The room is unfamiliar. From a student’s perspective, it is just another nondescript background behind a professor’s virtual presence. But for the four people sharing a tiny apartment, the setting is a refuge. After evacuating their homes in Kyiv with only the clothes they had on and one laptop, the apartment is their sanctuary from the war in Ukraine. And it is a classroom.

Conditions are rough for those serving in Ukrainian higher education.

Inspired by the trials and tribulations these educators face, one Virginia Tech English instructor wants to help ease their burdens. Kira Gulko Morse has started a special project to provide academic support to those involved in English philology with a focus on English as a foreign language. This branch of knowledge deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships among languages.

“The faculty who evacuated did not have the opportunity to bring their teaching materials, as evacuations from war do not accommodate much luggage,” she said. “The locations that shelter refugees rarely have the right conditions for academic work. Those who stayed at home have access to their materials but face a heavy burden from war actions — missile sirens, shelling, bomb shelters, severe anxiety and depression, and other atrocities of the invasion that affect civilians.”

Just two months after the war in Ukraine began, many of the country’s universities have resumed classes to allow students to finish out the school year. The virtual format is recognizable from the online learning environments prevalent during the COVID pandemic, but this time educators may have neither the time nor the technology to plan adequate activities for their students.

Take, for example, the four people mentioned at the beginning of this story. They are not a fictitious invention to elicit readership. Instead, they are real people in Morse’s life. Two are her parents and one is her colleague from Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University, where she earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees.

“They evacuated together and so they live together with another friend in this tiny apartment,” she said. “They brought nothing except my dad’s laptop, because he is still doing his own work. And now they all share it. And my friend didn’t bring any teaching materials. No laptop, definitely no textbooks — and she’s missing many of the things she needs to teach.”

This is where Morse believes her project can make a difference. She started a database of activities and assignments that those who teach English at Ukrainian universities can use as resources for their classes. These may be videos, vocabulary activities with answer keys, or critical analyses of short literature.

“There’s some conversation about offering scholarships or inviting people here, but I think this project will help them there,” Morse said. “I’ve heard from several of my colleagues in Ukraine who say they don’t want brain drain. They don’t want professors to leave and go to other universities. They want them to come back.”

During this time of crisis, Morse hopes the project will ease some of the hardship and help those who wish to remain stay at their universities.

“During this scary time, it’s hard to concentrate, figure things out, and worry about curriculum, along with some much bigger things going on,” she said. “But I am amazed. Many of these colleagues are still participating in international conferences and trying to do things. And I was having a hard time here. Sometimes the news would really strike me, and I couldn’t focus or prepare for my lessons. And even though they are persevering and going on with their lives, they too must have trouble focusing.”

She said this project, which she calls Academic Support for Ukraine, could help those who are struggling to educate students in Ukraine. But it also is providing a way for other faculty members to show their support of Ukraine.

“I’ve felt so helpless,” said Bruce McComiskey, a professor of English at Virginia Tech. “I really appreciate the opportunity to lend a hand in some way.”

Morse is putting out a call for faculty who teach English or topics related to it, such as language sciences and communication, to provide short activities that others can use in an online classroom setting — videos, readings, worksheets, and exercises that involve minimal preparation and require between 15 and 30 minutes to complete. To submit materials or access the database, visit the landing page for this project

But Morse — who has other degrees aside from those from Kyiv, including a doctorate from Texas A&M University and another master’s and bachelor’s from Brigham Young University in Utah — envisions a continued relationship with universities from her home country. She would like to see courses where students from both countries collaborate on research and professors team teach virtual classes. 

“These resources we’re offering,” she said, “these are like our business cards, so our Ukrainian colleagues can see what type of materials we have. We hope when the war ends and life gets somewhat back to normal, much of this international cooperation can continue to happen. I feel like this project can continue growing into something bigger.”

Written by Leslie King