks advised the Northgate students not to speak about the war at first, but by the end of the second semester, some Ukrainian students became more comfortable talking about it, Mark said. For the "I could change the world" fair at the end of the second semester, Mark and other Northgate students who participated painted Ukrainian flags on their cheeks and made a Ukrainian wreath to bring attention to their project. 

To continue the project last summer, Mark contacted the coordinator of the Junior Academy of Sciences in Ukraine and she helped to sign up 780 Ukrainian students interested in speaking with American students. Of those, about 500 showed up regularly for Zoom chats with about 20 local teens that Mark recruited to speak with them from July 16-August 28, 2023. Each local teen spoke to a group of 10-20 Ukrainian students, with Zoom meetings happening two to three times a day, Mark said.

This year, Mark rekindled the project from January 13-March 23. And now, he's recruiting again for students interested in participating in his project this summer. He encourages those who are interested to download the Remind app and enter the code @spclua. Those who join via Remind will receive a message with details about participating. He invites anyone with questions to contact him at

Ukraine project


  • Northgate HS