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The HEC Paris Masters Student Helping Ukrainian College Students Flee The War

“People are afraid to leave”: Ukrainian business student Anna Bazarna shares the struggles of helping Ukrainian students to complete their college education abroad

Thu Feb 1 2024

February 24th 2022. Most of us probably don’t remember what we were doing. It was a Thursday, assumably we were at work. Or school. Like then-math-and-finance student Anna Bazarna, we were caught in the run-of-the-mill. We were rescheduling meetings, showing up to class. Chatting with friends. 

“Then when the invasion happened, it stopped,” Anna says. 

By it, she means everything. All of the things that comprise the clockwork of the everyday came to a screeching halt the moment Russian tanks blitzed over the Ukrainian border and the country was plunged into war.

What followed has been the worst humanitarian crisis Europe has seen since the start of the century. More than 6 million people–90% of whom are women and children–have fled their homes, to escape bombing that has since appeared intermittently on social media feeds like clips out of a black ops video game; one that has taken more than 10,000 very real, civilian lives. 

“Sometimes, even today, I feel like it's a dream, that it's not true,” Anna continues.

Where we likely don’t remember what we were doing that day, precisely because of its similarity to the days between, Anna does. For her, its ordinariness represents a stark before and after, where up until one point her life plans–to study an exchange in France, to complete an internship in finance–could be predicated upon the surety that most of us base our own: our rights, our home, and, perhaps most critically, an education. 

Now a Master in Management student at HEC Paris, a city where she and the rest of her family have taken refuge, she is just one of the over 85,000 Ukrainian students who have had to completely recalibrate their lives so that they can pursue their studies elsewhere. 

But how is it being made possible? 

Supporting Ukranian students to study abroad

In the wake of the invasion of 2022, universities across Europe scrambled to accommodate the new wave of fleeing students. Approximately 7.5% of all those escaping the conflict were between 17-24, and given Ukraine’s prior third-level (postgraduate) enrolment rate of 83%, a sizeable proportion had partially completed degrees. 

To aid in the crisis, countries across the world, including 21 within the EU, have established special funding schemes directly geared towards Ukrainian students, which help cover tuition as well as accommodation fees. Meanwhile, many individual academic institutions–such as Oxford University–have also set up their own scholarship programs.

Fortunately for Anna, since she had already completed an Erasmus exchange and an internship at Grant Thornton in France, her existing familiarity with the language made her third-level application a little easier than for some. 

She first studied a bachelor’s in business management at Université Paris Dauphine, after which she applied to the Master in Management program at HEC. There, she was able to access the university’s Imagine Scholarship; a fund that can cover up to 100% of the tuition fees for masters students from war-torn regions. 

Together with students from other displaced regions such as Belarus and Afghanistan, the fellowship promotes both discussion and action based on the idea that peace can be brought about through intentional business practices. 

“Often, in business, we do not think about the consequences of what we are doing, like how this will impact our communities and countries,” Anna explains.  

On top of their business management classes, the scholarship students develop startups that are geared towards positive social impact, particularly in the realm of helping those whose lives have been upheaved by conflict.  

One such project that Anna is currently involved in revolves around supporting third level Ukrainian students in a similar position as she was almost two years ago–only, now, the stakes are even higher.

Since the invasion in Ukraine, third-level funding has been slashed by 40%. Also, 60 higher level institutions have been damaged and  further six have been destroyed. And of the universities still operating, many are doing so online. 

It’s a situation that appears entirely untenable, but transferring abroad is far from an easy option. According to a study by the OECD, the three biggest obstacles now facing tertiary Ukrainian students looking to leave are the language barrier, qualification equivalencies, and finances. 

To combat just some of these issues, Anna volunteers her time towards helping students who are still in Ukraine to apply to institutions in France, covering everything from obtaining visas, to advising on scholarships, to even helping with language learning skills. 

But unfortunately, the problems don’t just lie across the border. 

Due to martial law, it is currently close to impossible for Ukrainian men between the ages of 18-60 to leave the country. And while there are exceptions, intention to complete studies abroad is not one of them. 

But infinitely more difficult than even that, is even when they are able to, many feel they cannot leave because of the people they love.

“People are afraid. People are afraid to leave and to come back, and next time there won't be someone, or something will happen, or it will be their home,” Anna says. 

The most concrete piece of motivation that she gives those caught in this paralytic predicament is the importance of having a plan. 

“If you have a plan, if you have a destination, whatever happens anyway, you need to do follow your dreams and go for that.” 

Changing her dreams and making a difference

But even those with plans can’t help but think about the past.

Anna describes her home as a small town not far from Kiev, set by the side of a lake and on the banks of the river Dnipro. She remembers all her family being around, including her grandmother.

Now she has no idea if she will ever go back. 

“Everything, even my dreams, they changed. But I cannot say whether it's good or bad. It’s just different. So we adapt, and it's alright, but I know that even if I decide to live in Ukraine again, it won't be like it was before.”

One such change that it’s likely that Anna could never have envisioned was becoming a speaker at the European Youth Parliament. It’s a powerful platform, and one where she advocates relentlessly for the application of peaceful business practices to aid Ukraine. 

EYP covers major topical issues affecting governments and businesses, such as the contentious use of AI in democracy, as well as the spread of disinformation. 

With so many unknowns entering into the discussion, Anna believes that the best way for businesses–and students–to help with the conflict, is by staying interested.

“If you're not interested, you cannot be motivated to kind of be active and you cannot do anything,” she asserts.

On an individual level, being interested can be as simple as collaborating with Ukrainian businesses, or supporting those who are struggling and still based in Ukraine. 

On an even higher corporate level, it can also mean interrogating where profits are going, and what decisions are being made with regards to finance–which entails asking things like, is the community around me benefitting from this? 

A question that Anna continually asks herself is how she is going to incorporate these practices into her own future career.

With another year still left of her Master in Management degree, she envisions making a positive impact within the innovative arena of fintech. But much like her past, and her present, nothing is set in stone.  

The main thing she’s focusing on are the positives of the moment.

“I'm really grateful, not just to HEC, but grateful to everyone who supported us and still supporting me and my family,” she says.