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Free tutoring program for Ukrainian students gears up for influx

A Duluth teen's programming work is key to connecting volunteer tutors with Ukranian students through Tuturing Without Borders.

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Kosmos Vanchurin, 16, refines the computer program he wrote that matches volunteer tutors with Ukranian students at his family's home in Duluth. The automated matching system he created for Tutoring Without Borders has helped connect more than 1,200 students with tutors. The global tutoring network was launched in February by University of Wisconsin-Superior chemistry professor Michael Waxman and former University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Vitaly Vanchurin.
Contributed / Nargiz Dill, Studio 17
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SUPERIOR — A teen’s computer program holds the key to connecting thousands of Ukranian students with volunteer tutors through Tutoring Without Borders, an initiative started by University of Wisconsin-Superior chemistry professor Michael Waxman and former University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Vitaly Vanchurin in response to Russia’s invasion of the country.

For Vanchurin's son Kosmos, 17, the process has involved learning a new computer language, building a basic platform and refining it. The most recent version of the software automatically makes matches.

The teen has relatives in the Ukraine, which has been stressful. That helped motivate him in the early days of the project, because it was something he could do.

“But now, it’s like, I don’t only think about them. I can think about the thousands of students that have already signed up. They’re also people. I just think about everybody,” said Kosmos Vanchurin, a high school senior.

As of last week, more than 1,200 Ukranian students had been matched with volunteer tutors through Tutoring Without Borders. Waxman expects those numbers to grow when the school year starts.

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“We realize that there are millions of Ukrainian refugee kids scattered throughout the world,” the professor said, and estimates based on current student responses indicate at least 20% of them want tutors.

The matching program created by Kosmos Vanchurin holds the key to expanding the global tutoring network, Waxman said.

“I spoke to some programmers about our platform, and they expressed surprise that a high-school student was able to create, almost single-handedly, codes for such a complex system. I, too, believe that it’s a remarkable achievement,” Waxman said.

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Michael Waxman, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, tutors displaced Ukrainian students out of his Duluth home on Thursday, June 2.
Contributed / Holden Law / UWS photographer

The UWS professor has known the teen since he was 7 years old. They are neighbors on Kingston Street in Duluth. The Vanchurin family moved to Florida last year, but they volunteered to help Waxman launch Tutoring Without Borders. They are also spending the summer in Duluth.

Instead of taking an existing program and tweaking it, Kosmos Vanchurin decided to write his own to make it more customizable. Although he’d programmed things before — simple games for himself and coding for the Marshall School robotics team — this was his biggest challenge. He was nervous.

“It’s one of the first times I felt that I’ve done something that’s actually really useful,” the teen said.

Instead of using Python, the programming language he learned at Marshall School, Kosmos Vanchurin decided to use PHP, SQL and HTML. The matching would be easier to implement in those languages, he said, but it also meant learning something new.

The first version of the Tutoring Without Borders website was a coordinated effort between Kosmos Vanchurin and Waxman’s son, Sasha. At that point, all matching was done manually. The teen has been refining it ever since.

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The second version of the website was more polished; the third made much of the matching process automatic. Each new version is the product of two to three weeks of work on the part of the programmer. He works on it from two to 10 hours a day. Another teen, high school sophomore Dan Gorbatov, has shouldered some of the load.

“He just emailed us and said that he wanted to help,” Kosmos Vanchurin said. “He’s been a lot of help. I wish there were more people like him.”

They’re not done yet.

“I’d like to still continue, obviously, this project until we get as good as I can make it,” the teen said.

He could see the global tutoring platform continuing even after the war in Ukraine ends.

“It’s good to help students, but the thing is it could grow a lot further. There’s more than just tutoring these students that I could do. Like, there’s lots of students in the world, you know,” Kosmos Vanchurin said, and not all of them have the same opportunities.

The teen has even signed up as a tutor on the platform. He has yet to find a Ukranian student interested in learning programming.

Tutors are still being sought. Visit the Tutoring Without Borders website , Facebook page, or email info@tutoringwithoutborders.org for more information.

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This story had the incorrect name of the photographer who took the photo, and failed to reflect the fact that both Michael Waxman and Vitaly Vanchurin launched Tutoring Without Borders. It was updated at 8:10 p.m. July 18 with the correct information.

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