In a bomb shelter under Kyiv, a US professor taught Ukrainian students about the art of peace

Written by on March 4, 2024

David Dowling

(NEW YORK) — Professor David Dowling of Pepperdine University traveled last fall from California to Ukraine to teach some students of Taras Shevchenko National University a course in conflict and dispute resolution.

In a bomb shelter under Kyiv, as the war continued above them, 18 undergraduates learned the art of peace.

“Five minutes into class, the air raid sirens started,” Dowling said. He added, “For the first time in my teaching career, and possibly not the last, I taught my class in a bomb shelter.”

Selected on the basis of interest and English proficiency, the class was a response to the lack of mediation and negotiation in the curriculum, according to Kateryna Manetska, the program coordinator and an alumna of Taras Shevchenko.

“But now that’s more important than ever, so we decided to do anything possible to make this happen,” Manetska told ABC News.

For the students, this class was their first time back in person since the COVID-19 pandemic and the war began. The excitement, said Dowling, was palpable before he even embarked on a long journey from Los Angeles to Poland and finally to Kyiv, via what he called “the longest train ride in my life.”

Dowling arrived on Nov. 4, after two weeks of teaching the first part of the curriculum remotely. His first class, scheduled for Nov. 6, was interrupted by the sirens going off as soon as they got started.

The students calmly led their American professor to the shelter, four floors below their designated class, through a maze of stairways and hallways.

“If they were anxious, they did not display it at all,” said Dowling. “The saddest thing is that it’s such a part of their life. They all kind of gathered their bags and they were like, ‘Okay professor, you’ve got to come with us.'”

Amjad Yamin, of Save The Children, an international charity, said that Ukrainian students, especially older ones, are getting too used to the reality of war.

“They start thinking this is what normal life looks like,” he said.

Yamin added that this is particularly true for the older ones, saying, “They understand very clearly. The younger ones, you can still shelter them from some things, you can tell them it’s a game.”

Dowling left Kyiv at 6:28 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11. At 8 a.m. that morning, explosions were heard in the city. Still, he hopes to return soon and continue where he left off.

Tears filled his eyes as he reunited with his students on Zoom for an interview with ABC News, months after he last saw them, as the war in Ukraine that claimed tens of thousands of lives entered its third year.

“Unfortunately in Ukraine, you have only two options: You can go abroad or you can stay and just admit the fact that you can die at any second,” said 21-year-old Aurika Solomakha. “I had experience working with professors from the USA before I met Mr. Dowling but really, no one dared to come to Kyiv during the war.”

Dowling’s trip to Kyiv meant a lot to the students, a few of them said.

“We were amazed and had an idea that there’s not so many professors who are willing to come to Ukraine and teach on-site courses for our students,” said Manetska.

For Mariia Nazarenko, 20, this course was more than that.

“People like him made us feel worth something,” Nazarenko said.

“He gave us something useful to support our education and I will never forget it for the rest of my life,” said Oleksandra Chornyi, 19. Following the class, she said scored an internship in mediation at a prestigious Ukrainian firm.

Dowling was also full of admiration and pride, saying, “These are women who are studying who are looking to make a difference in their world and in their family’s lives.”

The general mood in Ukraine, the students say, has become depressing or aggressive, as people wonder when will the war will end. Families have been shattered. Young people are alienated and lonely, they said.

But the class with Mr. Dowling gave them purpose and a practical skill that can create peace, they said. Or, at least, the hope it will.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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