Dunn School’s Kalyan Balaven, head of school for the private co-ed college prep boarding and day school in Los Olivos, had no idea of the floodgates that would open when he decided to find a way to help a student from the Ukraine who early last year was initially only seeking a few extra days to delay re-enrollment for the 2022-23 academic year.
“The war hadn’t started, but within those few days the invasion happened, and then her mother reached out again to talk with me,” Balaven recalled. “We get on a video call with her in Poland, with her little kids scrambling in the background, and she is telling me she’s lost everything. She and the kids got out, but her husband is still back there.”
All the student’s mom wanted was for Balaven to write a letter of recommendation from Dunn for her oldest daughter, who would try to attend somewhere closer to the family.
But Balaven refused.
“I told her, ‘No, I won’t give you a letter,’” he said. “I’ll figure out a way to fund her, so she can come back to Dunn.”
With the year’s financial aid fund already allocated, but given the extraordinary circumstances, Balaven began the unprecedented process of fundraising for a single student. When word got out, press coverage began, and as a result other Ukrainian students started to apply.
“They’d tell me their situation, just horrific stories, and I wanted to do what I could to help, and try to fund as many as possible,” he said.
Dunn expanded its efforts, reaching out even further to the larger Central Coast community, which eventually resulted in the creation of the Emergency Ukrainian Student Scholarship. The program enabled the school to welcome six Ukrainian students to campus for the current academic year.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
He’s also heard from two organizations. One in Cairo is run by a 1970s graduate of Dunn who had connected the school with African refugees in the 2010s. She told Balaven that her learning center was being shut down because contributions had been directed toward Ukraine.
“She asked if we could take some of her kids, and I told her, just have them apply. We’ll figure it out.”
At the same time, someone from a Santa Ynez Valley organization reached out about two refugee girls from Afghanistan who were in school in Iran but had to leave because the authorities discovered that their father had supported the American efforts. She asked Balaven if Dunn could take them on as scholarship students.
“I’m thinking, there’s already six students in the pipeline and this will make eight more behind them,” he said. “It’s like a domino effect from that one Ukrainian student. Now, I need to raise a lot of dollars for these kids. But I don’t know how to say no, because there’s this part of me where I can’t sleep if I have a kid asking me for help.”
Balaven said he was also worried that perhaps the community was exhausted from hearing about refugees and wanted to know what we’re going to do for the local kids. For sure, Dunn certainly wasn’t planning on being a refuge for the world’s refugees, but the truth is, Balaven said, helping them out also aligned perfectly with the school’s mission.
“The refugee program isn’t just about those kids,” he said. “It’s about arming all our students with the skills that they need, so that they can prevent refugee crises from happening. I don’t just want to raise money for these kids. I wanna raise money to create a lasting position at Dunn School in perpetuity, a position that oversees and helps support refugee students with strong English language learning and also creates courses like refugee lit, looks at refugee narratives, and offers peace and conflict studies that understands the parameters and framework that create wars in the first place. It also covers environmental justice, because environmental refugees are a huge and growing problem.”
Balaven is proud that Dunn stands out among private and boarding schools in endeavoring to create the program. But he’s also aware of another domino effect that might come from his efforts.
“Schools in general try to keep up with the Joneses, they try to compete,” he explained. “My goal is to make Dunn a proof-of-concept school where you can support refugees, and you can create real learning outcomes for all our students in the process that are really powerful for the world they’re entering. If you really want to be a change-maker, the best result is to inspire schools with much larger endowments, even right in our backyard, to create a program like this to benefit all its students.”
It’s all in keeping with Dunn’s dedication to Whole Student Education, the guiding philosophy Dunn was founded on more than 65 years ago. Which is why Dunn student life focuses on an all-encompassing experience – emotional, mental, physical, and social – and its goal to help students find their moral core.
And it’s an evolution of the school’s extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit where the Latin motto translates to “Attempt not, but achieve.”
While it costs north of $90,000 to give a scholarship, including transportation and myriad other costs for a refugee student, donations of any size help.
“Every little bit goes straight to that effort,” Balaven said. “We’re working to supplant it with aid and local community efforts and funds from our gala, but ultimately there’s a hope that we can get the community behind it. Participation is more important than anything.”
Kalyan Balaven, head of school
LynnRae Dunn, director of philanthropy