Oleksandra and Anastasiia arrived into Finland on the 25th March. The two students are part of a group of 19 Ukrainian students from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, who were evacuated from Ukraine and moved to the University of Helsinki, following Russia’s invasion of the country.
At the time of the invasion, Oleksandra was living in Irpin, a city on the outskirts of Kyiv and across the river from the now infamous city of Bucha, where war crimes committed by Russian forces have been discovered.
As Oleksandra explains, evacuating from the city was difficult.
– We were trying to evacuate the city, however there was problem. We didn’t have a car, there was no metro and we couldn’t safely walk anywhere. We needed help, so we called our Vice Dean and asked if he could evacuate us, as we had heard he could help.
Thankfully their Vice Dean, Taras Zymbal, was able to help and he evacuated Oleksandra and a few other students to the city of Vinnytsia, approximately 250km south west of Kyiv.
It was during this journey to Vinnytsia that Oleksandra first learnt about the possibility of coming to the University of Helsinki.
– I was actually the first student from our Faculty to hear about this opportunity. As we were driving to Vinnytsia my Vice Dean explained that he had received an email from Professor Eeva Luhtakallio at the University of Helsinki, who had offered to help students in need. He explained to me that he had no idea how it would be, but he thought I would like the opportunity, Oleksandra tells.
– He then replied to Eeva and said he had students that were interested and needed help. At first, the opportunity was just for a small group of students but amazingly your faculty then offered more places, so he offered the opportunity to everyone.
“The kindness of people is really impressive”
As Professor Eeva Luhtakallio explains, following the invasion of Ukraine, she and the Faculty of Social Sciences felt a strong responsibility to help those in need.
– When Russia started the war, I was, as so many others, troubled and distressed and tried to figure out whether there is anything I could do. I wrote emails expressing solidarity to different sociology departments in Ukrainian universities, asking if there was something we could do to help. After receiving a response from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, saying we could help by taking in some of their students, I launched discussion with the faculty leadership about whether and how to make this happen.
– There was immediate support – I think the whole faculty had the same mindset of wanting to grasp this opportunity to help. From the deanship to the many colleagues who volunteered to accommodate the students, teach them, and help in numerous other ways, to our study programmes’ administration staff who rapidly started to figure out technical matters regarding the arrival of the students, it was really like the whole faculty as a community was backing up this operation.
Fortunately, at the same time the University of Helsinki granted the right to non-degree studies to all individuals impacted by the invasion. This opened the door for the Ukrainian students to study officially at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
After being moved to relative safety in Vinnytsia, Anastasia and Oleksandra began their long journey to Finland. Travelling first to Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border, then onto to Przemyśl and Krakow before finally arriving in Helsinki.
– I arrived in Finland with Anastasia and three other people on 25th March. We had all been travelling in a group because it was safer. After we arrived, we were then split up and were living in different people’s houses in the Helsinki area. Over the next week our classmates then also arrived in Finland, Oleksandra says.
When Anastasiia and Oleksandra arrived in Finland, they immediately felt the support of the Finnish and university community. Oleksandra moved into an empty apartment with a group of students provided by University of Helsinki sociology researcher Antero Olakivi. Anastasiia and another Ukrainian student moved in with a Finnish woman, whose daughter is a teacher at the University of Helsinki and had asked her mother if she could host a Ukrainian student.
The amount of support they had from strangers was a complete surprise for Anastasiia.
– When we arrived we received really great support from people. We were expecting that we would need to manage everything by ourselves, so when we arrived and there we so many people to help we kept saying “thank you” and “you don’t need to do more for us”.
– The kindness of people is really impressive.
Studying at the University of Helsinki has required some adjustment
Anastasiia and the 19 other Ukrainian students then began their studies at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences. In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the university took a number of steps, including the decision to make non-degree studies free for all Ukrainian students who had left Ukraine.
However, it was Professor Eeva Luhtakallio who arranged for the 19 students to come from Ukraine to the Faculty of Social Sciences.
The current exchange agreement between the Faculty and Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv allows the 19 students to remain in Helsinki for one and a half years to complete non-degree studies. This means that whilst they will temporarily study and earn credits at the University of Helsinki, their degrees will be awarded by Shevchenko.
The transition to studying at the University of Helsinki has proven to be somewhat of a challenge to Anastasiia, but also a great opportunity.
– In Ukraine we were all studying Sociology at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, which is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Ukraine. In Ukraine we go to university at the age of 16 or 17. We all had to study the same mandatory classes and we studied like in school, in one classroom together.
– However at the University of Helsinki, we can choose whatever course we want, apart from a few mandatory courses that were set by our Vice Dean as part of this exchange programme.
This difference in learning culture has been an interesting experience so far, Anastasiia explains.
– I think many of us really like this because it’s more interesting to choose and study what you really want and it’s interesting to then discuss and share your different knowledge, she says.
– But it’s also interesting how some students have made small groups and are choosing together what they will study as a group- so they’re replicating the system from Ukraine.
The other challenge for the Ukrainian students has been the difference in assessment methods. As Oleksandra explains, in Ukraine assessments are rarely based on writing essays.
– In Ukraine we learn a lot more orally and in groups. We have seminars where we discuss different topics and we have small tests, both of which are used as the basis for your grade.
– In Helsinki, we have to write a lot of essays and that’s kind of a challenge, because there’s a lot of self-management and it’s very hard to write in English. In Ukraine we also don’t have book exams and this is the hardest part for me.
Grants are providing an essential lifeline- but more support is needed
In March 2022, the University of Helsinki launched an emergency appeal and Crisis Fund to support students and researchers fleeing Ukraine who wished to move to the university, as well as those already at the university.
Thanks to the support of the university community, over 14,000e was raised in the spring, which has now been given directly to the 19 Ukrainian students at the Faculty of Social Sciences in the form of grants worth 670e.
As Oleksandra explains, the grant paid for by donations will provide essential support over the summer period, during which the students will be hosted by YLVA at their Domus Academica student accommodation.
– For the past few months we have all been living with different families and professors, however this week we are all moving into university student accommodation for the summer. We will be using the grant to pay for the dormitory and I personally also need a new pair of shoes, as I only have winter shoes with me.
– Whilst we will only be paying for lighting, water and electricity in the dormitory, I think in total the grant will probably cover around 70% of our expenses over the summer if we tighten our belts.
However, as Anastasiia explains, for many of the Ukrainian Students, this grant is a lifeline and is fundamentally allowing them to stay in Finland, rather than having to move back to Ukraine during the war.
– I don’t have much financial support from my family in Ukraine. So this is really useful money for me because it is so expensive living in Finland. Some students have no money from home, so they can’t financially sustain themselves without the grant. So if there was no financial support after the summer, then we would have to go back to Ukraine because it’s too expensive to stay here. That’s the truth.
There is therefore an urgent need to provide additional financial support to these students. By donating to the Ukraine Appeal, you can help us to provide financial assistance to students and researchers facing enormous personal and financial hardship as a result of the invasion of Ukraine and allow them to continue their studies at the University of Helsinki.
As a university, we are developing a number of additional support mechanisms, however we still need your support. In addition to the 19 Ukrainian students at the Faculty of Social Sciences who need additional support, since awarding the original grants, an additional 5 Ukrainian students have now moved to the university, with more expected in the future.
Despite the need for additional support, Oleksandra wanted to convey a message of thanks to those who have already donated to and shared the Ukraine Appeal on behalf of the group of 19 Ukrainian students.
– We wanted to thank you for your support because we are really grateful and we appreciate it. We understand that this is a lot and we want you to know as a community that we are grateful.
Despite this- We must not forget the war is still going on in Ukraine
To close the interview I asked Anastasiia and Oleksandra if there was anything else the university and its community could do to help them and the other Ukrainian students and researchers who have moved to the university. Their response initially surprised me, but it was an honest reflection of the current situation and highlighted the fact that it’s very easy to become disconnected from the outside world when you’re in the university bubble.
– We really appreciate this help and we can stay here for longer if we can continue to get the same level of support. But, I think it’s really important to not forget that there is a war going on and it’s really a huge global problem. People are still suffering. If we help Ukraine, we can go home and then this question of us needing more support is over.
On behalf of the University of Helsinki, we would like to thank the entire university community for its support of our Ukraine Appeal. By donating to the appeal you can help students like Anastasiia and Oleksandra continue their studies at the University of Helsinki and help us bring other students and researchers fleeing Ukraine to the university.