Viktoriia Khalanchuk, Recipient of a Graduate Scholarship for Ukraine Refugees

Viktoriia Khalanchuk, a student on our Master’s in Diplomatic Studies Programme, is one of two Oxford Continuing Education students to receive an Oxford University Graduate Scholarship for Ukraine Refugees.  

Building on Oxford’s long-standing commitment to refugee scholars and other forced migrants globally, the Graduate Scholarship Scheme for Ukraine Refugees has been set up with the aim of providing further academic training for well-qualified graduates from Ukraine whose lives have been badly impacted by war and enabling these refugee scholars to better contribute to the reconstruction of their country. 

Tell us what you were doing, where you were living, and what your plans were, prior to the invasion of Ukraine. 

When the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine back in 2014, I was a second-year undergraduate Political Science student at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In February this year, when Russia scaled its aggression to the whole territory of Ukraine, I was a second-year Master’s programme student at the same University in Kyiv’s capital.  

Since 2014, the war has always been somewhere close, although the frontline was far from the capital. From my academic and professional experiences for nine years after 2014, I can say that monitoring the situation in the temporarily occupied territories, de-occupation, and reintegration were always on the agenda of civil society and state bodies. That is because the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not only about the territory itself but about people, their homes, their land, and their right to live freely in their own country without a fear of expressing their own identity. 

Prior to the full-scale invasion on 24 February this year, I was working for the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience, at the Department for Policy Analysis and Strategic Planning. That is the new governmental agency established in 2020 in the context of Ukraine’s public service reform. The establishment of a new institution is always challenging, especially during the Covid pandemic, but we did not have time for slow institutional growth. We had to deal with a number of emerging issues, including Russian disinformation in the field of national minorities and minority languages and changing religious and ethnic landscape in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine. Joining this state body, I had a number of opportunities to be proactive and to take responsibility for complicated and delicate topics.  

My main professional interests were focused on policy analysis regarding interethnic relations and relevant international cooperation, including monitoring the implementation of Ukraine’s obligations under some of the Council of Europe treaties. Several months before the full-scale war, I was appointed as a secretary of the Ukrainian part of two joint intergovernmental commissions on persons belonging to national minorities, namely with Hungary and Romania, headed by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. I was entrusted with a huge responsibility to manage activity of the commissions and to negotiate draft protocols of the yearly meetings with my counterparts. 

At the same time, I was finishing my Master’s programme in Political Science with a specialisation in European Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Combining civil service with studies was an extremely difficult challenge.  

Of course, February 24th changed almost everything. I was not surprised when I woke up at 5am to the sound of missile explosions.

I had high hopes for the year 2022. In January 2022, I happily realised that my state agency had found institutional stability, and that I had grown up professionally. I had led on numerous projects, and I could think strategically for the long term. I was going to finish my university studies, prepare my poetry collection, have a summer vacation in the Azov Sea, and finally have some relief after my work and study marathon. I was also considering learning another foreign language and joining the diplomatic service after a year or more, after ensuring progress in my developments at the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience.  

Of course, February 24th changed almost everything. I was not surprised when I woke up at 5am to the sound of missile explosions. I was prepared to see shades of the maroon sky from my window. But I was also very scared. I had done some training on how the army works. I had taken several courses in tactical medicine. I had my medical kit packed according to NATO standards. I wanted to be prepared as a civilian to resist or leave under occupation. I did not want in a critical situation my army to waste their efforts on protecting my life. I wanted to be ready to protect my cat at least. Definitely, I had no intention to leave my home. However, when you see missile explosions, you understand the limits of your civilian heroism. As we have seen from cases of liberation from Russian occupation, it isn’t merely a matter of living under occupation, but of survival. My loved ones convinced me that I could do more for the people of my country as a public servant and diplomat. And I do believe in that. 

On February 24, with my partner and a cat, we moved to the West of Ukraine. After several weeks searching for a new home, a family from Ivano-Frankivsk warmly provided us with accommodation. I continued my studies online in-between air alerts. I also continued working at the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience remotely – but our tasks had changed significantly. Almost all the projects I was working on were frozen. Instead of working on the popularisation of the Mariupol Greeks' unique culture, I found myself writing a paper about their physical destruction. Those people whom I met in the South of Ukraine during my business trips, and with whom I hoped to implement joint projects, found themselves under the Russian occupation after February 24. Some of them were protesting against the Russian invasion in Melitopol, Prymorsk, or Kherson (which Ukraine’s Army has recently liberated). Others were hiding in Mariupol, surrounded and bombed by the Russian Army. 

Of course, the work of the public service in the country at war is not limited to war-related issues. I was involved in Ukraine’s EU integration process, and my agency prepared draft legislation concerning the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.  

In July, I graduated with honours from my University. I had never seen my professors more moved than during the graduation ceremony. The hall was only half filled, or less. Most graduates could not participate in the ceremony because they were displaced, had joined the Army, or volunteered. However, professors read aloud the name of each graduate. 

It is hard for me to make tactical plans, even for Christmas. But I know my long-term strategy, which is about making my country of brave people – who are united in their diversity – strong, secure, and prosperous. 

What do you hope to do after completing the Diplomatic Studies Programme?  

The Diplomatic Studies Programme is a unique place to reflect on diplomacy as a passion and profession. It opens many doors. After this programme, I want to go back home and serve as a de jure or de facto diplomat in the interests of the people of my country. It is hard for me to make tactical plans, even for Christmas. But I know my long-term strategy, which is about making my country of brave people – who are united in their diversity – strong, secure, and prosperous. 

I hope, in a year, my country will restore its territorial sovereignty in internationally recognised borders. That will mean that diplomacy as a peaceful process will be finally possible, and I will be able to contribute. 

Being here in Oxford among such brilliant minds, I feel I have wings and can fly even higher. The experiences we are getting here, and the ideas we discuss, might contribute to fundamental changes in the regional as well as in the world order. 

Can you say a word about  receiving a Graduate Scholarship for Ukraine Refugees? 

I am happy and proud to become a part of the University, which puts enormous efforts into empowering those who would otherwise be excluded, and in supporting the unprotected. I would like to express my thanks to my wonderful college St Edmund Hall, known as Teddy Hall, which has welcomed me so warmly and supportively that I have found a big invisible family here and a true light in the dark times. 

One of my poems begins with the address to ‘a little girl from a tiny town’. I am this girl who grew up in a small town, went to an ordinary school, and was raised by parents who had to work very hard because their professional development was stolen by what we call the ‘hard 90s’, when Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. But my family and my school teachers have always believed in the power of knowledge and education. I hope my experience and my growth will inspire many young people from my country, especially girls. 

I should mention the idea of metaphorical metropole-colony relations, awareness of which is extremely important. I am not saying anything new here — an empire exploits colonies and concentrates all the resources, including intellectual, in its central territory, or metropole. When an empire fails, its awareness of itself as a power does not vanish automatically. This is the case with the Soviet Union, built on a policy of assimilation or destruction of ‘otherness’. Even after the restoration of Ukraine’s independence, Ukrainian scholars have been underrepresented among their peers from other former colonies, and lots of rich experiences have been lost.  

I understand that it is almost impossible to support all the people from all over the world who deserve to study here in Oxford. I can only imagine how much it takes to establish such a scholarship for Ukrainian scholars. Thereby I am feeling enormously grateful for this support to Ukrainian scholars during these difficult times, when the question is not about their representation only but of physical survival. I am sure Oxford will benefit from having more Ukrainians this year and hopefully in the years to come.  

I am proud to receive this unique scholarship, and I am aware of my huge responsibility, both to the Oxford community and to the Ukrainian students sacrificing their lives in Ukraine to allow me and other scholars to grow professionally and to create the future with respect to the past. 


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Published 22 November 2022