How is the Russia-Ukraine war impacting international student exchange?

As uncertainty reigns, colleges and universities must consider the effects on Russians and Ukranians studying in the U.S. and provide robust resources.
By: | March 3, 2022
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There are approximately 5,000 Russian students attending institutions of higher education in the United States and 1,700 more from Ukraine – and they often mingle via international offices on campuses.

Unfortunately, that same diplomacy is not occurring between their two nations as Russian forces have invaded, bombed and threatened more lethal action as they storm through Ukraine’s major cities and small towns. Ukraine’s citizens are gamely fighting back, hoping for peace and to keep their independence. It is a developing and confusing situation for those who’ve come here to study, build relationships and learn about new cultures, including each other’s.

At the University of South Florida, the war hasn’t yet broken the alliances of those who’ve come together from two different worlds separated by one border. “Certainly, our students from Ukraine are very concerned about friends and family, their home country and their sovereignty,” says Kiki Caruson, Interim Vice President of USF World at the University of South Florida. “Our Russian students are very concerned about their Ukrainian counterparts and how they will be perceived in our culture, as agents of a government that they may not agree with. They all know each other, they do things together. So they’re friends first and representatives of their countries second.”

The Russian invasion has sparked backlash on the internet and during rallies on some college campuses, but leaders at USF and other proactive institutions are sending strong statements to their communities to not place blame or call out those who are in the U.S. simply to get an education. Many colleges, including USF, are holding peaceful gatherings or candelight vigils. “None of them are responsible for government action,” Caruson said. “That’s surely a message that we’ve been pushing because there’s been some ugly stuff on social media.”

For those here from Russia and Ukraine, and other students who empathize with them, uncertainty reigns. Will Ukraine fall? Will the conflict affect other nations, including the U.S.? What happens to students and their families if escalations don’t get tamped down quickly? And what will the immediate future look like for these students?

“In terms of the summer and fall, it’s probably too early to tell what the longer-term impact will be on exchange programs between the United States and Ukraine,” says Jason Czyz, Co-President of the Institute of International Education. “But if you look at the history of our relations – the IIE was actually founded during the Russian Revolution – throughout the Cold War, the good and the bad, our universities have remained open to Russian students. My guess is that whole cultural and educational exchange between our countries will continue.”


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In the meantime, the IIE has sent an appeal under its Emergency Student Fund program to get grant money to Ukrainian students in need. So far, 50 institutions in the U.S. have responded. Czyz says it is likely that several more rounds of funding will be forthcoming. In addition, it has several other programs that will help in the long term – those that have helped in other impactful situations, such as Afghanistan and Haiti – including placements for scholars so they can continue their academic careers, teaching and research, as well as a protection program that helps place artists temporarily in art studios and museums. The IIE also has an Odyssey scholarship that helps pay basic necessities for refugees that Czyz says likely will be expanded to 15-20 students in the future.

In addition, several national organizations and politicians have called on the federal government to intervene and grant temporary protective visa status to those foreign-born citizens in the U.S., including international students. Students pursuing undergraduate or higher degrees face a long road ahead, but there are some who will be graduating in May that face an even more uncertain future. They could apply for optional practical training to remain in the U.S. Yet, most are concerned about their families and colleagues, their nations and more tangible resources. USF and other institutions also have students online in Ukraine that they are concerned about.

“We’ve got a student who’s in Ukraine, studying with us online, and we’re desperately trying to get in touch with him,” Caruson says. “The students [in the U.S.] need extra hours to work. So wherever we can, we are going to try to find university jobs for students who are eligible for those. The overarching conversation has not been, oh my gosh, I’m graduating. The conversation has been, I’m really scared about what’s happening back home. I’m scared about my family. I’m concerned about world events. And on the horizon, I’m worried about financials, because I know this is going to tie up bank accounts. If the U.S. sanctions Russia, what does that mean?”

One of the disappointing offshoots of the war for the international student community is that exchange programs were seeing a nice rebound two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, as noted in the IIE’s latest Snapshot report in the fall. The unrest is now sparking uncertainty about the near-term future across the globe from many students, including U.S. students pursuing study abroad, even to countries that have no ties to Russia or Ukraine.

“We’re starting to get a lot of questions,” Caruson says. “Is study abroad going to happen? Even questions about Panama. At this time, we’re not canceling programs. We’re not suspending programs. We don’t have any programs going to Russia or Ukraine. In the past we have, but because of COVID, we’ve had to be very selective about where we go. We monitor developing situations and have become very agile.”

Though it might take time to get all of the issues sorted and get students help, there is confidence that international exchange with those nations eventually will recover and rebound.

“There is a huge pent-up demand for international exchange and scholarship,” Czyz said. “People want to get back out on the road and overseas and experience different cultures learn different languages. Whether this war will have a chilling effect on that. I don’t know. But regardless of whether it’s a pandemic or a war, as soon as things start to ease, you see people start moving again. I expect that if this does have a chilling effect, we’ll see the same thing here. We’ll see exchange programs continue and be just as robust, if not more robust than before.”