DePaul alumna Natalie Jaresko serves as Ukraine finance minister

DePaul Alumna Natalie Jaresko takes her place on the Ministers’ stand after being confirmed as Ukraine’s Minister of Finance. (Efram Lukatsky | AP)

DePaul Alumna Natalie Jaresko takes her place on the Ministers’ stand after being confirmed as Ukraine’s Minister of Finance. (Efram Lukatsky | AP)

Today, she bears the financial burden of 45.4 million people, but not too long ago, Natalie Jaresko was just like any other DePaul student.

Jaresko, who graduated from DePaul in 1987 with a degree in accounting, joined two other expatriates in Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers in yet another westward step for the conflict-stricken country. Jaresko was granted Ukrainian citizenship by the president of Ukraine the same day she was nominated to serve as Minister of Finance in early December.

Born in Chicago to Ukrainian immigrants, Jaresko was raised to be very active in Ukrainian diaspora life.

“I was very blessed to grow up Ukrainian in America,” Jaresko said in a recent interview with the DePaulia. “I loved the history and culture.”

Her mother, Maria, remembers how she excelled in Ukrainian Saturday School in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, “but she always stayed humble about it. … I suppose that’s a trait of successful people.”

She cited her own immigrant upbringing for making her feel welcome as a student at DePaul, which has always prided itself in welcoming first-generation college students.

“Every debate was real, nobody sat on their laurels,” Jaresko said of her former classmates. “The people were all conscious of how lucky they were to be at a high quality university, with good Christian and academic values.”

Perhaps it’s the value of humility that leads Jaresko to compare the responsibility of managing the finances of a Texas-sized nation to “balancing a checkbook,” only if the checks were payable to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“The monetary policy I learned (as an accounting major at DePaul) helps me work with world banks,” Jaresko said. “Everything from accounting to political science has come back to be very useful … I enjoyed my education at DePaul immensely.”

“DePaul alumni are working in positions all over the world, carrying with them both academic achievement and a sense of responsibility and dedication to community service,” Carol Hughes, a spokeswoman for DePaul, said. “It was wonderful to hear that a DePaul alumna was selected for this important leadership position.”

Residents peer out of a home hit by artillery amid renewed violence near the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Jaresko’s responsibilities include managing the financial burden of Ukraine’s defense. (Manu Brabo | AP)

Residents peer out of a home hit by artillery amid renewed violence near the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Jaresko’s responsibilities include managing the financial burden of Ukraine’s defense. (Manu Brabo | AP)

Jaresko thrived at DePaul as it afforded her the springboard to move on to the John F. Kennedy School of government at Harvard University. Jaresko earned her master’s degree in public policy from Harvard in 1989.

After Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Jaresko moved there to staff the new U.S. Embassy. At the time, the U.S. State Department sorely needed experts fluent in the Ukrainian language to help transition Ukraine from Communism into the world economy.

Soon after, Jaresko was put in charge of the Western NIS Enterprise Fund, an initiative of the U.S. Government to invest in small and medium-sized businesses in Ukraine and make them into examples of success. As a Ukrainian-American, though, she could not have been more thrilled to bring her love of Ukraine with her expertise in Western business.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime to take the perspectives on freedom and entrepreneurship that I learned in the United States and combine that with the culture in which I was raised,” Jaresko said.

After the pro-Western Orange Revolution brought Ukraine into the international spotlight in 2004, Jaresko took her skills into the private sector. Jaresko managed $600 million of private investments into Ukrainian businesses as a founding partner of the venture capital firm Horizon Capital, a position she held until being named Ukraine’s Finance Minister.

“Growing up in the United States, I have a great understanding of how investors see the country,” Jaresko said, “and I have a great relationship with foreign investors because I understand Ukraine.”

When she was confirmed as Finance Minister in December, Jaresko inherited a national treasury that was emptied by the reported embezzlement of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in a three-month-long revolution last winter.

“Our government has inherited a country where the previous regime had borrowed over $40 billion,” Jaresko said. “When they left, there was nothing in the treasury, but we continue to repay our foreign partners.”

“I think they took my sister as a foreigner because she’s really the only person in Ukraine qualified to avoid a massive default,” John Jaresko, Natalie’s brother, said.

As Minister of Finance, Ukraine’s constitution tasks Natalie Jaresko with approving or vetoing all financial policy proposed in any bill that passes the parliament. Unlike the Cabinet of Secretaries in the United States — which is mostly an advisory body to the president — Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers is more legislative in nature.

When she took office, the government was also struggling to finance an unexpected war raging between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels in the far eastern border region of Donbass.

“It’s important to understand that 20 percent of our economy has been lost in the last year,” Jaresko said. “The war in the East costs $5 million per day.”

For Jaresko and the rest of her colleagues in the cabinet, though, a major concern is humanitarian.

“We’re catering to humanitarian needs to those living in the war zone, in what is the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Jaresko said. “So far, we have 850,000 registered displaced people from the war in the East.”

“It’s a real war,” Nolan Peterson, an Iraq War veteran and freelance war reporter who recently returned from Eastern Ukraine, said. “There aren’t skirmishes, or battles, or gun fights … on any given day, 13 people die.”

Violence has escalated in Ukraine in recent weeks, as NATO reported 4,800 Russian troops and 500 Russian tanks were actively engaged with Ukraine’s volunteer security forces.

“Russia continues to openly send in weapons, tanks and soldiers, and it does nothing to stop the bloodshed,” Peterson said.

As the war intensifies, more civilians have been caught in the crossfire. In the last two weeks, grenade launchers left 20 civilians dead and dozens injured after hitting commuter busses.

“Ukraine is fighting three wars right now,” Jaresko said. “One with Russia, where 5,000 citizens have lost their lives; one for economic safety, to return to growth; and a war with the credibility of our institutions,” which was greatly diminished by the former regime.

When asked why Ukrainians continue to fight in Eastern Ukraine, Jaresko said it came down to the values of freedom and human rights Westerners have come to enjoy, and Russia or the separatists cannot promise.

“Everyone recognizes that the war was started by an aggressor, but it comes down to European values; freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly,” Jaresko said. “It’s about taking away another country’s right to choose Western values that Americans take for granted.”

“As someone who has been to war as a combatant, I had always heard the expression ‘the fight for freedom,’” Peterson said. “But my time in Ukraine was different than my time in Iraq or Afghanistan, because people in Ukraine were fighting for their own freedom and democracy, for their own future, their own lives.”

It is these very observations that Natalie Jaresko had been making as a Ukrainian-American that makes her such a valuable voice for the people of Ukraine as well as a bridge between Ukraine and the West.

“I did grow up in the U.S., in a law-based society. We (in America) can’t imagine what it’s like when that’s eliminated,” Jaresko said. “Ukrainians want to live and have the right to fight for and choose a law-based society. Every American should understand the value of fighting for this.”