Will McMillan

By Laura Paisley Photos by Marc Campos
Diplomacy & World Affairs

During his gap year, first-year Diplomacy & World Affairs major Will McMillan traveled to Ukraine for a month to volunteer on behalf of the war effort. He has been gathering stories to help generate more support back at home for Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia since early 2022.

Ukraine photo gallery

Will McMillan ’27 stood alone at the train station in the tiny Polish border town of Przemysl, waiting to catch a train to Kyiv, Ukraine. It was mid-March 2023, late at night and cold, and Will had just traveled from Krakow via London. All the signs surrounding him were in Polish or Ukrainian, two languages Will did not speak.

No one awaited him on the other side of the nine-hour train ride. In fact, he had little idea of exactly what was waiting for him in Ukraine—he just knew that he wanted to be there and that he wanted to help in some way.

In the midst of his gap year, the San Francisco native had spent the fall working for a newspaper in London. His interest in Ukraine started “pretty randomly,” stemming from a general interest in world politics and conflict journalism. As he followed the war in the news, he began to make contact with a few Americans who were or had been in Ukraine and eventually realized “it was actually possible to go.”

“My goal wasn’t just to get to Ukraine for the sake of taking some pictures and then leaving,” Will explains. “I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to get the unfiltered stories. There are so many details you can’t get through the news. But the most important thing about going there was bringing a tangible sense of value.”

He connected with an organization called Mission Kharkiv that supplies emergency medical relief and lifesaving medical treatments to Ukrainians in the war-ravaged region of Kharkiv. A Type-1 diabetic himself, Will was able to procure a sizable donation of insulin, syringes, glucose monitors, and other essential items from the medical group that treats his diabetes, and arranged to have them delivered to Mission Kharkiv.

My goal wasn’t just to get to Ukraine for the sake of taking some pictures and then leaving ... the most important thing about going there was bringing a tangible sense of value.”

Once in Kyiv, Will followed up with a contact at the Ukraine branch of Global Empowerment Mission (GEM), an international aid organization that facilitates disaster relief missions. He began volunteering at one of their warehouses, helping to pack boxes of food and clothing in a room filled with non-English-speaking workers.

“We could get by mostly by pointing and it was pretty simple work filling the boxes and sending them down the assembly line,” Will says.

Will McMillan in profile, standing against Greek columns on campus

Will spent the next month staying cheaply in apartments, moving around Kyiv to familiarize himself with different areas. He joined dinners with groups of aid workers and Ukrainian soldiers who had incredible stories to share, making the war feel much more real. He also visited the suburb of Bucha, a site of terrible destruction and reported massacre by Russian soldiers early in the war.

“Even though it was just one day during the month I was in Ukraine, [that visit] made the war  feel more real than even a month of living in the capital,” Will says. “You definitely feel a little removed from the war in a city like Kyiv because it feels very first-world. But you could tell through talking to the soldiers just how brutal it’s been.”

Now at Occidental, Will is working on establishing an organization on campus centered around sharing the stories from Ukraine and doing fundraising for organizations like Mission Kharkiv. He is currently organizing a campus fundraising event for March, and has invited the founder of Mission Kharkiv to attend. His efforts have gotten initial interest from both students and faculty members.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily a lack of caring, especially at a place like Oxy, but I think Ukraine has faded out of the media spotlight, and people don’t really know or understand enough to care,” Will says. “I think hearing the stories of people that are impacted is going to be really fruitful. And if my story can reach others, it just expands the impact that I was hoping to have.”

Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs Igor Logvinenko has been impressed by Will’s activities. “Will's bravery in undertaking his travels and projects in Ukraine during the deadly war is truly inspiring,” he says. “As he takes on starting a club on campus to lead fundraising efforts, it's great that more students will get to hear about his unique story and those of the Ukrainians he met while abroad.”

Though Will is obviously focused on school right now, he hopes to return to Ukraine soon with money he saved up last summer. The focus of the next trip will be to bring more diabetes supplies and other medical supplies for the military.

“I know just how important things like tourniquets and diabetes supplies are. I can only imagine, as a diabetic myself. For people who are going through so much turmoil—losing friends, loved ones, homes, having to evacuate—knowing where they’re going to get their insulin shouldn’t be something they have to worry about.”

Being able to alleviate that pressure even a little, he says, feels very important.