When the air raid sirens began wailing at 4 a.m. on a recent day in Lviv, Ukraine, college student Marta Haiduchok began her day seeking shelter in the basement of her apartment building.
More than 12 hours later, Haiduchok, 20, was Zooming in to her online classes at DePaul University, where she is one of 100 Ukrainian students learning alongside their American classmates in the Chicago university’s virtual classrooms.
“When the war first started I was super anxious all of the time, and it was hard to concentrate. But in my case, I’m putting so much into my education, my studies are helping me do my best to forget everything that’s going on,” Haiduchok said via a FaceTime interview with the Tribune this week from her home in Lviv, located in western Ukraine about 40 miles from Poland.
After the Russian attacks upended the daily lives of millions of Ukrainians, including college students, DePaul partnered with Ukrainian Catholic University and other higher education institutions in the region to enroll more than 100 Ukrainian college students into 42 of the Chicago university’s online courses this spring quarter.
“We were perfectly positioned to be able to help, because we operate on the quarter system, and have had a partnership with the Ukrainian Catholic University for a few years,” said GianMario Besana, associate provost for global engagement and online learning at DePaul.
Besana said he and several colleagues at DePaul had planned to visit the university in Ukraine in June, “but obviously everything is on pause, so instantly the conversation shifted to, ‘what can we do to help Ukraine?’ ”
After learning many Ukrainian students and their families were displaced from their homes, and universities across the country were operating at reduced capacity, Besana said DePaul reached out to professors who were scheduled to teach online courses for the spring quarter, asking for volunteers interested in welcoming Ukrainian students to Zoom in to their virtual classrooms.
Given the eight-hour time difference with Chicago, Ukrainian students were invited to enroll in online courses offered early in the day to allow for synchronized instruction as much as possible, Besana said.
“War is no longer an abstract concept for our DePaul students, because now, they know classmates like Marta and Sofiia, which is really powerful,” Besana said.
Sofiia Kekukh, 18, who studies English philology at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said she is enrolled in seven online courses this quarter — five with her university in Ukraine, and two at DePaul.
Kekukh, who shared her story via a FaceTime interview with the Tribune this week, said she is studying online from temporary housing at an apartment in Lviv, where she arrived recently after she and her parents abruptly left their home in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, in February.
“It was dangerous to stay there. … My boyfriend called me at 6 a.m. and said, ‘the war has started.’ We could hear the air missiles, so we left Kyiv the next day,” Kekukh said.
“I left everything I have in my life, and took only my backpack,” she said.
The family traveled by car to a region in central Ukraine, where Kekukh’s parents are staying with relatives, while she boarded a train for a 16-hour journey to Lviv, where she is completing her coursework online.
“We are seeing Russian troops destroy our city, killing civilians, and I can’t understand how they can kill children,” Kekukh said. “But I like the process of studying, because it forces me to focus, and I won’t be any help to my country without an education.”
Kekukh is enrolled in an online course taught by Pascale-Anne Brault, a French professor at DePaul, who said when the university put out a call for faculty willing to accept extra students in their online classrooms, her first thought was, “why not?”
One hurdle the Ukrainian students faced early on was ordering the online textbook, a problem that Brault said was solved when publisher Cengage immediately agreed to provide the students with free e-books and the needed platforms.
“What has really struck me about the Ukrainian students is they are extra-resilient people, even when facing these atrocities,” Brault said. “They have a thirst for knowledge, are extra eager to participate, and their inspiring work ethics are setting the tone for the rest of the class.”
DePaul professor Clara Orban echoed Brault’s admiration for the Ukrainian students, and said those enrolled in her Italian 101 course — which she teaches in person, with six students from Ukraine joining online — are “extremely focused.”
“So many of us feel powerless to do anything, and yes, we can contribute to a Ukrainian aid organization, but is that enough?” Orban said. “What DePaul was suggesting, enrolling Ukrainian students in our online classes, is extremely concrete, so I immediately said ‘yes.’”
Speaking from her home in Lviv, Haiduchok, a history major, said after two years of pandemic-era online instruction, she was elated when Ukrainian Catholic University reopened its campus for in-person instruction at the start of the semester in January.
But within weeks, the Russian invasion and escalating war shuttered the campus once again in February.
Haiduchok, who in addition to being enrolled full time at the Catholic university in Ukraine is taking two online classes at DePaul, recalled looking out the window of her apartment as plumes of black smoke filled the sky after a Russian missile struck a repair plant near Lviv’s airport.
“Knowing I need to study 24/7 really helps me, even though it can be super hard to focus on a task if every five minutes, you’re scrolling and seeing what city was bombed, and trying to figure out what’s going on, so I’ve limited myself to only checking the news every two to three hours,” Haiduchok said.
An aspiring historian — after she graduates, she plans to pursue a master’s degree, followed by a Ph.D. — Haiduchok is documenting her wartime experiences, and hopes to someday teach at a university in Ukraine.
“I really like how open the American students are, because they will tell you everything, and share their thoughts, which is really cool,” Haiduchok said. “It is hard for the average person to talk about war, because it seems so far away, and is hard to imagine. But when I speak up and bring up this topic, they all want to know more.”
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