The one element colleges must address head on during the Russia-Ukraine war

With a murky future facing international students, institutions should be ensuring key supports are in place.

Endless media reports and images of horror. Worries over family safety 5,700 miles away. Feelings of isolation and concern about backlash.

Those are the fresh scars of war, not only for students who are here from Ukraine and Russia, but also for those from other nations who have created close bonds with them through their colleges and universities. Even students who may not have those deep connections are experiencing some level of pain after learning more about the conflict and their plights.

Institutions of higher education have become masters at delivering supports for the international student community, from financial aid to housing assistance and advisement, especially during times of crisis. But the one element that remains absolutely vital, say health and global college office leaders, is ensuring that their well-being and mental health are being addressed.

“It’s the uncertainty that’s really crippling,” says Seli Fakorzi, Director of Mental Health Operations at telehealth provider TimelyMD, which serves many college campuses. “Their fears are legitimate. They’re seeing themselves in other people’s shoes. There’s always that constant worry, in general, for international students. Even before the war, I noticed that a lot of them are concerned about their family, their well-being, how they’re surviving. It’s a huge burden for them to bear.”

Oftentimes, the mental health element can go overlooked as supports pour in to help those populations.

“We set up international programs, and the idea is that the students have a place to live, learn how to speak English or they build community with other international students,” Fakorzi says. “Those are all great things. But building a system that really supports their mental health means that they have a safe place to discuss all the things that are weighing on them outside of the classroom – feeling a part of the community, feeling like they have access to their family. Some of them came here freshman year and haven’t been able to make it back home to visit in three or four years. That can weigh on a way on a student at that age.”

And there is no certainty that they’ll be able to return anytime soon. Russia’s forces have struggled to overwhelm cities, meeting strong resistance from Ukraine soldiers and individuals, and the country may take decades to rebuild. Collectively, Russian and Ukrainian students in the U.S. number nearly 7,000, according to data from Study International. They come here will the goal of getting an education and building a better life. And yet, their minds are often on what they’ve left behind.

“Where it’s hitting them the most, as it was a little bit earlier in the year [with the pandemic] is, how do I plan for the rest of my life when I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Fakorzi says. “Our international students have been displaced times two. They’re here in the states, and they don’t have any connection sometimes with their family abroad. What happens if we don’t graduate? What happens if we can’t go home? What does all of that look like it for students that are already dealing with some level of separation, anxiety, depression, stress and feeling overwhelmed?”

Mercifully, many of them can find support through international offices and communities on their campuses. Fakorzi says that can help them feel less displaced, like they have a family protecting them here. Colleges can also continue to host vigils and include educational programming on campus, while encouraging those who protest to do so while keeping in mind Russian students may have no affinity for the Putin regime.

“I think it has been very healthy,” Fakorzi says of those gatherings and seminars happening on campuses. “Peer-to-peer support is unmatched. When you get two 19-year-olds together, there’s no more powerful of a source than another college peer. Avoiding the conversation is detrimental. Some of that internal stress and pressure happen because people aren’t able to express themselves.”

More from UB: How colleges can provide strong mental health supports in five steps

One of the institutions ahead of the curve in meeting student need has been the University of South Florida, led by its USF World global center and its Institute on Russia. USF has held a peace rally and put together discussions around the war, as have many other colleges and universities.

“It takes care and consideration, and it’s important for us to engage the students,” says Kiki Caruson, Interim Director of USF World. “We can’t presume to think that if we just have a panel of experts talk about what Russia did was terrible, that that’s going to help them? We need to hear from [students] intentionally. What do you want? What are the kinds of conversations and programming that would be helpful?”

There must be a broad approach when doing those events because Caruson said the impacts have been felt by the entire international community and beyond.

“It is impacting all students,” she says. “We’ve been reaching out to all of our international students because we don’t want to assume how the violence is affecting them. For our domestic students, it is omnipresent. They’re concerned about humanity. They’re concerned about their peers from that part of the world. But our Eastern European students are very anxious about what the future holds.”

Besides programming and healthcare resources, a helpful channel for USF has been leaning on its instructors and other leaders on campus.

“We’ve been trying to equip faculty with talking points and suggestions for resources that are available,” Caruson says. “We’ve had special counseling sessions where students are coming to the International Center. Our School of Social Work has offered to be a part of meetings or groups that want to get together. We have student groups that are working to organize things. Our USF World is helping to ensure that when those conversations and events happen, that they’re about supporting one another and not holding any student population responsible for a global event.”

Those kinds of supports, as well as blanket mental coverage that includes telehealth and promotions of those resources are essential for an often proud but reluctant group of students.

“Offer real support and push the support that’s offered, because in some cases, it’s not culturally acceptable to seek the help,” Fakorzi says. “Normalize that conversation across the board. Let them know that part of the bravery of being here and studying abroad means that support is going to help you get through the program. I’ve talked to so many students who have directly said, I’m so glad this service is offered for free, my parents don’t have to know that I’m seeking counseling. I don’t want them to worry about me. They’re so proud of the fact that they made it, and they are here and they’re studying. But they still need the support.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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