War in Ukraine prompts dire warnings and backlash on college campuses

Higher education leaders and student groups weigh in with support, protests, vigils and seminars on the conflict.
By: | March 2, 2022
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As Russia continues its military strikes on Ukraine, the evolving crisis has forced colleges and universities in the United States to react swiftly with both condemnations of the attacks and urgent messages for remaining students who are in both countries to leave now.

Nana Tsikhelashvili, associate professor and director of Middlebury College’s School in Russia, wrote Monday that it would need to “remove students from Moscow and Irkutsk as soon as possible” to keep them safe. Her letter, both an apology for the escalating conflict and a plea, showed the level of tension both in the U.S. and abroad as Russian soldiers hit the capital of Kiev and firebomb other cities such as Kharkiv.

“Given the very limited availability of international flights out of Russia, and the U.S. Department of State’s authorization for family members and non-essential embassy staff to return to the U.S., we feel that it is time for students to leave the country,” she said. “Militarily, the invasion has not gone the way anyone expected, and this has made it virtually impossible to make future predictions as to what the situation will be like in Russia for our students.”

Tsikhelashvili said students could finish their semesters remotely but said first priority is “making sure you are able to leave Russia quickly and safely. Then we will work on the academic component.”

Because of the European Union’s ban on Russian aircraft flying into their countries, some students who did not leave early were forced to seek other travel options, such as going through airports in the Middle East. Tsikhelashvili urged Middlebury students to remain in constant communication with the school and with their hosts. The University of Arkansas, whose Honors College addressed the rising conflict on Tuesday, warned students to avoid going to Ukraine and cautioned them not to travel to bordering countries such as Belarus. There also have been reports of African and Indian students struggling to exit Ukraine over what they say has been racial discrimination.

Middlebury said it would absorb travel for those students who may not have access to funds. The International Institute of Education, which has given more than $5 million in support to students in crises and wars over the past 12 years, has opened up a resource to members that includes grants for up to five international students in the U.S. who are impacted by the crisis in Ukraine. Colleges must apply for nominations through the IIENetwork, and the IIE also has asked for further contributions to its fund as the crisis evolves. All of the students within the IIE’s programs were able to get out of Ukraine before the conflict began.

“We are saddened to witness the violence occurring across Ukraine and join the world in mourning those affected,” the IIE said in a statement. “For over a century, IIE has worked to build a more peaceful, equitable world, and we are as committed as ever to our mission of fostering mutual understanding. Peace is not a quick endeavor nor achieved unilaterally. Through a range of partnerships and programs, such as the IIE Scholar Rescue FundIIE Artist Protection FundIIE Odyssey Scholarship and the IIE Emergency Student Fund, we support those in crisis to access safety and continue their pursuit of education.”

At campuses across the U.S., including Harvard University, the University of Illinois and New Mexico State University, student leaders, faculty and administrators have come together to hold vigils and demonstrations. Some are hosting seminars to further discussions on the devolving situation in Ukraine. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, faculty and students are tackling the topic firsthand in its Russian Program through a course called “Russia in the Fake News.” Many higher education leaders also have lent their support, both through condemnations of the Russian advancement and empathy for those in the center of the war.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and those in our community who are being impacted by the horror of what is being perpetrated in Eastern Europe,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “We are a university, and the root meaning of the word refers to being a community of teachers and scholars. At our core, we always believe dialogue and discussion lead to better, more sustainable answers than violence. We will do our part by pointing people to resources where they can provide support to Ukrainians during a time of so much need, while we continue as members of a global community to push for peace.”

The university is lighting its Cornerstone building in blue and yellow and adorning other buildings across campus with colors of Ukraine’s flag through next Tuesday. Across the state, Western Kentucky University did the same on its historic buildings. The University of Scranton lit up its gateway sign in blue and yellow. And students have led the way at Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, Stanford and others, holding placards of support, while being draped in Ukraine flags.