Enabling Ukrainian refugee students to continue studies

A blogpost by Marta Szymanowska
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Ukrainian students in a circle

Together with my colleagues from RSM, Erasmus University - Florian Madertoner, Joop Huij, and Maciej Szymanowski - we have designed a Business Fundamentals course for Ukrainian refugee students. Below we share our story to showcase the great power of connecting through knowledge and education. We have witnessed how our small course not only provided useful knowledge and skills to the refugee students but also restored a sense of belonging to a community that was taken away from them by the war. We hope to inspire others to organize similar courses to reach out to more refugee students, also in other regions.

Interrupted lives of student refugees

Since the escalation of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, millions of refugees have fled their home country. Most of the refugees sought refuge in European Union countries, including the Netherlands. Their lives have been suddenly interrupted. And given the uncertainty on how the war will develop, it is unlikely that they can return to their homes in the near future.

Like many refugees, Ukrainians in the Netherlands face a range of problems, such as language barriers, social isolation, and difficulties finding employment. Among the refugees are many young students from Ukrainian universities whose studies have been abruptly paused, with no clear prospects on when they can continue. The interruption in their chosen field of study seriously jeopardizes their goals and dreams of future careers, at least for the time being.

How we responded and what were the challenges?

We responded to this societal problem by designing a course for Ukrainian refugee students living in Rotterdam. Our goal was to create a course that would bring together refugee students on the university campus, forming a cohort group that could study together and develop knowledge and skills personally beneficial to them in starting a career here in the Netherlands, while also thinking about the future rebuilding of the Ukrainian economy once the war is over.

These were our specific goals but also the challenges that we faced:

  • Do it fast: It had to be done quickly to energize refugee students, help them use their time productively, and provide a sense of belonging to a student group and the academic community that they had to leave behind in their home country.
  • Reach the refugees: We had to actively reach out to the refugees, explaining our project and assessing how many were interested in participating.
  • Assess their level: We needed to determine the refugee’s study background and their proficiency level in English, ensuring that it was sufficient and homogenous enough to offer a coherent course.
  • Assess their needs: We aimed to tailor the course to share our knowledge and provide them with skills that they find immediately useful and are in high demand.
  • Design the content: We had to design the content that was suitable and useful for the refugees. We wanted to teach business knowledge that would be important for the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine economy and could be immediately applied by the students. We also wanted to keep an eye on broader aspects such as the culture of doing business in the western economies, networking and job search skills, and the Dutch culture.
  • Logistic issues: We had to address various logistic concerns. This included establishing communication channels with the refugees given that the regular university channels are not accessible without student accounts. We also had to arrange classrooms, access to study materials/computers, etc.
  • Study credits: We needed to determine the feasibility of providing students with official study credits. These credits could potentially be used to advance their studies at Ukrainian universities.

In the summer of 2022, Joop and Florian initiated the process by establishing a connection with student refugees in Rotterdam through Iryna Ostapchuk-Maat from Stichting Mano – a foundation that helps excluded Rotterdammers to participate actively in society. Iryna distributed our questionnaires among the refugee students and collected their responses. Our primary objective was to ascertain their exact study backgrounds, English proficiency levels, and their interest and ability to participate in a business fundamentals course, taking into account any potential reliance on the availability of study credits.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Around 25 students, primarily first and second-year bachelor students, but also some graduates and even one high school student, expressed their strong eagerness to connect and participate in such a program. While most of them had some background in business administration and accounting, there were also some with engineering, law and medical study backgrounds. They not only expressed a strong interest in a business fundamentals course but also explicitly asked for the inclusion of a marketing module.

We also inquired with RSM whether it would be possible to award study credits for our course. However, due to the limited time available to establish connections between RSM and Ukrainian Universities, it was not feasible.

The last but crucial step was to address the logistical issues. Since students did not have regular student accounts, we could not utilize the usual communication channels such as Canvas. Instead, we connected with students through a WhatsApp group. RSM made a classroom available for the course, and the Department of Finance at RSM sponsored catering, which was important as many students had day jobs and the sessions had to take place in the evenings.

In the end that was enough. After all, students expressed eagerness to learn, and we wanted to share our knowledge with them.

Business Fundamentals course for Ukrainian refugee students

In November 2022 we commenced the 12-week course on business fundamentals. Florian began by covering business basics, including entrepreneurship and accounting. Maciej introduced the topic of marketing, Marta taught an introduction to financial markets, and Joop focused on investments. From November 2022 to February 2023, we held intensive and interactive lectures every Wednesday evening from 18:00-21:00 on campus. The students were hard working, very engaged, and eager to learn and discuss the managerial applications of material. The atmosphere was very positive and uplifting for students, and as a result, also for us teaching them. The students greatly appreciated being welcomed into the academic community, especially as it provided them with sense of progress and a welcome distraction from the daily refugee life.

At the end of the course, the students presented their final projects in groups – a business plan for either a fictive or real business aimed at integrating Ukrainian economy or Ukrainian refugees with the Dutch economy. The presentations were assessed and discussed not only by us, the teachers, and their fellow students but also by industry professionals invited by us. We concluded the course by awarding them certificates and celebrating their success.

However, the story doesn’t end here.

What to do next?

Some of our students have applied to RSM to pursue their bachelor’s degree here. However, the fees for Ukrainian students are prohibitively high, especially for refugee students. Currently, we are investigating potential solutions to overcome this financial barrier. We are also exploring the possibilities of establishing formal connections between RSM and Ukrainian Universities, which could enable students to take elective courses at our university and earn credits toward their degrees in Ukraine.

Many of our colleagues have expressed interest in teaching one or two sessions in a course for refugee students. At the end of our course, we asked our students about their willingness to continue learning and staying in touch with us. They expressed eagerness to continue and indicated that there are more students out there who would like to participate. We hope that other universities will organize similar courses to reach out to more refugee students in different regions. Our experience has demonstrated that it doesn’t require much - just a few enthusiastic teachers and students. We are more than happy to provide more details to those interested in organizing initiatives like this. One possibility to facilitate this is for the universities to hire a coordinator who can liaise between the teachers and the refugees.

We believe that even a small educational intervention can have a profound impact. It not only provides knowledge and skills to the refugee students but also instills in them a sense of belonging to a community that was taken away from them by the war. Our message is clear: there is immense power in connecting through knowledge and education.

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