Students eat, study and socialize in a campus dining hall. (photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy)
“There’s no place for a Catholic university where authoritarianism flourishes.” —Myroslav Marynovych (photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy)
“There is a family atmosphere here.” —Vladyslav Mustafaev (photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy)
“It is a challenge to resynthesize a Christian culture.” —Bishop Borys Gudziak (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
“What I learned in four years as an undergraduate, I learned in half a year at U.C.U.” —Oleksandra Chernova (photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy)
Yuriy Didula, a 25-year-old project manager, had never worked with his hands, nor had he any experience in construction. But in July 2014 he made a leap of faith, grabbed a bag of tools and, from the city of Lviv, traveled 720 miles east to help rebuild homes destroyed by war.
Having just returned home from the United States — where he had completed his graduate studies at La Salle University and worked for a time at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. — he heard the news that Ukrainian soldiers had retaken the city of Kramatorsk from pro-Russian-separatist forces.
“I felt I should be on the other side, among those civic organizations that are doing something in the field,” Mr. Didula says of his decision to return to his Ukrainian homeland.
Despite receiving threatening phone calls after publicizing their intent on social media, Mr. Didula and fellow Ukrainian Catholic University alumnus Andriy Levtytsky headed by train to the reclaimed city to help families and show solidarity.
“We wanted to help them not to feel abandoned,” says Mr. Didula. “There was a lot of damage, killing and spiritual trauma. They needed somebody to talk with them.”
He now works with the Lviv Education Foundation in his hometown. The group’s project in Kramatorsk, Freedom Home, established a community and youth development center to foster a sense of belonging and cooperation — values Mr. Didula says Ukrainian institutions vitally need and frequently lack.
“This is kind of a wound on the whole body of Ukraine,” he says of a young nation embroiled in a war with deep roots.
Mr. Didula credits the principles fostered by his alma mater for inspiring his seemingly impulsive decision to embark on a brick-and-mortar project in a conflict zone.
“I grew up in a big family of seven,” he says. “The values at U.C.U. resemble my family’s’ [beliefs in] sharing and helping those in need, not for personal wealth, but for the benefit of society.”
In a nation wracked with corruption and graft at every level — recent international studies conducted by Transparency International and the Organized Crime Observatory vie with headlines labeling Ukraine as “the most corrupt nation in Europe” — the Ukrainian Catholic University distinguishes itself. Through the work of its dedicated administration and staff, students receive not only a first-rate liberal arts education, but also grounding in ideals of service and integrity, rooted as much in Catholic social teaching as in the principles of citizenship.
Unique in Ukraine, U.C.U. has carved out a distinctive niche in the past 20 years, serving as one of only two Catholic universities between Poland and Japan, and seeking to excel where the national educational system has fallen short. The university focuses on programs tailored to the realities of the job market — which remains mired in confusion as surviving industries transition from Ukraine’s Soviet-era controlled market policies. Even more importantly, however, U.C.U. emphasizes the formation of future leaders, an objective stressed in the institution’s very mission statement.
Anton Kukhliev won a city council seat in Krasnohorivka, located about 40 miles west of Donetsk, on the ticket of a grassroots, pro-reform party called Democratic Alliance. Without funding from any of the country’s politically influential oligarchs, the party won 4 out of 26 seats in the local legislature in a constituency still loyal to the party of the ousted pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Mr. Kukhliev, 33, attributes his success to a program he attended in the summer of 2014 offered by U.C.U.’s Institute of Leadership and Management.
“I had a breakthrough in my life,” Mr. Kukhliev says, which began when he looked around and noticed many participants were younger than he was. Youth care about deeper things than just labels, he says about the linguistic and religious differences used to justify partisan extremism in modern Ukraine.
“I saw that Ukraine is changing. I’m from a war zone where everything is closed, but suddenly I saw a wider view of the world.”
After returning home, he worked on community development for a year, speaking to teachers and other community leaders on reconciliation, organizing group viewings of films, fostering dialogues on history and campaigning for local elections in his town of 15,000 people.
“I did everything the leadership school taught me, starting with planning. Every week we did something — we conducted seminars on the election law, we did analysis, we spoke to voters in the squares and courtyards, all on a $230 budget.”
Bishop Borys Gudziak, the university’s longtime rector and present president who also serves as bishop to Western Europe’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic community, describes such a turning point as a “formative experience” that enables people to believe in themselves — something the school strives to foster in all its students.
“When you’re free, when you study and live in an environment where many things become possible, you begin to believe that sharing freedom and possibility is your vocation,” Bishop Borys says.
“It is a challenge to resynthesize a Christian culture,” he adds, referring to Soviet hostility to Ukrainian Christianity and the outright suppression of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “Of course, it is a global challenge.”
To understand the challenge, one must understand Ukraine’s history, the bishop says. Millions of Ukrainian lives were lost to war, famine and political repression in the 20th century, he explains, profoundly wounding a society that still feels the weight of its turbulent history in its cultural DNA.
To heal and prepare students for the challenges of the real world, the Ukrainian Catholic University treats its students with love and dignity. Its model for a traditional liberal arts education — utilizing an honor system, mutually respectful dialogue between faculty and students, and an environment supportive of challenging ideas and thinking critically — often runs counter to the state-run educational system built on rigid, outdated teaching methods. And the cornerstone of the university’s model is Christian ethics.
After what Bishop Borys describes as an “arduous process,” the nation’s education ministry accredited the first Catholic university in the former Soviet Union in 2002, long after it received international accreditation in 1998.
“Breaking through that post-Soviet barrier took ten years of explanation, lobbying, meeting post-Soviet standards,” he says.
“But some of the burden of those aspects are being disposed of,” he adds, noting that U.C.U. has been a consistent voice among those advocating reducing the regulations that govern curricula, required classroom hours and fundraising.
The university comprises two faculties — one for philosophy and theology, and one for the humanities. About a quarter of the staff is educated in the Western tradition, and the school boasts a low student-to-teacher ratio of four to one, according to the Rev. Oleg Kindiy, assistant dean for international relations. The school offers degrees in 18 subjects, including theology, business, technology management and journalism. Plans are in place to found a law school and to install a rehabilitation program for soldiers, families and refugees affected by the current war.
Students are steeped in the humanities and are also drawn to the university’s emphasis on inclusiveness and ecumenism — a hallmark of Catholic education.
“U.C.U. is a meeting point for secular and religious segments of society,” says Myroslav Marynovych, a vice chancellor for the university and president of the Institute of Religion and Society.
Born in Sevastopol to a Ukrainian mother and father of Arabic descent, Vladyslav Mustafaev was baptized in the Orthodox Church and reared on the Crimean peninsula — making him part of the 30 percent of the student body that is not Greek Catholic, and 35 percent not from the Lviv metropolitan area. Belonging to a minority at U.C.U. has been no problem, the 19-year-old reports. “There is a family atmosphere here,” he says, but, he adds, “I’m still searching for my faith.”
Mr. Mustafaev transferred from a medical school in search of an education free of graft and with a more open an equitable relationship between faculty and students. At his prior school, he alleges, “everything is for sale” — including diplomas and grades.
The Catholic institution’s zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism and bribery, two traits that plague the Ukrainian educational system, is yet another way the school distinguishes itself, attracting students serious about their own growth.
Master’s journalism student Oleksandra Chernova enrolled after completing an undergraduate degree on the same topic at the Donetsk National University. Born in Russia and reared in Sloviansk, about 70 miles north of Donetsk, she recently completed a month-long internship with international news agency Reuters in Kiev and is deeply immersed in student life at U.C.U.
“I hardly sleep, I always work, there’s no free time and I have no regrets,” she says. “I want to develop, to try new things.”
Growing more comfortable working with experienced journalists, the 22-year-old says, is as much the result of gaining exposure and practical work as being treated like an adult at her university.
“What I learned in four years as an undergraduate I learned in half a year at U.C.U,” she says.
As with recently elected city council member Anton Kukhliev, faculty members also graduate into public service. In October 2015, the Ukrainian government’s Cabinet of Ministers approved the appointment of U.C.U.’s vice president for research and education, Pavlo Khobzey, as deputy education minister. Others serve in the private sector by holding public officials accountable.
Ihor Feshchenko, 23, monitors campaign financing and local government activities in Lviv for the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a local election watchdog and public accountability group. Holding a master’s degree in media communication from U.C.U., he also works part time as the assistant to the director of the local chapter of the Renaissance Foundation.
Mr. Feshchenko says U.C.U. showed him the true meaning of the Christian faith and helped him find direction in his life.
“It’s an intellectual atmosphere where people strive to meet goals,” he says. “This helped me realize myself through the goal to promote transparent, simple and honest rules in society.”
When no side imposes its truth on the other, says Vice Chancellor Mr. Marynovych, who spent 10 years in a Soviet gulag as a political prisoner, freedom permeates. “There’s no place for a Catholic university where authoritarianism flourishes,” he concludes.
Things have not always been so rosy at the university, which was re-founded in 1994 on the remains of the long-repressed Greek Catholic Theological Academy founded in 1928 by the revered leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Venerable Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky.
Various Ukrainian governments have perceived U.C.U. as a threat for its independent stance and as an advocate for reform. Between 1994 and 2004, Bishop Borys braced for expulsion from Ukraine.
“In 2001, I was threatened with deportation,” the Harvard-educated U.S.-born bishop says. “There was a veiled threat on television: Those rectors of schools whose students participate in unsanctioned protests and who have American passports would be deported — and of course, there was only one.”
Further, the State Security Service — also known as the S.B.U. — tried to intimidate the bishop while he served the university as its chancellor in May 2010. An S.B.U. agent had visited his office, requesting that he sign a letter addressed to him from the service and warning him about government measures that would be taken against students advocating reform. Bishop Borys refused to read, let alone sign, the letter after the officer refused to give him a copy.
Western governments in some cases responded on behalf of the school and the bishop. “Different embassies often rallied in support of U.C.U., and moved back repressive measures,” he says.
History professor Yaroslav Hrytsak says that the institution, as a Catholic, non-governmental university, was often treated with suspicion by the authorities. In response, the school embraced even negative attention, taking any possible opportunity to spread its message.
“Our idea was to work like a positive virus,” Mr. Hrytsak says.
If in the past the university and Ukraine seemed to exist in separate worlds, the two now appear to be more alike — especially since the recent political upheaval.
“So now U.C.U. does not feel its ‘exceptionalism’ anymore,” Mr. Hrytsak adds. “We feel one among many.”
It is still too early to predict what awaits future alumni. Bishop Borys notes that the first alumni are only in their 30’s.
“We’re still in diapers as a school. It’s a very young institution; our first graduates are young,” he says. “We’re looking for the influence of relationship. Influence of integrity. Influence of mercy.”
Exemplifying that drive and influence is Mr. Didula of the Lviv Education Foundation. Not content to stop at rebuilding homes, he has overseen the creation of five community centers, all in eastern Ukraine, by mobilizing some 150 volunteers last year. His group has established a network built on local friendships and bridge-building between western and eastern Ukraine. Now, he wants to create community centers in other parts of Ukraine.
“I want to engage 500 volunteers this year in 11 cities,” Mr. Didula says.
Better mobility and communication, he believes, are instrumental to ending the current conflict. “That’s why we want to encourage young people to travel from one region to another, to learn what Ukraine is at the end,” he says.
“This project should be a foundation for a national movement not based on ethnic, religious or linguistic backgrounds, but on common values of sharing, helping and openness.”
Thanks in part to all he learned at Ukrainian Catholic University, especially the values it imparts, Mr. Didula now coordinates this important, scaled-up effort.
Note: During the editorial process, the word “civil” was added describing the war in Ukraine. It has been subsequently removed.
Mark Raczkiewycz is editor at large for the Kyiv Post in Ukraine. His work has appeared in the The Financial Times, The Irish Times and Jane’s Intelligence, among other places.