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„Defend and protect democracy“

Education can be a game changer in times of crisis. Maria Pryshlak, director of the Ukrainian Free University, explains why.

Maren van Treel, 09.08.2022
Profeesor Maria Pryshlak, Director Ukrainian Free University
Profeesor Maria Pryshlak, Director Ukrainian Free University

The Ukrainian Free University (UFU) has existed for over 100 years and has been based in Munich since 1945. It has dealt with two refugee crisis in the past, this is the third one. Rector Prof. Dr. Maria Pryshlak explains how the UFU is dealing with the war in Ukraine and why education can be a game changer in these times.

What does the war in Ukraine mean for university life?
The war in Ukraine has destroyed all vestiges of normalcy at UFU. The normal flow of university life was disrupted by the pandemic, but war brought normalcy to a halt. Our winter semester was interrupted due to the fact that our lecturers and students in Ukraine were living a good part of the day in bomb shelters. Several of our lecturers and students immediately enrolled in territorial defense units. Some of our students from Munich returned to join the military. Meanwhile the administration immediately began the difficult process of evacuating students and lecturers—those who could leave the country. For those who could not leave, we tried to evacuate their families.

A look at the analogue part of the library.
A look at the analogue part of the library. © picture alliance/dpa

How does UFU help refugees?
Our university helps integration processes, provides necessary information for support from social and labor agencies. Identifying the signs of trauma in mothers and children, the university has begun a pedagogical and psychological program to help mothers and children overcome trauma and be able to function normally. We have opened a help center that provides refugees with legal information and  psychological, social and employment consultations and support.

How does the UFU support its students and lecturers?
The administration took on tasks of providing aid to refugees, as well as humanitarian aid to Ukraine , for example ambulances, medicine, food, clothing. The focus shifted for months from education to aid campaigns. Today the university works on two tracks—one of helping refugees and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the other of providing an education and serving the needs of students.

Our University provides our students and lecturers, who arrived in Munich with hardly any belongings, clothing as needed, plus computers, to enable them to study successfully.

But that is only part of the help. We also support our students in their search for accommodation, provide scholarships, German language training, job coaching and psychological support to those that are traumatized.

The idea behind the UFU is to offer students the possibility of studying „based on Western values“. Which role does this idea play in times like these?
If by “western values” we mean freedom, justice, human rights, civic responsibility—all the underpinnings of democracy, then, yes, promoting western values is extremely important today and I may add always. Education is one way to ensure informed, engaged citizens able to defend and protect democracy.

Students are the best guards and supporters of democracy.
Profeesor Maria Pryshlak, Director Ukrainian Free University

The war between Ukraine and Russia is a war between freedom, human rights, and democracy on the one hand, and Russian imperialism, autocracy, disregard of freedom, human rights and sovereignty of nations on the other hand. It has been well documented how the Russian government works to sow social division in Europe through disinformation, supports extremist groups with the goal of heightening grievances, building discord, aims at fomenting strife — all to undermine democracies.

How can education counteract these processes?
An education that produces critical thinkers, individuals thinking independently and having a sense of civic duty and responsibility,  ensures that such  will not be easily misled by misinformation, form a herd mentality, listen to empty or false slogans. These individuals are the best guards and supporters of democracy, monitoring the erosion of democratic values, safeguarding precious freedoms.

UFU in Munich
UFU in Munich © picture alliance/dpa


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