The windows in his classroom are blocked with bags. His car alarm once went off because of a shelling’s overwhelming shockwaves. He hasn’t seen his wife and two daughters in months – not since he helped them evacuate the country.
Taras Tsymbal, a sociology professor and dean at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in Ukraine’s capital city, can attest to the seriousness of war. It’s been around him since Russia’s first strikes in late February.
So when he read the Facebook post earlier this month – the one from the Kyiv School of Economics inviting students to take a one-week data science course taught in-person by an instructor from the United States – he thought it was a mistake.
“It had to be online,” Tsymbal said.
Though he has a doctoral degree, Tsymbal still has an itch to learn. He enjoys being a student every now and then. He signed up for the data science course.
But when no Zoom link arrived in his inbox on the scheduled first day of class, Tsymbal made the 20-minute drive to the Kyiv School of Economics as details of the Facebook post started to ring true in his head.
Maybe, he thought, someone was crazy enough to come all this way to teach during wartime in Ukraine.
It was all confirmed moments later when Tsymbal saw with his own eyes Arthur Small, a lecturer from the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, standing at the front of a classroom.
“Wow,” Tsymbal said, “amazing!”
As first reported in a UVA Today story on June 7, Small, in an act of solidarity to a country he visited nearly 30 years ago, arranged through the Kyiv School of Economics to teach a course –pro bono – on its campus. This meant cutting short a vacation in Spain, hopping on a plane to Warsaw, Poland, and then traveling 14 hours to Kyiv on a restroom-less bus. Speaking of his students ahead of his first class, Small told UVA Today he simply hoped “to be worthy of their time.”
That mission appears to be accomplished.
“I think this is a much stronger message of solidarity than those that we have even from the president of the United States,” Tsymbal said, “because it’s easy to show solidarity with someone from a distance. But to take such lengths, to change your schedule and just to change your plans and to take such risks, that’s a very serious statement.”
Tsymbal was one of 26 students to take Small’s “Data-driven publishing: Reproducible research with R, Quarto, and Github” course, which introduces tools and concepts of literate programming. Filled with lectures and presentations, the course setup was not unlike most found at the collegiate level.
Except, well, for the class session that took place inside a bomb shelter.
This happened June 14, when air-raid sirens forced Small and company to the basement of the school.
The students, all native Ukrainians, were used to the routine.
“We knew we had to hurry up and get down there because we have a short time,” said Mariia Atamaniuk, a graduate student at Kyiv School of Economics. “It’s a reality that most Ukrainians live with every day right now.”
Despite potential danger above, Small – and his teaching assistant, Mykyta Horovoi – kept class in session. Bomb shelter features include strong Wi-Fi and plenty of water.
“You would have a class projector to share a presentation, but while we were in the shelter, we could not do it, so we just launched Zoom,” Horovoi said. “(Small) shared his screen and he was presenting his topic from the moment it launched.
“Generally, nothing changed but the location. It was a wild experience to study from inside the shelter. But it was safe.”
A native Midwesterner, Small said he felt like he was reacting to a tornado warning.
“I don’t even know if it’s scarier,” he said. “It’s different scary, but it’s very familiar to a kid who grew up in a tornado zone in Iowa.”
The whole scene, though, put Small’s trip in perspective. For three weeks he lived in a space filled with people trying to thrive among war’s inconveniences. (Small returned safely to the United States on Wednesday.)
“‘Calm determination’ is the term I’ve used to describe the culture and the vibe of the city,” Small said. “They are living joyously in these moments, knowing how precious they are. To be around that energy has been enriching, enlivening and a privilege.”
Atamaniuk said relatives of hers fled Ukraine 10 days into the war. Horovoi’s father lost his driving job shortly after the war began and remains unemployed, as many travel roads are restricted, and the country has a fuel shortage. And Tsymbal in March dropped off his wife and kids at a border crossing point and hasn’t seen them since. They are safe, but in Switzerland.
Small’s presence was not taken for granted.
“For someone, especially from the U.S. that’s very far away from Ukraine, to have this courage to come, even though there’s always risk of shelling in our building,” Atamaniuk said, “it’s really great. We appreciate this very much.”
A small grin appeared on Small’s face as he heard the praise from his temporary students.
A worthwhile journey, indeed.
“This wildly exceeded my expectations,” he said. “It was a blast. I love them.”