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Ukrainian voices on campus: Visiting scholar helps lead Ukrainian Catholic University while abroad during war

| Monday, March 28, 2022

When the war in Ukraine began, Nanovic Institute visiting scholar Taras Dobko saw his role on campus — and in the U.S. — dramatically change. Dobko, the senior vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, Ukraine, largely set aside his research. Instead, he directed his efforts toward helping UCU navigate the crisis in Ukraine and working with different humanitarian groups out of Washington, D.C. address the conflict.

Dobko came to the Nanovic Institute at Notre Dame in January to research integral human development and university life. When the conflict in Ukraine broke out in late February, Dobko’s focus switched from the theoretical research of university life to figuring out how to actually lead a university in the midst of armed conflict.

As senior vice rector of UCU, Dobko is in charge of the general operation and strategic development of the university. Thus when Russia attacked Ukraine, Dobko started pondering how to not only keep UCU functioning but also the role higher education should play in the subsequent humanitarian aid.

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, UCU — the first Catholic university to open in what was formerly the Soviet Union — suspended regular classes for the first two weeks. However, the university continued operating, Dobko said. It helped coordinate different humanitarian and volunteer work for willing students.

“We let students leave,” he said. “But we still wanted them to stay in touch and to get some practical assignments — how they can help in their hometowns and villages or cities.”

Ukrainian visiting scholar Taras DobkoCourtesy of Taras Dobko
Visiting scholar Taras Dobko is working to lead the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv during the war while he is abroad in the U.S.

Dobko compared UCU’s war-time offerings to service-learning — something he said UCU has been working to introduce for about two years. UCU wanted to make sure students were able to translate what they learned into aid on the grassroots level.

After a few weeks, Dobko said the university decided they needed to attempt to at least partially restore the regular academic process. UCU set a goal to restore at least 50% of classes, though mostly in an online format, he said. The university cannot restart its full curriculum because many faculty members are serving in the armed forces or volunteering to assist in the war effort.

UCU took measures to try to trace and accommodate its students. Roughly 140 of the 2200 students left, Dobko said while stressing that most men ages 18 to 60 are required to stay in Ukraine by law.

“Many students stayed on campus,” he said. “And in this sense, they are still, let’s say, in the university setting.” 

Some UCU students were already studying abroad at other universities across Europe. Administrators at UCU negotiated with each university to allow the Ukrainian exchange students to study at that university for another semester, Dobko said.

Additionally, some students are taking part in online UCU courses while abroad. Dobko said the university is working to place these students at another university in Europe.

Sumy State University in northeast Ukraine has been bombarded by the Russians during the war. Dobko said UCU is opening its learning management system and allowing some Sumy students to complete their academic year at UCU.

Dobko said there needs to be more than just a military front for the Ukrainian war effort. Citing men queuing to join the territorial defense, he said it is important to keep the Ukrainian economy functioning. 

“The message in general in the country is that people should come back to work,” Dobko said. “We have now enough people to fight, but [the] economy should work, [the] university should work.” 

With an inevitable post-war period coming at some point, Dobko said UCU is beginning to think about how it can help the long-term humanitarian effort in Ukraine. There are already an estimated 7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the conflict. Dobko said UCU is already preparing ways to help these IDPs and future veterans reintegrate into society when the war eventually ends.

“And the question about integration into peaceful life, about rescaling them so that they can get … peaceful jobs,” Dobko said. “And also IDPs, who are already 7 million. How to help them to find a way to start anew in their lives, and what our university could do for that.”

Dobko said UCU is weighing pausing full-time masters programs and replacing them temporarily with short-term certificate programs. These short-term programs would help account for the “brain drain” that is occurring as a result of the conflict, he said.

While in the U.S, Dobko has met with other university leaders to try to establish a solidarity network. The goal behind the network is to partner with other Catholic universities so Ukrainian students have an opportunity to continue their studies in the U.S. Dobko said there is a tentative goal to establish 300 scholarships so Ukrainian students can, for a short time, study at U.S. Catholic universities.

As part of his efforts to find future accommodations for his students in the U.S, Dobko met with the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. This was part of an extended trip to D.C. where Dobko met with representatives of different humanitarian organizations, such as the United States Agency for International Development.

Dobko focused on not only explaining the extent to which Russia was damaging Ukraine but also drawing attention to the long-term struggles bound to doom Ukraine.

“They terrorize the civic population to make it hostage in the negotiations with the Ukrainian government, to make the Ukrainian government more susceptible, let’s say, to Russian pressure in terms of negotiations,” he said.

Dobko said his semester in the U.S. has allowed him to take a more long-term approach to addressing the crisis — one, he said, that those in the midst of the fighting cannot take.

“When shock will kind of recede, a little bit of trauma will come forward and these very practical questions without answers will emerge,” Dobko said. “And in this sense, humanitarian aid is the most important thing that is needed to be addressed. But, you know, we still hope that at some moment … Russia will be defeated.”

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in business analytics and minoring in constitutional studies. He currently serves as Notre Dame News Editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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