Russia’s attack on Kharkiv hit close to home. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the European Union on Tuesday, March 1, Kharkiv is a city with more than 20 universities. “It’s a city that has the largest universities in our country. The youth is bright, smart there.”
The inhumane attacks on Ukraine have not only devastated a nation’s democracy and stability, they have compromised the future of millions of young adults.
As a college president, my heart aches for the devastation and the lives lost in Ukraine. And, it feels burdened for the dreams of students in Ukraine that are now in jeopardy. At our university, we have students from Russia and Ukraine who have been affected by this conflict.
While millions of college students in the United States watch the horrific events unfold in Eastern Europe, it’s a reminder of the blessing they have to pursue an education. It also offers insights we can glean from recent events.
Here are three lessons students can learn from the Russia and Ukraine conflict.
1. Moments of crisis define an individual. Chaos and opposition will make or break an individual. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, little seemed to be known about the president of Ukraine to the rest of the world. A comedian turned politician, Zelensky won the election by more than 73% of the votes. Zelensky ran against the presiding president, Petro Poroshenko, who said in 2019 that Zelensky was too inexperienced to stand up to Russia effectively.
Yet, in the past weeks, Zelensky has become a beacon of hope for the people of Ukraine. Images and videos have circulated of Zelensky providing updates on the situation on the ground and drinking coffee in his military base with other officers. When many leaders cower in bunkers during conflicts, Zelensky is on the frontlines with his people inspiring hope.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been characterized in the news as “reckless,” “resentful” and a “failure.” World leaders have condemned Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, with some saying they will hold him accountable. His ruthless actions have been met with opposition and condemnation – which they should. Even thousands of Russians have gathered to protest the invasion.
While leaders who act purely out of selfish ambition cause damage to their own people, courageous leaders rally others to instill confidence in what is being done. At the EU meeting, Zelensky moved many to tears, including the translator, saying, “Nobody is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians.”
2. Civility has to be the first option. For our world to continue to strive for peace, disagreements should be approached through conversation, rather than with violent attacks. Following major global wars, peace negotiations have been a standard practice for countries with disagreements and conflicts. Through negotiations, representatives from multiple parties will join together to create solutions for disputes. However, it requires a willingness to compromise.
On Monday, March 7, Russia and Ukraine held their third round of peace talks, with a fourth one planned soon. Russia’s lead negotiator said that there were no new positive developments and said the next discussion will most likely not lead to a final result. However, Ukraine said one of the small positives of the last round of talks included an agreement to set up humanitarian corridors.
Another step countries have taken to condemn Russia’s actions while trying to maintain peace is the implementation of sanctions. This approach to resolving conflict was first introduced in the early 20th century. While these measures can be met with differing viewpoints, they at least show a step toward preserving peace.
It’s too early to tell what will transpire from the talks between Russia and Ukraine. Reaching an agreement can take time. But, the plans for continued talks give a glimpse of hope as the two countries are willing to sit down together, discuss their differences and work toward a resolution.
3. Freedom is never guaranteed. Young adults don’t remember a time without peace. Many weren’t old enough or even born to experience the threats of 9/11. And, in Ukraine, young adults grew up in an independent nation that gained its freedom from Russia in 1991 – even though the tension has remained.
What the past few weeks have taught us is that freedom is never guaranteed. It can be taken away in an instant. And, freedom is something that has to be continually fought for and protected. At the EU meeting, Zelensky said, “This is the price of freedom. We are fighting just for our land. And for our freedom, despite the fact that all of the cities of our country are now blocked.”
While college students watch how Ukraine is bravely standing up to ensure their democracy and freedoms going forward, it’s important that they recognize U.S. history and what our forefathers went through to ensure the freedoms we now enjoy.
Freedom wasn’t guaranteed when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Many have sacrificed their lives to ensure our freedom. It has come under threat during the Civil War, World Wars, Cold War and the War on Terrorism. When students feel that their freedoms are being threatened, it’s important that they stand up to defend them. This can be done by voting and peacefully protesting.
Watching the events unfold from the other side of the world is disheartening, and with social media, it feels even more real. Although there are many lessons we can learn from the Russia and Ukraine conflict, it’s important for students to recognize that how Russia and the rest of the world respond to this situation can define our future. The threat to Ukraine’s democracy is a threat to our own.
Reading articles and seeing stories of the heroics of the Ukrainian people, shows that the future is bright. There are young leaders who are willing to stand up for what they believe in even if it costs them everything. As a college president, I hope our students take to heart the costly price of freedom while gleaning lessons and values from today’s leaders that they can implement into their own lives.