From the War in Ukraine to the Hallowed Halls of Oxford

StudentPulse Team
March 2, 2023

Denys had a dream. He was a graduate of the National University of Kyiv and worked as a journalist in a prominent Ukrainian media agency reporting on social and political issues. Like many bright young people before him, he wanted to dig deep into the subject of public policy and governance to better serve his country. Denys dreamt of earning a top-notch education, and in the autumn of 2021, he applied to study public policy at the University of Oxford.

Then 24 February 2022 came. Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine and with it, all thoughts of dreams and ambitions left Denys’s mind. In this episode of the StudentPulse podcast, we speak to Denys Karlovskyi on his experience living through the war in Ukraine and how he picked up the courage and strength to overcome obstacles to continue pursuing his dream in Oxford today.

‘I couldn’t believe we were at war’

As Denys tells it, living in Ukraine during the invasion was a harrowing experience, full of fear and uncertainty. Missiles and bombs exploded in cities, with residential buildings and energy powerhouses targeted, leaving people dead and cities in complete darkness. With the electricity supply disrupted, heating and water supplies were also affected causing citizens to struggle in harsh winter conditions.

Russian hit squads were also on the lookout for Ukrainian journalists, and the media agency Denys was working for had to put all its employees, including himself, in different locations for their safety. For Denys, the first months of the war were filled with anger, frustration, sadness, grief, and loss.

Then one day, in the midst of war, Oxford came calling. Denys learnt that his application had been accepted and he was being offered a full scholarship to enrol into the programme of his dreams.

To leave or not to leave?

Despite the excitement of achieving his long-held dream, Denys was faced with a dilemma. Firstly, the ongoing martial law and conscription barred Ukrainian male citizens from leaving the country. To study at Oxford, he would have needed to obtain an exemption from the conscription office and risk retrieving important documents from his apartment in Kyiv, which was dangerous due to Russian military activity in the outskirts of the city. Additionally he would also need to cross the border to Poland to apply and wait for a visa to the UK, as the office in the Ukraine was closed.

All of these challenges required significant effort and time to overcome, but more than that, Denys wrestled with guilt and mounting anxiety about leaving his family and friends behind during this time of war, truly not knowing when or if he would ever see them again.

What advice does Denys have for young people in similar situations?

Today, Denys is a graduate student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and if he could speak to other young people in similar situations, he would wish to tell them this:

  1. Don't be ashamed of your ambitions and dreams, even if you are living in a war-torn country. You are not responsible for the war, and pursuing your dreams can actually help in the efforts to rebuild your country in the long run.
  2. Universities want to help students in distress, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Find the right office or department that deals with students from challenging backgrounds, and seek legal, financial, and psychological support.
  3. Try to find people who can provide emotional support and a sense of safety, such as family, friends, partners, or future classmates. With their help, you can overcome any challenges that come your way.
  4. If you have enough stamina and are willing to invest time and effort, every problem is solvable, and you can achieve your dreams despite the war.

Additionally, Denys believed that just because you’re not physically in your country, doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to still support them. At Oxford, Denys took various steps to increase awareness about the situation in Ukraine as he recognises that many people may not be well-informed of the developments that are happening in Ukraine, as it may seem far away from their own countries and experiences.

Through written articles, organising extracurricular activities, inviting Ukrainian refugees and scholars to talk about the issue, and working with Ukrainian societies to create events that inform people about the war and its impact on civilians, Denys wanted to not only help educate people about the issue but also provide a sense of hope for those who may feel helpless and far away from home.

What can universities do to support students from crisis backgrounds?

For Denys personally, the University of Oxford had been instrumental in helping him transition from Ukraine to becoming a student at Oxford. Though never having done it before, the University acted quickly to work with Denys to prepare a letter confirming his offer, so he could apply for an exemption at the conscription office. Then not only did they offer him a full scholarship, the University also provided him with financial assistance to stay in Poland while waiting for his student visa to be approved. The University’s support made all the difference in making this journey to Oxford possible for Denys.

For universities looking to support students in crisis situations, Denys recommends the following actions:

  1. Consider establishing a separate department dedicated to supporting students from difficult backgrounds, including those affected by natural disasters, civil wars, economic crises, or environmental disasters.
  2. Offer practical support to these students, such as assistance with applications, translating documents, and providing transportation to the point of destination.
  3. Consider providing financial support in terms of tuition, accommodation and meals, as well as providing opportunities for socialising to create a safe and welcoming environment for these students.
  4. Finally, recognise that students from crisis backgrounds may face psychological challenges and mental health issues. To address this, universities can provide counselling services and support groups where students can share their emotions and feelings in a safe space.

By taking these steps, universities can help the many, many talented and smart young individuals in crisis zones today overcome the adverse challenges they face and make a positive impact on society.

At StudentPulse, we too believe that universities, organisations and businesses must step up and support young people currently living through crisis situations to get the best education and continue pursuing their dreams. At StudentPulse, we partner with educational institutions to nurture young people by understanding their needs and connecting them to accessible solutions at an individual level. To learn more, feel free to reach out to our team here or click here to listen to the full version of our podcast with Denys.