Thousands of Ukrainian students find peace in Poland

War may have upended the lives of countless Ukrainian students, but some of them – quite many, in fact – have found relative peace of mind in Poland, where a warm welcome at the universities has allowed them to push on with their work.

Yuliia Tereshchenko lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city and one of Ukraine’s two main student cities alongside the capital Kyiv. Russian missiles fell on Kharkiv in the very first hours of the invasion.

“My first thought was that I’d stay but then a house near mine was completely destroyed in an attack. I was shattered,” Tereshchenko (28) said.

It took Tereshchenko a harrowing 10 hours to get out of Kharkiv to find temporary refuge in Dnipro, a city just three hours away in normal circumstances. From there, Tereshchenko went on to Lviv near Poland.

“In Lviv, I realised I could not just save my life but also continue with my work if I went to Poland,” she said.

Warm response

Tereshchenko, who had been working on a PhD thesis on Hegel’s concept of action, began emailing Polish universities and said she received a particularly warm response from the department of philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Pozna.

“She wrote to us: I am on the border with Poland, where I don’t have a family and I don’t know anyone. I count on your support,” said Karolina M Cern, deputy dean for research and international cooperation at the Adam Mickiewicz University.

“It was traumatic to have read that email because it must have been traumatic to be in circumstances forcing you to write it in the first place. Yuliia is an incredibly brave human being,” Cern also said.

“They basically told me: save your life and we’ll take care of the rest,” Tereshchenko recalled.

Other than compassion, a lunch upon arrival in Poznan, and taking care of her cat, “the rest” was a grant that Tereshchenko received to prepare for an entry exam to start her PhD studies in Pozna. “She prepared well and qualified to start her PhD studies,” Cern said.

Then came other help, Tereshchenko said, like a free place in the dorm in the early weeks of her stay in Poland and then a scholarship. Settling in with her research work in a new university in a new country also helped her bring in her mother, who fled Ukraine later on into the war.

The Pozna University is just one of several to have rolled out assistance programmes to students – PhD and regular ones – driven out of Ukraine by the war.

The legal framework of much of the help effort was the legislation aimed at helping Ukrainian refugees, passed by the Polish parliament in early March, less than three weeks after the war broke out.

However, several universities went out of their way to help, mostly by offering free accommodation on campuses, lifting student fees, or granting scholarships. Help, such as free courses of Polish or sessions with psychologists, has also been available.

Psychological and financial support

The Wrocaw University of Economics and Business, for example, set up a special team to coordinate assistance to Ukrainian students, including financial assistance, legal help, psychological support, medical help, or even “ensuring that basic food needs are met”.

Given the number of Ukrainian students in Polish universities, the help effort has been enormous.

In the 2021-22 academic year, there were some 36,000 students from Ukraine in Polish universities and other higher education institutions, making up nearly 42% of all foreign students in Poland, by far the biggest group. On top of that number, there were an estimated 150 PhD students from Ukraine.

In the first few weeks after the war had broken out, Polish universities received close to 5,700 applications from Ukrainians looking to become students in Poland. Nearly 100 PhD students also applied.

Impact on existing international students

The war has also had an impact on the lives of Ukrainian students already in Poland.

For Ivan Posilnyi (28), in the third year of PhD studies at the Warsaw University, the war quite literally wrecked his research plan.

“I am writing about the national identity of people living in occupied and non-occupied parts of the Donbas,” Posilnyi said.

Donbas is where the Russian-Ukrainian conflict started in 2014 when Moscow instigated separatist movements in parts of the region, known as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Three days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia formally recognised both breakaway states and went on to annex them in September and October.

Posilnyi, who hails from Luhansk and who has lived in Poland since 2018, said that he planned to visit the Donbas to interview people about his thesis.

“I can’t do that anymore because it’s war out there. Some of the people I wanted to talk to have surely fled, some might be dead,” Posilnyi said.

“Since I can’t do the interviews, I have requested a one year extension of my studies to rework my thesis so it’s a discourse analysis now, looking at what the authorities say, what’s on social media, and so on,” Posilnyi said.

Posilnyi also hopes to improve the understanding of Ukrainian issues by teaching a course at the Warsaw University about “ethnicity and identity” in the Donbas.

Other than work and research, Posilnyi said, the time since the war started has been trying.

“Luckily, the university was very straight on giving Ukraine and us Ukrainian students support,” he said.

“Other than institutional help, I’ve received incredible support on a personal level from my supervisors and Polish colleagues. It mattered a lot to me,” Posilnyi said.