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Before and after: how the war has impacted teaching and learning at one Ukrainian university

“The war divided my life into before and after,” says Sumy State University student, Zoreslava Shedenko. The PIE speaks to students and staff at the university to hear how they’ve adapted to a new way of learning.

Photo: Sumy State University

The university has eight air-raid shelters

“I am sure that most Ukrainians feel the same way,” adds Shedenko.

The university is located 30 kilometres from the Russian border, in the city of Sumy – one of the first to be met by Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Like all institutions across Ukraine, its staff and students, including 1,700 international, were forced to find and adapt to new ways of teaching, learning and living.

For 12 days, the city of Sumy was completely surrounded, its infrastructure attacked by bombs resulting in cuts to electricity, water, heating and communications.

“When I heard about the first attack on Kyiv, I had doubts that Russia would invade Sumy. I still felt safe then,” says Mabel, a student from Nigeria. “I even had classes that day, and everything seemed normal. However, when I heard the shots, I realised that we were really at war.”

Classes stopped as the university puts its efforts into ensuring the welfare of its students – providing daily meals and water, installing autonomous generators, relocating students and creating safe channels of communication.

On March 8 2022, the first “green corridor” was agreed on and evacuation began, with the university’s international students being among the first to leave, through university-provided transportation.

All 1,700 travelled to Poltava and then on to Western Ukraine – where, at the time, there was no active bombing or fighting. From there, international embassies stepped in to evacuate students.

“We were waiting for instructions from the government and our university. Luckily, we didn’t leave earlier because people were ordering taxis and leaving, and they were shot at on the roads because they were trying to get out earlier,” says Laul Ali, a student, originally from Nigeria.

On April 1 2022, distance learning at the university resumed, at a pace which can be owed to the virtual platforms set in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We continued the learning process as much as possible and completed the semester efficiently,” Inna Shkolnyk, vice-rector for scientific and pedagogic work at the university, tells The PIE, adding that it was only possible due to “the spirit of invincibility and tenacity” of both teachers and students.

These are the “Ukrainian traits” allowing them to fight to this day, she adds. Despite this confidence, Shkolynk admits staff had concerns that students would not choose to return to learning.

Deans and principals had even tried travelled to the the cities of suffering the fiercest battles and prolonged occupation such as Trostianets and Okhtyrka, to personally look for students.

“I do not mean that on April 1 all the students had continued studying, but gradually, they returned,” says Shkolnyk.

“I used to feel depressed thinking about losing the opportunity to learn, but, suddenly, everything changed. After we started studying, I felt better,” explains Kristian Bu Hamdan, a student from Morocco.

“After we started studying, I felt better”

“Realising the difficulties of wartime, the university is working to create the most favourable educational environment that takes into account the needs and capabilities of all participants in the educational process,” says Vasyl Karpusha, rector of Sumy State University.

The university has eight shelters located on various campuses and classes are located accordingly depending on likelihood to be online or distance learning. For example, subjects which are difficult to teach remotely, such as medicine and dentistry, are scheduled in a location near to a safe place.

“Regarding other institutes and faculties, directors and deans feel and understand the situation better in their own institute or faculty, so we gave them the authority to make decisions about the educational format. It can be online or mixed form, depending on where the students are located, whether they are in Sumy or they are scattered all over the world,” says Shkolnyk.

“When you hear gunshots and explosions outside the window, it is very hard to calm down and start doing something useful”

The same applies to teaching staff, as not all have returned to Ukraine and are able to conduct classes offline.

“But high-quality online [education] is what helps us completely and utterly now,” Shkolnyk adds.

Many accommodations have been made for students, including relaxed deadlines and attendance, with the ability to study asynchronously and access materials without having gone to a lecture, using a platform developed by university IT staff.

“Teachers record their video lectures, publish them, and students can watch them at any time, without being tied to a schedule,” Shkolnyk notes.

Thanks to a twinning initiative and partnership with the University of Liverpool, Sumy students on 13 particular overlapping courses with Liverpool can also access online resources and learning materials shared by the UK university. This includes Liverpool’s school of medicine providing resources for the entirety of a five-year medical program.

“When you hear gunshots and explosions outside the window, it is very hard to calm down and start doing something useful,” says student Karina Chernobuk.

“But distant learning is a good opportunity to distract yourself from today’s events, get yourself together, and start from scratch.”

Students told The PIE that it’s not unusual for classes to be interrupted by air-raid alerts, signalling a risk of being shelled, bombed, or attacked by missiles. When an air-rad is cancelled, classes can resume 10 minutes later.

Despite such interruptions, students told The PIE that continuing their studies, and being able to connect with students and teachers, is vital for their mental health.

“It is my light of hope for victory and a happy future,” Chernobuk adds.

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