One Year into War, Invisible University for Ukraine Continues to Grow

In spring of 2022, Central European University (CEU) launched the Invisible University for Ukraine (IUFU), which offers continuing academics for students from Ukraine whose studies have been affected by the war. Now one year since the Russian invasion, IUFU has grown in numerous ways, most recently having completed an intensive transnational educational solidarity program – a winter school with a curriculum designed around aspects of evidence and truth.

“IUFU is a strong contribution and demonstrates what universities can do in a crisis like this,” highlighted Balazs Trencsenyi, Professor in CEU’s Department of History and one of the originators of the initiative. “By engaging hundreds of students who, through this program, develop a critical perspective on many aspects of society, become integrated into an international academic community and transmit learnings into their own context, we hope students can participate in the reconstruction of their country.”

IUFU is implemented by CEU in cooperation with Imre Kertesz Kolleg, University of Jena, as well as other Ukrainian (Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and Ukrainian Catholic University) and global university partners. The name of the program, “Invisible University for Ukraine” was selected to evoke various 19th and 20th century underground and exile educational initiatives in Eastern Europe, as well as the tradition of Invisible Colleges formed after 1989 in the region.

On the occasion of the winter school at CEU’s Budapest site, CEU President and Rector Shalini Randeria commented, “The war on Ukraine not only shocked and changed our world but has also heightened our awareness of the fragility of our university’s mission to support and further the values of open society and liberal democracy. We stand up against aggression and extend support to those whose lives are devastated by this war.”

Emphasizing what a university like CEU is positioned to contribute, Trencsenyi highlighted that IUFU is not trying to create an alternative to Ukrainian education, but rather aims to offer an opportunity for those who are not able to pursue their studies normally - both those residing in the country or in refuge. IUFU provides a unique learning experience as a transnational and intellectual project during wartime, featuring international high quality academic resources (participants have access to CEU’s library online), as well as academic discourse and exchange available from wherever the students are situated. Such resources and intellectual exchange, independent of geography, additionally serve a role in preventing brain drain from regions of conflict.

“What we found out is that many students in this situation feel that investing their energy into learning is both a patriotic activity and is creating something meaningful for themselves,” commented Ostap Sereda, Associate Professor of history at the Ukrainian Catholic University and Visiting Professor at CEU, who serves as the academic director of the IUFU. He notes that another defining aspect of IUFU is that the courses offered are not existing courses opened to the project’s population of students. Topics and courses are specifically selected and designed for IUFU and developed in consultation with the students. The curricular content of the recent winter school is an example of this.

Evidence and Truth, A Winter School

From January 21-28, 26 students representing 11 Ukrainian Universities and coming from 15 different locations in Europe, mostly from Ukraine and Germany, gathered at CEU’s Budapest campus for the winter school, “Evidence and Truth - Reflecting on the War in Ukraine in a Global Context”, with additional students participating online. The curriculum focused on the imperative of collecting and evaluating evidence and the need to develop strategies of verifying and evidencing truth on multiple levels – in view of the destruction of cultural heritage, war crimes, Russian propaganda campaigns, ongoing social processes such as migration and displacement, and also the complexities of national and local identity.

“The war creates a huge challenge to those involved in academic projects and many of our students who used to work with archival sources and various types of evidence are facing the issue of how they can get trustful information under the conditions of war and still meaningfully operate in the academic space,” noted Sereda. He added, “The winter school has been a chance for us to reflect on new challenges and think about solutions for continuing research under what are, for many students, unthinkable conditions.”

The intensive week featured Nobel Peace Prize recipient Oleksandra Matviichuk (online), Member of the European Parliament Ivars Ijabs, Ukrainian poet Borys Khersonsky, Vienna-based Ukrainian sociologist Tatiana Zhurzenko, Professor of history at the European University Institute in Florence Pieter Judson, among others. In addition to Trencsenyi and Sereda, the winter school was organized by CEU PhD candidate Lucija BalikicVladimir Petrovic (Boston University and Institute of Contemporary History, Belgrade) and CEU Professor and Co-Director of the CEU Democracy Institute, Renáta Uitz.

“For the first weeks of the conflict I felt really disconnected from real life. I was in Kyiv, endlessly scrolling the news feed to check what was happening and connect with relatives in other parts of the country… I felt disconnected not only from reality, but from my friends and academic connections,” remembers Nadiia Chervinska a second year master’s student based in Kyiv who has been studying in IUFU since the spring 2022 term. Chervinska attended IUFU’s in-person summer and winter schools in Budapest as well as the online courses. “Invisible University helped me to think about something other than the reality of war and take part in engaging discussions. Sometimes it felt like a kind of therapy more than studies.”

“I'm a bookworm and words were my way of processing the world around me. When the war started, I lost this capacity to consume words and articulate,” notes Kateryna Lysenko, a bachelor’s student, who is originally from Poltava, Ukraine and currently living in Leipzig, Germany. “My experience at IUFU gave me a chance to reflect with others…If you think together with others, you think about yourself, you think about them, you think about the world, and at the same time you see that still you’re still going forward and connecting.” For Lysenko, IUFU is not so much about knowledge, but an environment of trust. “Once you start talking, you can see the person behind the presenter or the person behind the student who is posing the question. This is something that I was not thinking about before the war started.”

With IUFU colleagues, Chervinska and Lysenko write for the Visible Ukraine interdisciplinary web journal covering humanities and social sciences. Both note that the winter school and in-person convenings contribute to the closeness and supportive environment that extends to the periods of online studies. Chervinska finds IUFU different from regular  universities, pointing to the interdisciplinary structure and access to generous PhD researchers from CEU and other faculty from around the globe working on similar topics as distinct features.

Through IUFU, students face the plurality of perspectives and conditions even within their own country. Participants are geographically diverse and include people from different regions including formerly occupied territories. To underscore the pedagogical approach, Trencsenyi highlights the dialogical relationship as a key part of the environment. “We try to create situations where students are confronted with different perspectives, epistemic knowledge bases and political positions. Then the students must develop their own views through the conversation. They are always getting a very broad menu of diverse positions.”

Chervinska echoed the potency of this type of exchange. On the classroom experience she comments, “We don't have usual lectures where a professor is talking to us and then we do some reading. In most of cases at IUFU, we have a dialogue between different professors on a particular topic. It's one-part intellectual concepts and then one-part open discussion with students going deeper.” Gathering in person also allowed Chervinska to learn how Ukrainian colleagues are coping with the challenges of war and what strategies they are consciously and unconsciously using to manage the situation.

Regarding the recent winter school, Lysenko additionally reflected, “What stays with me is this unspoken understanding among all the participants about something that is going on, about something you can't really process, something that is difficult to reflect on - this tenderness to the experience of others. Everyone at IUFU has gone through something important during this year.”

IUFU’s Growth and Evolution

In spring of 2022, IUFU organized four online mega-courses (in History, Culture/Heritage, Society and Politics/Law) with 140 students from 30 institutions, plus mentoring and English academic writing courses. In July, the project hosted a summer school in Budapest and Lviv and in the fall semester offered 7 thematic courses online, for more than 200 students, and research scholarships for 70 students.

“The enrollment of students was a strong positive force for us to continue to work on this project and to understand that it has real meaning and significance for participants,” said Trencsenyi. He remembers the intensity of discussion and interaction during the summer school as unprecedented. “We had classes which we literally could not end because we had dozens of questions, and students still discussing and debating with our instructors in the corridor during the lunch and dinner. The attempt to create a stimulating and interesting academic experience really evolved through the contributions of students.”

Improvisation and experimentation are embedded in the practice of running IUFU under a huge range of individual conditions and levels of study spanning from advanced bachelor’s to PhD. “Every student has a distinct story and that needs to be taken into account,” commented Trencsenyi. “What we are facing is a large group of participants with very different backgrounds, years of study, preparation levels, access to internet and institutional experiences.”

IUFU combines different modalities of instruction, with online aspects informed and enhanced by developments in remote education resulting from the pandemic. In addition to the multi-modal course structures, the most customized aspect of the program is mentorship for students in their research. “I had an incredible mentoring experience with Yevhen Yashchuk who was really supportive and inspiring,” recalled Lysenko. “Many of the students who are part of IUFU said the mentorship was absolutely changing their life. The input and resources were unprecedented for some of them,” added Sereda.

Initial faculty and student involvement from CEU included approximately 20 professors and more than 30 PhD mentors, plus CEU alumni supporters. IUFU organizers note that, from the start, a generous response from all angles of global academia and willingness of professors to participate has led to a large roster of faculty, 170 to date, making it possible for IUFU to rotate teaching, distribute the work and keep offering something new.

“We are engaged in a project of learning with an unusual composition of participants. We try to provide students with a safe, encouraging, stimulating academic space. At the same time, we provide to instructors an occasion to reflect, reevaluate and rethink what they have been researching and studying. It's an unusual project in unthinkable circumstances and is so far very rewarding.” concludes Sereda.

IUFU has been supported from its beginning by the Open Society University Network (OSUN)with co-funding for the fall of 2022 from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD). The winter school was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Applications are currently open for the spring term of IUFU. To view the course offerings, learn more and apply, visit here.