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Students connecting from abroad put UA law class’s focus on Ukraine

Students speak out on Zoom by Jaime Adame | March 4, 2022 at 4:33 a.m.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The sights and sounds of war did not keep 18-year-old Pavlo Zelenskyi from joining his University of Arkansas School of Law classmates on Wednesday.

"Ten minutes before our lesson, there were air raid sirens," Zelenskyi said calmly, appearing from Ukraine via a Zoom link just as he had in past weeks for the Rule of Law course taught by Christopher Kelley.

The class Wednesday marked the first since Russian military forces on Feb. 24 began their violent push into the country of more than 40 million people.

Though Zelenskyi is not a UA student, he and about a couple of dozen others from Ukraine had been regular course participants throughout the semester, taking part as "volunteers" without getting course credit, said Kelley, a former Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine.

Of his own safety fears, Zelenskyi said little, though he and others who spoke Wednesday told of Russian firepower damaging familiar urban targets, like a TV tower a short distance from the Kyiv university where Zelenskyi studies international relations. Olha Poliukhovych, a Kyiv-based scholar and class guest Wednesday, shared images of such destruction.

"It is really too dangerous to go anywhere," Zelenskyi said matter-of-factly.

Class participants from Ukraine described the sudden immediacy of war while also forcefully stating their resolve to remain independent.

Zelenskyi and Poliukhovych also called for other countries to do more to help -- such as by implementing a no-fly zone over their country -- as Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to take over Ukraine, independent since 1991 after breaking away from the Soviet Union.

For the UA law students, earlier class sessions this spring semester in which introductions were made from across the globe have forged a deep sense of connectedness to the plight of Zelenskyi and others, they said.

"I think without this class, I would still be separated from it," Tyler Mlakar, a third-year UA law student, said of the Russian invasion. "'Oh, that's you know, however many 1000s of miles away.'"

After getting to know the foreign students -- most of whom are younger than their UA class peers in part because of differences in legal education, Kelley said -- the connection has become close, Mlakar and other UA students said.

"Pavlo's my friend. Iryna is my friend," Mlakar said, referring to another classmate from Ukraine who spoke on Wednesday. "We've been talking to them since day one."

Kelley has devoted the last two meetings of his weekly class to Ukraine discussion, and the students from Ukraine have been "just incredibly smart," said Bailey Geller, a second-year UA law student.

A week before the most recent class session, the invasion loomed large but had yet to take place. The students in Ukraine shared their thoughts on what has been happening, Geller said.

"Hearing them say we don't want this war, but we're not going to back down -- which has held true to this day -- the class was a very emotional experience for us," Geller said Saturday.

On Wednesday, the approximately 20 UA students meeting in-person heard from some Ukrainian students, but the number of those logging on from abroad was "way down" compared with before the invasion, Kelley said after the class.

"I think the world has a right to know what is happening right now," Poliukhovych, who teaches literature at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told the class before discussing Russia's military invasion of Ukraine and giving the students a brief rundown of her country's recent history.

People in the country's largest cities as well as many others have been directly affected by the Russian assault, she said.

"For seven days, we cannot eat, we cannot sleep," Poliukhovych said.

Ukraine gave up its nuclear arms as part of an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 in which Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom agreed to "guarantee" the safety of its territory and respect the country as a sovereign democracy, she said.

Poliukhovych told students of the military aggression by Russia under Putin, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea and other actions.

"Eight years we are in the state of war with Russia," she said.

Since the invasion, there have been explosions all over the country, she said, including near her home close to Kyiv.

"The walls were shaking, and my hands, too," recalled Poliukhovych.

Zelenskyi described certain aspects of war already becoming commonplace.

"We're more or less used to seek shelter. You may even ignore air raid sirens," he said.

But there has been rocket fire, he said.

He said his day began with "this horrible whistle."

"You can't imagine how terrible it is to wake up to this sound," he said.

Iryna Rekrut, another Ukrainian student in the class, said Wednesday that people have been able to take some comfort in following news coverage of the invasion.

"Our journalists are doing a fantastic job," Rekrut said.

Journalists show the violent attacks by the Russian army and their "cruelty," Rekrut said, noting that shelling of civilian targets continued despite ongoing negotiations between the countries.

The journalists in Ukraine also "keep it positive" and "give us hope," Rekrut said, even "sometimes with jokes" as she described news coverage of a "gypsy" stealing a Russian tank.

OTHER NATIONS

Zelenskyi and Poliukhovych spoke about a need for help from other nations.

"In the air, Russia prevails," said Zelenskyi, calling for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

He added later: "We need this unity, we need this decisiveness to do the right thing," and he said the United States needs to take a more active role.

Poliukhovych also called for an immediate no-fly zone over Ukraine to prevent Russian aircraft from bombarding the country.

Reports from The Associated Press said U.S. and European leaders opposed a no-fly zone because it could lead to a military conflict between them and Russia.

"If Ukraine will lose now, your country can be the next," Poliukhovych said, adding that "Putin has no limits."

Hospitals, residential areas, humanitarian relief centers and schools have already been bombed, she said, and she also spoke about the possibility of active nuclear power plants becoming targets of the invasion.

Early Friday in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported that a Ukrainian nuclear plant had been hit by shells fired from Russian forces, though there was no confirmation about radioactivity posing a threat.

Poliukhovych said Wednesday that the Russian leader's talk of a united Slavic world is "mad." She also noted the suffering of Ukrainians who died of hunger in the Great Famine of 1933, also known as the Holodomor, which historians attribute to Soviet Union policies under Josef Stalin.

Zelesnkyi, Poliukhovych and Rekrut praised the Ukrainian armed forces, and Poliukhovych also shared images of non-military Ukrainians fighting back, such as a group of unarmed civilians standing in front of a Russian tank.

"We decide our future and who we are. It is our right," Poliakhovych said.

She added: "I believe we will win. The question is at what cost. It depends not [only] on us but the rest of the world."

UA STUDENTS REFLECT

Near the end of Wednesday's class, UA law student Marlee Rowe praised those in Ukraine.

After class, Rowe said that she knows from talking with family and friends that many don't feel such a close connection with the faraway events.

"But I think to all of us [in the class], it feels like they're right here with us, because they have been all semester," Rowe said. "Hearing them speak about these things going on around them, and still showing up to class and informing us? They're just brave."

Another UA law student, Nick Ciggelakis, also spoke about the humanity in what's being shared with the class.

"It shows some character of human resilience. And I think that's a very profound thing to see and observe," Ciggelakis said.

Social media also allows the UA students to continue to hear from their Ukrainian classmates about the conditions in Ukraine, they said.

But while the students agreed that they feel a connection to their classmates, the class discussion also brings to mind the knotty process of deciding at what level countries like the U.S. should get involved, said Hannah Malone.

"Here you have Ukrainians asking Americans, the United Kingdom, those people to step in and establish a no-fly zone," Malone said. "And we're hesitant, because, again, Russia has these nukes and Putin hasn't necessarily been a rational state actor."

The discussion highlights "the tension between appeasement and basically starting World War III," Malone said.

Malone said the class has taught her that while the Russian military may outnumber the Ukrainian forces, "they're never gonna kill the spirit of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people."

Students also said they appreciated the efforts of Kelley, an associate professor of law who joined UA in 1998.

"I think professor Kelley has done an excellent job facilitating discussion, and obviously the Ukrainians love professor Kelley, because they're logging in, even in the middle of wartime," said Clayton Caple.

After class, Kelley said that law courses tend to treat topics dispassionately, as people come to be thought of as defendants, for example. Not so on Wednesday, however.

"This is my first teaching experience where it's raw emotion in the classroom," Kelley said.

Print Headline: UA class helps lift Ukrainians

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