Edinburgh Global

Resilience in academia during wartime

Oksana, a dedicated PhD student, fled Kyiv amidst Russia’s invasion. This article chronicles her resilience after arriving at Edinburgh and her efforts in organising Ukrainian Week to raise awareness and understanding of Ukrainian culture.

Black and white profile image of Oksana
Oksana, PhD student and Cara Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Oksana was living in Kyiv and finishing her PhD Program when the full-scale invasion began. She had recently arrived back in Ukraine after completing a Fulbright scholarship in New York from March to December 2021.

In the months leading up to the full-scale invasion, Oksana remembers, some people were already preparing for the war, packing their belongings so that they could leave at short notice if necessary. Nonetheless, when Russia’s offensive began in February 2022, Oksana and her family were devastated.

Like many others, they fled Kyiv by car, travelling west through the town of Zhytomyr to the Ternopil region, where they stayed with Oksana’s aunt.

A difficult decision: Fleeing to finish her PhD

Under these circumstances, it was very difficult for Oksana to concentrate on finishing her PhD. However, just like everyone else she knew, she didn’t want to leave the country in such difficult times, as she felt responsible for her family and preferred to stay with them. However, when her sister, who had enlisted in the territorial defence forces, joined the rest of her family in encouraging Oksana to leave, she gave up and decided to go to Poland and finish her PhD dissertation there, and was soon after joined by her mother.

Support from Cara and arriving in Edinburgh

Whilst still in Ukraine, Oksana had been introduced to Cara by her previous academic advisor, and successfully applied to their Researchers at Risk Fellowship. She was able to secure a placement at the University of Edinburgh, her first choice, with Patrick Honeybone from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences as her academic advisor, and arrived in Edinburgh in February 2023.

Upon her arrival in Edinburgh, she found that people were very friendly and supportive. It is this kind of personal support that “holds you up” when you are in a new place, Oksana explains. Her academic advisor played a particularly important role in this regard. “He supports me in every step of the way”, she says. “At the beginning he said, ‘You need to focus on your project and what you’re interested in and you build your analysis around that’. That was a big push to be trusted like that”.

Planning Ukrainian Week in Edinburgh

Several months after Oksana’s arrival in Edinburgh, the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine’s Kherson region was breached, which caused extensive flooding along the lower Dnieper River. Since Kherson was partially Russian-occupied, Ukrainian soldiers and rescue workers were not allowed into the affected area due to the constant shelling it was subjected to.

Like many Ukrainians abroad, Oksana had been supporting her country from afar, regularly donating money to her sister’s battalion in Bakhmut and other battalions. After the attack on the dam, however, she felt the need to do more. She started to think about how to increase people’s awareness and understanding of Ukraine in Edinburgh. Although she had found that people were generally supportive towards Ukraine, there was “no bridge” to Ukrainian society and culture.

With the support of her advisor, Patrick, she started planning a Ukrainian Week, which would bring together academics from across the UK and beyond to start building such a bridge. Her goal was to cover a range of areas and different time periods. She also wanted to include a diversity of viewpoints on Ukraine, by inviting scholars from different countries with their own perspectives and traditions of doing research on Ukraine.  

Gaining momentum: Assembling a team for Ukrainian Week

The project gained momentum in the new academic year, when Oksana met Emme Strickland, a Master’s student, who was keen to help Oksana with organising. Given the amount of work this involved, Oksana didn’t take people’s support for granted: “Every time people said ‘yes’, it surprised me”.

Oksana began compiling a list of potential speakers, including from various British universities, as well as Germany, Canada and the US. After setting the date for April 2024, she reached out to them and found that (bar one person, who could not travel to Edinburgh at that time), everyone she reached out to was keen to be part of the event.

In the meantime, Emme and Oksana started exploring options to fund the project. In 2024, their team also expanded and included PhD student Pia Lehecka, who took an active part in communicating with the finance team, Yana Proskurkina, a Ukrainian Teaching Fellow in the university’s Centre for Open Learning helped with the promotion of the event, and PhD student Aldo Berrios Castillo set up the event website.   

Celebrating Ukrainian culture

The final event, spanning three days, included talks on topics ranging from historical linguistics to witchcraft trials. However, Oksana and her team didn’t stop there, but also decided to add screenings of recent documentaries by Ukrainian filmmakers to an already packed and varied programme, which included poetry readings.

The event was well-attended and Oksana and her team received positive feedback on the organisation of the event from participants and audience members. Many people commented that it had introduced them to Ukraine’s rich culture, history and language, of which they had had little prior knowledge.

The event was also successful in bringing academics with similar interests together and acting as a networking event for researchers from across the UK and beyond.  

I had the idea to invite people from the University of Edinburgh to chair sessions. I wanted to have real communication between the university community people from the University of Edinburgh and the invited speakers so that they could bridge, create these research connections based on similar interests. [...] And after the event, all the academics from the University of Edinburgh, who were chairing the presentations, and are themselves experts in those areas of research, would say ‘Wow, that’s so fascinating’, and ‘I’ve learnt a lot.

OksanaOrganiser of Ukrainian Week 2024 at the University of Edinburgh

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Ukrainian Week at the University

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Refugee Week at the University of Edinburgh

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