Ukrainian Students Enrich U.S. Campuses

Bard College is the latest U.S. institution to open its doors to displaced Ukrainian students. Both the refugees and their host campuses benefit from the arrangement.

December 5, 2022
Four white students, one of them wearing a Kansas sweatshirt.
The University of Kansas raised funds to welcome four Ukrainian graduate students, including Andriyana Baran, second from left, to study and work at the university.
(Ani Kokobobo)

Andriyana Baran spent the 2020–21 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in the United States, serving as a teaching assistant and helping to develop online learning curricula for the University of Kansas at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then she returned to her home country of Ukraine to work as a language instructor for Teach for Ukraine, an NGO akin to Teach for America. She planned to live in a small city in eastern Ukraine for the duration of her two-year contract.

But when Russia invaded the country last February, she was forced to evacuate.

So she returned to KU—this time as a Ph.D. candidate—and became one of the many Ukrainian students currently benefiting from scholarships offered by U.S. colleges and universities. Over the past 10 months, a number of U.S. institutions have launched programs to support Ukrainian students on their campuses, ranging from large public universities such as Texas A&M University to small liberal arts colleges like Mount St. Joseph University, a Catholic institution of about 2,000 students in Cincinnati.

Reuters reported in August that more than 150 universities had extended some form of support to Ukrainian students since Russia invaded the country, shuttering campuses, displacing students and making it impossible for them to continue their studies. The supports include everything from waiving certain application requirements to offering full funding for tuition, room and board.

For the Ukrainian students, enrolling in college in the United States offers a welcome reprieve from the horrors of the war at home. At the same time, their knowledge and experience greatly enhance the campuses they attend, whether they are freshmen or graduate students and spending one year or all four.

“Providing access for displaced students to continue their education can be a life-changing opportunity that can provide hope during a time of deep uncertainty. It is also transformative for campuses to expand the lived experiences of their student population,” Laura Wagner, director of refugee student initiatives for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a consortium of higher education leaders focused on improving public understanding of how immigration policies impact campuses, told Inside Higher Ed in an email.

Bard College is the latest institution to open its doors to Ukrainian refugees, announcing in November that it would bring 60 students to its various campuses, with most starting next fall.

It won’t be the first time Bard has supported student refugees. In 1956, the college took in more than 300 refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary. More recently, the New York college welcomed 60 Afghan students who were displaced after the country’s government collapsed, with four more slated to come in January.

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“Bard believes that universities should be responsible civic actors, and, as such, should step up, particularly when education is under threat,” said Jonathan Becker, Bard’s vice president for academic affairs and director of the Center for Civic Engagement.

Bard’s Emergency Ukrainian Student Refuge Program will provide a minimum of one year free tuition for each student who enrolls. The scholarships are expected to cost between $5 million and $6 million in total, to be funded through private philanthropy, according to a university spokesperson.

Programs Big and Small

Not many institutions have the capacity to host as many students as Bard. KU’s Department of Slavic, German and Eurasian Studies, for example, raised enough money to host four Ukrainian graduate students, including Baran, as well as a professor who now works in the Department of Film and Media Studies, for a year.

“It was a situation where a number of people chipped in. We have an alum of our department, who owns a catering business and has a venue, and he offered the venue for free” to hold a fundraising event, said Ani Kokobobo, chair of the Slavic and Eurasian languages and literatures department. “Colleagues from the Department of Theatre and Dance offered some of their faculty to come and perform the war poetry for free by way of entertainment. The School of Music faculty came and volunteered to perform. So, it was very grassroots.”

The university subsequently ended up matching the funds.

Kokobobo said the larger community in nearby Kansas City was eager to support the event. Though the city doesn’t boast a large Ukrainian population, many locals became familiar with the war through the news—including broadcasts featuring Ukrainian KU faculty members who described the horrors their families faced—and a teach-in hosted by the university.

Baran, the KU graduate student, cites the generosity and support of the local population—not just during the war, but also throughout her time as a Fulbright scholar—as the highlight of her time there.

“I am madly in love with the Midwest,” she said. “People here are warm and open-hearted. They are always ready to help, and at the same time, they are extremely respectful; they care. I don’t know even how to express it.”

Some Ukrainian students even ended up staying with local families, Kokobobo said.

In addition to teaching, some of the Ukrainian graduate students at KU are also helping revamp the curriculum for the university’s Introduction to Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia course so it de-emphasizes Russian history and better represents the surrounding region.

“They’re teaching it, but they’re also revising it, because the field itself has been very focused on Russia, and I think it’s really important to have these Ukrainian scholars come in and reorient the focus,” Kokobobo said. “I think that that’s something that’s important to them, too, to kind of shift the intellectual paradigm.”

Freshmen in Buffalo

For U.S. institutions with pre-existing ties to Ukraine, hosting refugee students is an easy decision. KU has maintained a long-standing study abroad program at Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. Bard, too, has strong connections in the region through study abroad and summer programs in Russia and Kyrgyzstan; Becker himself worked as a volunteer teacher in Ukraine in the early 1990s, just as it was gaining its independence.

But even universities without prior experience hosting refugees or working in Eastern Europe have extended a hand to Ukrainian students. D’Youville University, a small private college in Buffalo, N.Y., put out a call last academic year for 10 Ukrainian freshmen to attend the institution starting this semester, with the promise of full funding for tuition, room and board for their entire four years.

The students were mostly 17 when they started in the fall, since Ukrainian secondary school ends a year earlier than American high school. D’Youville leaders worked to make the transition as easy as possible for the young students, driving them directly from the airport to the university, placing them on the same floor in the freshman dorm and supplying them with necessities like toiletries and linens.

“At 17, they’re trying to get towards independence and maturity in a whole new country that’s dramatically different from their country, and they’re worried about family and friends,” said Denise DiRienzo, the university’s chief mission officer.

Wagner, of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said that universities should take a “whole campus” approach when preparing to host displaced students.

“It’s important to be aware of the unique needs and assets that a forcibly displaced student brings to campus. Students are more likely to succeed if there is cross-department collaboration, from international student services to residence life to dining services to financial aid to faculty, to ensure the campus is welcoming, culturally aware and trauma-informed,” she wrote.

Because many students are concerned about their legal status and the safety of family members who are still in Ukraine, it can be especially important for universities to provide mental health and legal services, she noted.

One Ukrainian student at D’Youville, Yaroslav Malynych, said he was looking for opportunities to study outside of Ukraine when a friend of his brother passed along a notice that the New York college was looking to welcome Ukrainian first-year students the following semester. He emailed the university’s president with his curriculum vitae and got a near-immediate response asking him to join her for a Zoom interview later that week.

By the end of their meeting, Malynych said, he was (unofficially) admitted.

Malynych had only been to the U.S. once before—as a 3-year-old, while his parents worked in South Carolina—so, not surprisingly, there was some culture shock when he got off of the 18-hour flight and saw the campus for the first time.

“It was shocking, of course, because it’s totally new territory and it was a long flight, so we were exhausted, tired,” he recalled. “The next day, almost all the Ukrainian students, we gathered together, and we went walking around campus, going for a walk in downtown Buffalo.”

Since then, Malynych has taken full advantage of the beautiful landscape of upstate New York, visiting Niagara Falls and several state parks. As his first semester comes to an end, the chemistry major is eager to see what the remainder of his time at D’Youville—and in the U.S.—brings.

“In general, I really like this feeling that there’s a lot of opportunities. If I want to achieve something, I just need to work and study," he said. “That’s pretty much it.”

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