Ukrainian classmates inspire UA law students

Law class’s online conversation ends; war’s lessons remain

Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- War was no match for springtime in Kyiv, at least not in the semester's final transnational Rule of Law class taught at the University of Arkansas School of Law.

The weekly course included online students from Ukraine who joined their American counterparts for student-driven class discussions.

"It's finally getting warm," Iryna Rekrut, 22, said Wednesday.

The Russian forces that invaded her country on Feb. 24 had, for the moment, not been attempting a sustained offensive against the country's capital region. She spoke of seeing children play outside and enjoying nature.

"It's the best feeling in the world, and I hope soon everybody will be able to feel it," Rekrut said.

Hope for better days throughout the war-torn country -- and an appreciation for connections forged between American and Ukrainian students -- were the main themes of Wednesday's final class, though a day later, Thursday, missiles again fell on Kyiv to break that city's relative calm.

Throughout the semester, Ukrainian students had also shared more somber perspectives of the war's emerging brutality, always mixed with resolve that their country will emerge as victors.

Pavlo Zelenskyi, an 18-year-old internal refugee living in the western part of the country, expressed anger in class sessions at the actions of Russian soldiers and in the lack of dignity afforded the dead in Mariupol, an eastern Ukrainian city under siege.

"People are just lying in the streets and we cannot even be buried as Christians, for God's sake," Zelenskyi said during one class. Video evidence from the city has shown the dead.

On Wednesday, he spoke about a need for an extraction to help Ukrainians in a large steel factory in Mariupol "now trapped in a death trap by Russia," calling it "truly painful to see." Reports emerged Sunday from the United Nations and in Ukraine that an international effort had begun to lead away at least some of the people to safety.

"I guess, the good will always prevail, but we are paying now an extremely high cost for freedom, I want you to understand it," Zelenskyi said in a March 30 class.

On April 6, days after photos and video evidence came to light showing scores of civilians lying dead in the streets of the Ukrainian city of Bucha – leading to condemnation from the United Nations and other world leaders – Rekrut spoke about learning of the massacre.

"I think just seeing those photos, kind of for the first time made [me] feel just how that this is probably not even war. This is like something even worse than that, if that's possible," Rekrut said.


For their part, UA School of Law students frequently provided words of encouragement and support.

In an April 6 class, a UA law student asked Zelenskyi whether negotiations or other factors might be driving the Russian military to pull back its forces from northern areas of the country.

"I guess it's because they are losing," Zelenskyi said, a remark that drew some cheers and applause from the UA classroom.

Christopher Kelley, a UA School of Law professor and a former Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, taught the course.

He said differences in legal education between countries -- students also enrolled from Moldova, a neighbor of Ukraine -- meant an age gap between many of the overseas participants and the UA School of Law students, frequently in their mid-20s.

The overseas students, not all studying law, signed up for the class despite not receiving any university credits, said Kelley.

Lighter moments in the course included the UA law students teaching their overseas classmates the Hog Call cheer, and Kelley, who teaches frequently in Ukraine, also brought to class blue-and-yellow ribbons for anyone who wished to pin on a show of some support.

Tyler Mlakar, a UA law student, joined several other UA law students on Wednesday in voicing admiration for their Ukrainian classmates.

Mlaker called their participation "an inspiration" considering the ongoing war.

"Some of you guys are teenagers, it's incredible. I'm not that smart now, I'm 25," Mlakar told his overseas classmates. "So I've learned not only about just a different culture, about Ukraine. I've learned so much about that. But really it's been a reawakening to me about how interconnected everything is in this world."

The Ukrainian students, too, spoke glowingly about the class experience and their American counterparts.

"I also wanted to say major thanks to every one of you, and it's even hard to say how deeply -- it's just now, it's like a part of my life," Zelenskyi said Wednesday.

"We look forward to talk to you to tell what's happening here," said Rekrut, who is finishing up a bachelor's degree in law.

"Every time [I] think, 'OK, got through another week, now have something to tell," Rekrut said. "So I'm very grateful for all of you to listen to our stories and [be] supportive. We really appreciate it."


Kelley brought in guest speakers, including from Ukraine, such as Kateryna Hnedina, an assistant professor at Chernihiv Polytechnic National University.

Hnedina told the class April 6 how the Russian invasion immediately upended her life in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine.

"The first day, when the war started, it was rather awful," Hnedina said, describing how she sought cover from incoming missiles in a shelter "rather far from my home."

She spent 10 days living underground before fleeing the city despite the danger of travel, leaving everything behind except a camera.

"All my plans, dreams of the future, they helped me to make such hard decision," Hnedina said of risking travel with a small group. She made it to safety after a four-day journey.

She's since been able to reach out to her students; some had lost relatives, killed in the Russian attacks, she said.

"I'm asking them to plan their future, to think about their future," Hnedina said.

It isn't easy, however, given the uncertainties in their country, she said.

"It's rather hard to face this problem when you don't know where to live and you don't know what will happen tomorrow," Hnedina said.

Hnedina said her mother has since found safety outside Chernihiv, though her father remains.

"He told me this is his decision, and he didn't want to leave Chernihiv in any case," Hnedina said.

Hnedina said that a day before speaking to the class, she had reunited with her mother, calling the meeting "wonderful."

Her mother left with only the family cat, she said.

"I can say that my cat is in great shock. She didn't realize what is going on," Hnedina said.


The semester began with more than 30 "volunteer" students from overseas, Kelley said.

After the invasion, their numbers plummeted to about 6-8 each week, Kelley said.

One student, "Margarita," had been absent but managed to log in to join the April 13 class.

A poor connection made it difficult to hear her completely, but she spoke of an ordeal experienced by her father.

"The Russians took away his food, water, cellphone," she said.

Her father had been living in a "cellar," she said, "but my Dad managed to survive."

An uncle, too, had his apartment hit by shells, she said.

"I don't know how, but they live. I'm so happy," said "Margarita."

As for herself, she had signed on from Poland after a move with family members, among the many Ukrainians to seek refuge in another country since the invasion began.

She spoke of returning to Ukraine, however.

"Ukraine wins, I know this, of course," she said.

On April 20, one of the more pointed class discussions involved whether Russia might yet overwhelm Ukraine with its larger military forces.

In past sessions, Zelenskyi had expressed thanks for weapons support from other countries but also called for more to be done to help stop Russia.

A remark in class April 20 about Russian President Vladimir Putin's having little interest in limiting even Russian casualties was followed by a discussion about how negotiating an end to the war could reduce the suffering of civilians.

Zelenskyi offered up a different alternative.

"Every day of the war is causing more and more devastation in Ukraine, but also it gives a hope for a future where the world is looped around Ukraine and not just gives us off into the hands of the dictator," Zelenskyi said. "So with every day of devastation, deaths, and, and fear and isolation, obviously, we still manage to see hope in it."

He added: "The thing is that if you don't have a country, if you don't have your people, you don't care about economics, you don't care about anything, you have nothing."


Rekrut and other Ukrainians frequently praised the efforts of not only their country's military, but also others working in the country to help noncombatants, whether they be city leaders or farmers continuing to work their fields.

"It gives us a lot of courage and hope that our leaders are trying to maintain some sense of normality," Rekrut said after describing efforts to keep grocery stores and pharmacies open.

The law firm where she worked as an intern had opened a free "help desk" to try to assist with legal questions, "so they're doing their best, too," she said.

She spoke about the reopening of schools in Kyiv, which took place about a month ago and involved giving students the option of attending classes online, or, for the many with an unreliable Internet connection, completing assignments like essays when they can.

Even with the war raging on, Rekrut and others would also talk about their country's post-war future.

"Somebody will have to figure all this out, how to rebuild and fix everything in the future," Rekrut said, describing why the reopening of schools was "definitely a positive thing."

The law "is more relevant than ever," Rekrut stated at one point, even while acknowledging that it had not stopped Russia's military invasion.

She referred to interest in human-rights law.

"Maybe it's difficult to help those people now, but all the violations that are being recorded, they're being used as evidence for future," Rekrut said.


Kelley, in an interview, said there were 49 UA law students registered for the class, considered an elective course.

Fifteen students attended in-person on Wednesday, with more than 30 online.

During Wednesday's class they spoke glowingly about the experience, as well as Kelley's leadership of the course.

"I didn't know much about Ukraine coming into this course," said UA law student Leah Riley. "And now I feel like I've learned so much just from getting to know all of you, and I also just wanted to say that just because this course is ending doesn't mean that your connection to us and the reliance on us has to."

Riley and others spoke of social media connections and wanting ties with their classmates to continue.

"If you need anything, if there's anything that we can do for you, please, please reach out," Riley said Wednesday.

"Wise beyond their years," said law student Marlee Rowe, when asked after the class had ended how she'd describe her Ukrainian classmates.

"The most positive people you'll ever meet," said Sydney Weiskopf, also a UA law student.

Some UA law students said in an interview that they had talked about the class with friends and family, and it didn't always go well.

"Some of my family members, it seems like they've gotten into a lot of the Russian propaganda that's on social media," said Hannah Malone, adding, "it's kind of caused a divide."

She said that for many, a conflict overseas can at times feel distant.

"One of the biggest fears of myself, along with -- I know some of the Ukrainian students also voiced this -- is that people are just going to forget something is going on," Malone said.

Zelenskyi, to the class, spoke Wednesday of how he hoped for more cooperation in the future.

"I'm proud that we have such strong reliable international friends that can help us in darkest hour. Your support, we could feel it everywhere when everything started," he said.

"My only wish would be that this international cooperation would never stop and we continue striving together."

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