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

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.

PHOTO: For the students, this class was their first time back in person since the COVID-19 pandemic and the war began. (David Dowling)
PHOTO: For the students, this class was their first time back in person since the COVID-19 pandemic and the war began. (David Dowling)

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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.

PHOTO: Professor David Dowling of Pepperdine University traveled to Ukraine to teach some students at Taras Shevchenko National University a course in conflict and dispute resolution. (David Dowling)
PHOTO: Professor David Dowling of Pepperdine University traveled to Ukraine to teach some students at Taras Shevchenko National University a course in conflict and dispute resolution. (David Dowling)

"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."

Of the 1,150,000 higher education students from Ukraine, approximately 10% are outside the country and between 15% and 20% are displaced by the war, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education shared with ABC News. Most of the displaced are from Eastern and Southern Ukraine and are continuing to study online, having relocated to Kyiv.

"If there is a class and the air raid siren goes off, people have about 15 minutes to evacuate into a bomb shelter," Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mychailo Wynnyckyj told ABC News. "And if there is not enough certified bomb shelter space, then obviously, we cannot hold that class."

Wynnyckyj said that continuous online learning is leaving Ukrainian students without some of the most important aspects of higher education, such as socializing with peers and transitioning to the job market through internships and apprenticeships.

"We understand that those losses are something that we will not be able to compensate for, generally," the deputy minister said.

However, Wynnyckyj believes that the Ukrainian education system has shown nothing but resilience. In the city of Kharkiv, under regular attack since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and a frequent target in recent weeks, 16 higher education institutions "not only continue to operate but actually had an uptick last year in terms of enrollment," the deputy minister shared.

Through state-funded tuition as well as mental health resources where available, the government has been supporting higher education students.

"I think that Ukraine is very much a very similar frontier to what the United States was 150 years ago. And that means it's a very exciting place, but it's also not a place where you plan things. It's a place for entrepreneurial minds," Wynnyckyj added

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.

PHOTO: In a bomb shelter under Kyiv, as the war continued above them, 18 undergraduates learned the art of peace. (David Dowling )
PHOTO: In a bomb shelter under Kyiv, as the war continued above them, 18 undergraduates learned the art of peace. (David Dowling )

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.

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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.

In a bomb shelter under Kyiv, a US professor taught Ukrainian students about the art of peace originally appeared on abcnews.go.com