Academies4Ukraine project aims to strengthen the resilience of the Ukrainian and European higher education system

The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war also limited the fair accessibility and participation of many students in their educational system.

The conflict forced many universities to reorganize their academic activities, shifting most of them online and placing students in the same difficulties experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic: unequal access to lessons, isolation, psychological distress, and lowered quality of educational outcomes. A study of the mental and emotional impact of the conflict on Ukrainian university students and personnel found that 97.8% of respondents had worse psycho-emotional outcomes with higher depression, loneliness, nervousness, and anger [Kurapov et al., 2022]. In this context, the Academies4Ukraine project, funded by the European Union Programme Erasmus+ in 2023, aims to strengthen the resilience of the Ukrainian and European higher education system. 

The University of Helsinki stands as a crucial partner in a large European consortium dedicated to supporting Ukrainian students. Through initiatives like facilitating regular student exchanges under Erasmus+ and providing vital assistance for their well-being, the university has demonstrated its unwavering support. The Ministry of Culture and Education has funded a full-time university lecturer to teach and support Ukrainian students.  Kaisa Kuurne, a sociology lecturer working in the position, acts as the tutor teacher to ensure continuous support for the students' needs. Kuurne leads the Helsinki Erasmus+ project that aims at fostering academic resilience of students via supporting their everyday well-being and sense of belonging.

This collaborative project, which currently involves 14 Ukrainian exchange students, one PhD student, and two project planners (Vilma Nihti and Mariia Fursina), along with Helsinki project coordinator Kaisa Kuurne, has formed a tangible and reciprocal support network focusing on the primal goal to enhance the everyday well-being and sense of belonging of Ukrainian students amidst wartime challenges. This is a way also to support students’ academic resilience. 

Drawing from the University of Helsinki's expertise, the project aims to disseminate best practices in psychological support tailored to situations of war, conflict, and other crisis. The intention is to inspire similar efforts within European academic systems, promoting a culture of solidarity, empathy and support. This commitment includes sharing valuable insights and knowledge through the creation of a digital handbook, ensuring that these resources are widely accessible and beneficial beyond the project's scope.

Kaisa Kuurne points out that we are a higher education organization and our main task is to offer higher education.

"What we, in addition, try to do in the Helsinki project, is to create space for regular student life experiences, and moments of meaning and lightness in the midst of hard times. It’s lovely to see our Ukrainian students smile and enjoy their time together," Kuurne says.

All Ukrainian students who feel they need more support, also have a chance to talk to a Ukrainian psychologist.

"In traumatic life situations, people don’t always need professional support, but kindness, community and care. It is something all of us can give. My hope is that later in life, students would remember our community and kindness when thinking back to their time in Helsinki," Kuurne states.

The project is implemented by an international partnership made of six European partners: i-strategies (Italy, project coordinator), University of Helsinki (Finland), Riga Technical University (Latvia), Uman State Pedagogical University (Ukraine), Kherson State University (Ukraine) and Odessa National University of Technology (Ukraine). Academies4Ukraine -project idea came from Gianluca Vagnarelli, i-strategies founder in Italy. Academies4Ukraine -consortium has created a new academic solidarity  concept that will be further developed during the project (2023-26).

Students' thoughts

Anna Severyn, undergraduate sociology student  

"No one is immune to the possibility of falling victim to a Russian missile.... Today it is difficult to stay strong when there is a war going on around you..." - I often came across such thoughts when I was in Ukraine. I am currently an academic mobility student at the University of Helsinki, studying sociology for the second semester. While studying in Finland, I became a member of Academies4Ukraine -project. Being involved in the project gave me a taste of life as it was before the war.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes in my inner well-being occurred after visiting a psychologist. After these sessions, I felt a decrease in anxiety and an awareness of what I needed to work on next. It helped me to distract myself from various unpleasant thoughts and delve deeper into self-knowledge. 

The trip to Turku at Christmas is a fascinating memory for me - it was fantastic! Academies4Ukraine definitely has the prospect of development and significance for Ukrainian students. The activities it offers distract from negative news and unpleasant memories."

Olya Vashenyk, undergraduate sociology student 

“Academies4Ukraine has become an indeed essential project during my stay in Finland. At the moments, when you feel lonely or just want to spend some time qualitatively, the team introduces amazing opportunities to unite with other active members.”

Olya Shevchenko, undergraduate sociology student 

 ”As a participant in the project, I can say that the emotional state of students from Ukraine has improved thanks to all the activities that are taking place. Being an exchange student is mentally difficult - you are not familiar with foreign culture, your family is far away. However, for Ukrainian students it is even harder, because we are worried about our family, the situation in the country in general, and many of us do not have a sense of home. 

Therefore, trips and meetings introduce us to the culture of the country and help us to get away from our daily worries. I can also say that the project has a positive impact on our academic success, because feeling better mentally makes it easier to achieve success in other areas”

Mariia Prystypa, a doctoral candidate

"For me, the Academies4Ukraine project is, first of all, people. Finnish colleagues who get involved in our sorrows and put their own time and effort to make someone's life better.

I am happy for the Ukrainian colleagues who have this opportunity to join international scientific work, to get to know different approaches in their professional field, to enhance their research mindset. As well as to spend some time in a safe environment, which is no less important."