Amidst the Russia-Ukraine war, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy took time to speak with members of the Association of American Universities about the future of the Ukrainian education system. More specifically, he discussed how Ukrainians and members of higher education institutions in America can help rebuild and support higher education in Ukraine. 

The webinar took place on May 16 and was live streamed on YouTube. On May 15, University President Ron Liebowitz sent an email to the Brandeis community publicizing the event. Liebowitz, along with other university presidents and members of the AAU were invited to participate in the webinar and pose questions for Zelenskyy. 

Barbara Snyder, president of the AAU, began the webinar by addressing steps already being taken by American universities to support Ukrainian students and the Ukrainian education system. “A number of AAU members are providing support for Ukrainian students through emergency funding, free tuition and housing, administrative flexibility, and visa processing support,” she said. Additionally, some universities are housing displaced Ukrainian students, faculty, and researchers and are providing access to online learning opportunities. 

Brandeis is included in the universities that have taken steps to help students affected by war. Recently, the International Business School launched a $1 million scholarship called the “Peace Scholarship Fund,” with the goal of supporting students who were “displaced from and forced to leave their country due to violent conflict or persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to their website.  

In an introductory speech, Zelenskyy discussed differentiating between being an actor versus an observer, especially in times of hatred and conflict. People can make the decision to help or turn a blind eye and merely watch what is occuring. This is also true for countries, and Ukraine wants to be an actor, not a passivist, according to Zelenskyy. “If you don’t want to be a victim or an indifferent bystander, you should instead be fighters for democracy, guardians of democracy, because that’s how you defend your own way of life, your own people, your outlook,” Zelenskyy said. 

Following Zelenskyy’s introduction, Snyder opened the floor for participating university provosts, chancellors, and presidents to ask questions. 

A common theme among questions was rebuilding the education system in Ukraine post-war, and how American universities can help by using their resources and academic professionals to reconstruct curricula and support the education system by contributing their expertise. 

Zelenskyy also stressed the importance of having all of the students, educators, and researchers come back to Ukraine after the war because “without education, without studentship we will face a terrible stagnation in this state. Even with all the optimism, I’m quite convinced that we shall overcome someday but we can lose the power of youth, the power and energy of young people, without which we can have no future and we cannot create anything,” he said. 

Those participating in the webinar were all quick to commend Zelenskyy for his bravery. His response was:  “I don’t think of myself as a model of bravery or anything. I think every adequate person in my shoes would do the same. I’m president, I’m the leader, and that’s the only way to lead.”

When questioned about students from neighboring countries of Ukraine, including Russia, Zelenskyy said, “it’s not about your nationality…it’s about not remaining silent about things…your silence is eloquent in terms of support because you support, not necessarily with them the deeds but with the silence that you maintain.”

On the topic of democracy, Zelenskyy talked about how people take for granted having autonomy and having the right to life in general. “When the war comes, you have no choice, you just have to defend the only right I was referring to, the right to life and that’s it,” he said.

An overarching theme throughout the webinar was about not being a passive bystander to hatred and war. Zelenskyy returned to one of his original remarks, passionately stating that “a person in this civilized world should not turn a blind eye when someone’s rights are being violated, when somebody’s being killed, when somebody’s being deprived of essential things like home and family.”