In the field of global learning, we talk a lot about what we do, how we do it, and why it matters. We are quick to point out that regardless of the area—study abroad, virtual exchange, international student services, or the curriculum—our work prioritizes facilitating meaningful connections with those whose experiences of the world are different from our own. We know that an authentic view of the world can come only from a rich and full understanding of how others think, create meaning, and act.
On May 17, 2022, as the Russian war against Ukraine dragged on with no end in sight, Florida International University (FIU) held a special summer session of its Tuesday Times Roundtable, a weekly discussion series on international issues hosted by the Office of Global Learning Initiatives (OGLI). During the session, seventy FIU students, faculty, and staff members connected with their counterparts in Ukraine. We—Hilary Landorf, executive director of the OGLI, and Malgorzata Durygin, an FIU doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction—collaborated with other OGLI staff to develop this roundtable session. Utilizing Durygin’s personal connections, OGLI staff contacted a faculty member at Ivan Franko National University (IFNU) in Lviv, Ukraine, and set up the event.
During a global crisis like the war in Ukraine, conversations such as the roundtable with IFNU can create valuable opportunities to bring students together on a personal level so they can understand and connect to one another’s experiences. This act of connection-making is at the heart of student-centered discussion programs like the Tuesday Times Roundtable, which allow students to discuss important issues, hear different perspectives, and learn about each other and the world in an ungraded and supportive environment.
The virtual roundtable discussion “The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Student Voices from Lviv,” which each participant attended via their personal computer, featured two faculty members and twelve students from IFNU’s Department of International Relations and Diplomacy. Durygin introduced the event and Nataliya Shalenna, an IFNU international relations professor, gave an opening statement. Then Landorf posed a series of questions to the Ukrainian students, ranging from “What is your day-to-day life like?” to “What do you want us to know about the situation in Ukraine?” FIU participants also asked questions, and IFNU and FIU students talked by chat throughout the event. The students conversed in English, but the introduction, questions, and conclusion were in both English and Ukrainian, with Durygin translating.
Although they were half a world apart, participants said they felt as if they got to know and understand one another over the course of the event. Ukrainian students and faculty expressed their determination with statements like: “For me Ukraine means freedom,” “Ukraine will never surrender,” and “Resilience is our weapon.” The Ukrainians even taught the Americans a few phrases like “Україна здобуде перемогу!” (Ukraine will prevail!) and “Все буде Україна!” (Everything will be Ukraine!). The Ukrainians valued answering questions and sharing their experiences. One Ukrainian student thanked FIU for hosting the event and “for giving us such opportunities to talk with you and actually to tell you the truth.”
Ukrainian students described what their lives have been like since their universities shut down for in-person learning. They talked about attending online classes from their homes or from the cities or countries where they’ve sought refuge. Students who have remained in Ukraine spoke of fleeing to the basements of their homes or nearby bomb shelters multiple times every day during air raids. The Ukrainians also shared stories about friends and relatives fighting on the front lines, living in occupied regions, and seeking refuge abroad. They explained how they’ve helped the Ukrainian army and their fellow civilians by donating funds, volunteering with internal refugees from Eastern Ukraine, collecting cooking items such as pots, pans, and utensils for those who lost everything in the invasion, and acting as interpreters for Ukrainians meeting with foreign aid workers from countries such as Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who are helping with wide-ranging humanitarian needs.
The IFNU students spoke about their struggles to live a “normal life” amid the turmoil of war. They openly discussed how they often feel confused, tired, and embarrassed. They described their fears, exhaustion, uncertainty, and anxieties about family and friends. One student stated that while he felt OK but was worried about his younger sister’s safety and well-being because of reports of torture and gang rapes of Ukrainian women and children by Russian soldiers.
Through this dialogue, the Ukrainian participants sought to ensure that people living outside of their country know the truth. “We need your support in spreading information,” one Ukrainian student said when thanking the event organizers. Others shared their contact information so that FIU students could stay connected with them.
By humanizing the news, the event transformed FIU participants’ understanding of the war. Directly interacting with those who are witnessing history as it unfolds gave them unique insights into the situation. “I now have a deeper understanding of the pain that they’re going through,” one FIU student commented after the event. “When I watch the news, I really understand on a different level.”
“I took from the discussion that . . . this is affecting all of us,” another FIU student said. “It’s not just something that is happening in Ukraine.”
“Carrying their story and their experiences forward is critical if we really expect to see change in the world,” an FIU faculty member said.
Other participants from FIU expressed their appreciation with statements like: “I’m in awe of your power, courage, and grace. You are all so inspiring,” and “Thank you for showing us a different perspective, all of your stories have an immense impact.” They were moved by the Ukrainian students’ strength, persistence, and commitment to learning, as well as by their awareness that they are fighting not just for Ukraine but also to protect the whole world from Russian aggression.
“At one point in the discussion, I thought about how we’re talking to them right here, right now, and they may not be there tomorrow to talk to us,” one FIU student said. “Tomorrow they may die, so that was probably the hardest thing for me, to know how tenuous their lives are and that they were willing to spend time with us in spite of that.”
Since the event, several participants in both countries have maintained contact through social media. U.S. participants reported that the event motivated them to educate the wider FIU community about the situation in Ukraine. For example, an FIU librarian is now developing an online library knowledge sharing guide (LibGuide) with current resources about the history, politics, and culture of Ukraine. In another instance, as co-chair of the university-wide Ukrainian Conflict Response Taskforce, Landorf and her colleagues set up a scholarship fund to provide financial support to FIU students from Ukraine.
Participants from both institutions experienced the power of connecting with people across the globe and plan to hold further intercultural dialogues. IFNU’s Shalenna invited FIU to collaborate both on additional online dialogues and joint actions to promote peace. FIU will also hold similar online dialogues; the next one will take place with students from Ukraine’s Chernivtsi National University on October 26, 2022.
Photo: Ivan Franko National University of Lviv in Ukraine (Orest Hohosha)