Since the outbreak of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Vytautas Magnus University (VMU) has welcomed more than three hundred Ukrainian students and, on the initiative of the First Ladies of Lithuania and Ukraine, Diana Nausėdienė and Olena Zelenska, opened the Centre of Ukraine, a humanitarian and educational space established in the premises of VMU Education Academy in Vilnius. The Centre has already been visited by more than 24,000 Ukrainians. Ukrainians studying at VMU actively participate in community activities, volunteer at the Centre of Ukraine, and firmly believe that the experience gained at the University will aid them in rebuilding their homeland.
In March 2022, Kyiv resident Kateryna Strutynska arrived in Lithuania. Originally planning to stay here for a few weeks or months, Kateryna ended up settling in Kaunas for the long term – the young woman with a Master’s degree in Law enrolled in VMU’s Master’s programme in Diplomacy and International Relations.
“We never could have imagined that the war would last this long. My parents’ close friends live in Kaunas, and they welcomed us with open arms. I am incredibly grateful to them for everything. I have no regrets about choosing to study at VMU. I really like it here, and it’s a great opportunity to receive a European education and test myself in a new field. The teachers are kind and friendly, and the VMU community is always there to help you,” says Kateryna, who feels at home at the University not only because of the large Ukrainian community at the University but also because of her circle of friends, which includes students from various parts of the world.
She actively participates in Ukrainian community activities – students use the Telegram channel to discuss various topics, address issues, assist each other, and organise meetings.
“We always strive to address the topic of war, so that the world and the people of Kaunas don’t forget it. We do this by organising various meetings, for example, on 24 February, to commemorate the anniversary of the war, we took to the streets with our self-made posters. We also took part in a discussion about opening a Centre of Ukraine in Kaunas, similar to the one in Vilnius,” says Kateryna.
Kateryna’s greatest passion is singing. Last summer, she organised a concert for Ukrainians at the now-closed CulturEUkraine centre set up by Kaunas – European Capital of Culture. Alongside other artists, she sang Ukrainian songs and collected donations for war victims. In the future, she plans to volunteer at the Centre of Ukraine in Vilnius.
Living in the moment
Coming from a big city, Kateryna sometimes experiences boredom and a lack of activities in the small city of Kaunas compared to Kyiv. But she admits that when your country is at war, a quiet and peaceful environment is the best place to live.
“At first it was hard to get used to living here because I always wanted to go back home (and I still do). I missed home a lot, but with the support of my friends and my beloved, whom I met in Kaunas, I adapted much better. I truly appreciate this immense support from Lithuanians. You are wonderful people,” said Kateryna.
She says that Lithuanians can serve as an example to other nations with their strong political stance and patriotism. “Throughout my time in Kaunas, I haven’t heard any negative comments about my country from Lithuanians. You are true patriots, and that truly amazes me. I also adore the nature and the beautiful roads here,” she says, enjoying every moment of her life in Lithuania and refraining from dwelling on distant plans.
“Before the full-scale war, I used to meticulously plan everything, but now in Ukraine, we say: we don’t know what will happen in the next minute, so how can you ask us about our plans? First and foremost, my plan is to complete my studies at VMU, and then we’ll see. Of course, my deepest wish is for the war to end as soon as possible, allowing all Ukrainians to return to their beloved homeland,” Kateryna said.
Sharing experiences with peers
Oleksandr Shyba, an exchange student studying Economics at VMU, dedicates all his free time to volunteering at the Centre of Ukraine. He assists in organising various workshops, events, language courses, and children’s camps.
“The opening of the Centre of Ukraine in June last year was an exceptional event as it stands out as a one-of-a-kind centre in Europe. It is a great honour for me to be part of this project and to work with a wonderful team of volunteers who provide all the necessary support to Ukrainian women and children who had to flee their country because of the Russian war,” said Oleksandr. For him, volunteering is the best way to maintain a bond with his homeland.
“Through volunteering, I not only help people and preserve our traditions, but I also gain new experiences and meet interesting individuals. I spend a lot of time listening to war stories, and although they are full of sorrow, they also carry a sense of hope, which motivates me to continue volunteering,” he shares his experiences at the Centre of Ukraine and VMU with his peers in Ukraine.
“I am fortunate to be studying Economics under the guidance of the best teachers at VMU. In just one year, I have not only gained valuable knowledge but also significantly improved my international communication skills, which is very important to me as I plan to contribute to Ukraine’s reconstruction after the victory in the war,” Oleksandr said.
In the future, he aspires to pursue further studies at VMU, continue volunteering at the Centre of Ukraine, and contribute to his country: “I want to express my gratitude to Lithuania, every Lithuanian, and VMU for becoming my second home.”
Students from three Kaunas universities joined forces
Unlike most students from Ukraine, Volodymyr Vasylenko, a PhD student in Biology at VMU, came to Lithuania four years ago, long before the full-scale war, to take up a job at VMU’s Faculty of Natural Sciences. He is currently a junior researcher at VMU Research Institute of Natural Sciences and Technology.
When the full-scale war broke out, he joined the team of VMU Ambassadors, a group of 60 students from all over the world, prepared to answer questions, give advice, or otherwise help international VMU students.
“The University community provides us with immense support, as the Rector’s Council, the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and the International Cooperation Department organise various events for Ukrainians. Our students also take part in University activities, conferences, Transform4Europe Alliance events, and Erasmus Days,” explained Volodymyr. He says that Ukrainian students are already well-acquainted with the country, so they know which activities they want to participate in and how to find them.
After arriving in Lithuania, he interacted with Ukrainian students from other universities, and when the full-scale war broke out, he joined them in the CulturEUkraine initiative – a centre established in Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue). “We wanted to organise something for the students so that they could disconnect from the news and relax a little. So three Kaunas universities, which celebrated their centennial last year, joined forces and organised an informal programme for Ukrainians. Students gathered on weekends, played board games, visited museums, attended sports events, and travelled around Vilnius, Trakai, and Palanga,” he shared. He says that despite the closure of the CulturEUkraine centre, they continue to organise various activities on their own.
While Volodymyr has settled in Kaunas, where he lives with his family, and has no plans to return to Ukraine, Ukrainian students have plenty of opportunities that come with a university education. “Some students are still searching for themselves, some are certain they’ll stay in Lithuania, and others will head to Western Europe after receiving their diplomas. Such is the freedom of choice,” Volodymyr smiled.