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The only free study project in Poland for Ukrainian candidates
Dr hab. Marta Koval, associate professor, and Prof. Dr hab. Marek Wilczyński talk to Magdalena Nieczuja-Goniszewska about the only free study project in Poland for candidates from Ukraine.
- In 2014, following Kiev’s Maidan and in connection with the difficult situation in Ukraine, you decided to start an initiative which resulted in free admission to the University of Gdańsk for 15 students from Ukraine. Not many universities decided to make a similar gesture of support.
Marta Koval: This project did actually start as a political project, initiated by the Dean at the time, Andrzej Ceynowa, and Prof. Wilczyński. We wanted to offer support to Ukraine and to the revolution of dignity. Apart from this, right after the revolution, the Russian occupation of Crimea began and we were all appalled at how the situation was developing. We wanted to show Ukraine that it had friends in Poland. The plan was to spread the project across the entire university, but this did not happen.
Marek Wilczyński: At first we didn’t know how many places we should provide, the numbers fluctuated between thirty and fifteen, and in the end the Council of the Faculty of Languages decided on twenty. It must be stressed that everyone voted in favour of adopting the project, maybe only two people abstained but no-one was against. We were of the opinion that we should be selecting really good candidates and not just accepting anyone who wished to come here.
MK: To be honest, we didn’t really know how it would turn out, how many candidates we would have, whether this was going to be a one-off project or something which we would be developing further. Apart from this, although we had plenty of support in the Faculty at the beginning, we had no support at all from the Foreign Exchange Office. And we didn’t know how to solve all the bureaucratic problems. We have learnt a great deal over those four years. And this academic year it’s been much easier thanks to the international section’s change in policy, so we’ve enjoyed very good cooperation with them.
- What does the admissions process look like? When do you start?
MK: Every year, in April or May, the Council of the Faculty of Languages votes on extending the programme and approves a limit. Then we publish information on the programme and the documents required. Initially we accepted documents in paper form but now the international section has prepared a special electronic application for us, for which we are really grateful.
MW: We are receiving considerable help by Dr Katarzyna Świerk and Dr Adam Jagiełło-Rusiłowski, who approach the programme with a great deal of understanding. At present, we are enjoying great support from the university. Going back to the beginnings of our cooperation with the Rector’s Office, we were offered plenty of help from the then Vice-Rector, Prof. Józef Arno Włodarski, thanks to whom, amongst others, we managed, in rather exceptional circumstances, to accept a Tatar girl from Crimea who unfortunately, due to a breakdown in communications between Crimea and continental Ukraine couldn’t submit all her documents in time. Rector Włodarski offered, along with me, to vouch for this candidate, and everything worked out in the end. The girl graduated from English studies with a very good grade, went back to Ukraine and for a while worked in Kiev as Leszek Balcerowicz’s assistant, for example. She mastered the Polish language to perfection, which in Ukraine gives her extra employment opportunities.
- What language is the application in?
MK: Polish and English. The number of required documents has also been reduced and the candidates simply register through the electronic system, with all the documents being sent at the beginning to a special email address. Paper documents are only submitted by those who have been accepted for studies. An admission fee has also been introduced, a very symbolic one, with candidates from Ukraine paying the same as Polish candidates. We do differ from the international section, though, in that we require a number of documents which they do not.
- What documents are they?
MK: The international section requires only proof of education, that is a certificate of secondary education or a BA diploma. By contrast, we expect a longer cover letter. There is in fact a “Why do you want to study at the UG” section in the form but there is only space for 2-3 lines and we want the cover letter to be longer.
MW: It may be written in Ukrainian, Polish or English.
MK: Because we are a faculty of languages, the way in which a person writes is very important for us. And these cover letters are by and large excellent, often very personal.
-How do you reach candidates with information on admissions?
MK: Often, when we publish information on the start of admissions, our students publish it on their social media sites. We’ve had offers from various recruitment agencies from Ukraine but the problem is that we want this programme to be generally free. And we know that education agencies will charge money for submitting the same documents. We also know that the Consulate in Gdańsk sends information to the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and they publish it.
- Do you get many candidates each year?
MK: It differs very much.
MW: We’ve had a maximum of around 50 applications.
MK: We have 15-20 places and never reach the limit. We are not obliged to reach it and we are of the opinion that it is better to accept fewer people who are the best.
MW: It is also, in a way, an ethical question. It would be very bad if those young people who did come, later had problems coping here, because you have to remember that in Ukraine secondary education ends at the age of seventeen when they’re practically still minors. For them there is enormous pressure, especially at the beginning, just as there is for slightly older people or those who know Polish, because we happen to get such people, too. This is a question of adapting to a foreign country. We do not want a situation where someone comes and cannot cope at all with university requirements, and everything then ends in disaster.
- Have you devised a system of support for those who come to study here?
MK: Yes, we have such a system. First of all, before students come, I send them some general information regarding things which may seem obvious or even funny but are connected with the specifics of the place where they will be studying such as, for example, that the UG is by the sea so autumn and winter will be cold and windy and therefore they must absolutely remember to bring hats, scarves and gloves. It may seem funny but in fact when someone comes here from, for example, Odessa, they do not expect the humidity to be 80 per cent and a -3 temperature to seem like -10. We also remind them to bring all necessary medication with them because there is much more medication in Ukraine which can be bought without a prescription, antibiotics for example. So if someone regularly takes medication, they should bring it with them. I always forward this letter to current students who add their own observations, comments and recommendations. Some even provide their own phone numbers and emails so that new students can contact them. I also know that our students arrange with newcomers to collect them at the station.
- So current students are also a support group for other students from the programme?
MK: Yes and this makes us really happy. We also organise an introductory session when we talk to the students about the university, we explain how to go about things, we show them around the campus and take them for a walk around the city or for a coffee. They also have our phone numbers and they can always contact us at any time.
MW: They also visit us at home and sometimes, especially with the first group who studied here, so our graduates, women exclusively, we remain in personal and very close touch. They also all know that they can call us at any time of the day or night. It once happened that an emergency dentist was required and found, but the girl concerned had absolutely no idea where to look for help.
- Are you cooperating with the Ukrainian association in Gdańsk?
MK: Yes, Mrs Elżbieta Krzemińska from the association always meets our students, takes them out to the “Pierogi Lwowskie” (Lviv Dumplings) restaurant, talks to them and encourages them to be active in the association. Apart from this, if there are any concerts with tickets and we know that they might be too expensive for the students, we try to buy the tickets ourselves and give them to the students so that they can integrate with the Ukrainian community in Gdańsk. We also always tell them that there is a Greek Catholic church and an Eastern Orthodox Church here.
- What is the cooperation with Polish students like?
MK: Students from Ukraine enjoy a good deal of support from Polish students who help them and are really friendly towards them.
MW: We have never been alerted to any issues related to our students’ nationality. The problems which needn’t have surfaced in national politics are not reflected here at all. We were a little apprehensive but, for no reason at all as it fortunately turned out, although at first the Gdańsk Młodzież Wszechpolska took interest in the programme and we were appalled at the attempt to interfere in internal university matters. We have managed to steer clear of more serious incidents and I sincerely hope that it will stay this way.
- What are the expenses incurred by the University of Gdańsk as it accepts Ukrainian students through this programme?
MK: The University does not run into any expense. We try not to place the people in one group. For example, if 5 or 6 people want to study English Philology, we try to convince them to go to American Studies. In this way they get to different groups and as a result are not a burden. Those students who live in student homes pay for them according to the general arrangements. If they have any academic shortcomings, they pay for them too. There’s no special treatment here.
- Is there any social programme for these people?
MK: Polish law does not allow for foreigners to be awarded need-based grants.
MW: In the first year of the programme, Rector Włodarski helped us on account of the volatile political situation at the time. We got several people with such complicated life stories that the university did us a favour and exempted two people from student home fees. We tried to contact the Gdańsk Lions Club and for a while managed to obtain certain sums for single scholarships. Unfortunately, this stopped but we have not been made aware of anyone trying to obtain any sort of a grant for some time now. In addition, all or nearly all students from Ukraine manage very well by working, and I must say with great admiration that they are coping excellently in the conditions of great mental and physical strain. There have been people with full-time jobs at, for example, McDonald’s, who were still good students, did not fail any exams and are still employed, not physically but in good positions. As soon as they brush up on their Polish, with a knowledge of English, Ukrainian, Russian and Polish they have no problem finding good jobs.
- I presume the companies in the office blocks which have emerged around the UG are eager to take such students?
MK: Yes. Many of our students are now working in these companies. As far as help is concerned, we had two female students, now graduates, whose families had left right after the outbreak of the war, literally with one bag. It was not easy for them because the family of one, for example, had stayed in Crimea where all their funds had been frozen and they couldn’t send her any money. Students posted information on Facebook that they were trying to survive on 200 zł a month. We had spoken to one of them before and she’d had beautiful hair and we noticed that it had started to fall out but we thought that it was springtime blues and not malnutrition.
MW: We then organised a collection at the Institute of English and American Studies and in the space of three or four days we managed to collect quite a large sum of money, and we simply gave it to them. In addition, Rector Włodarski waived their student home fees. In their second year they were both working and had no problems coping. We happen to get the occasional question: “How much do we owe you?”, and when we tell them they only need to pay the admissions fee, there’s another question: “How much do we personally owe you?”. When we say: “Nothing”, they’re really surprised.
MK: We are all working as volunteers, the entire recruitment committee, because we are convinced that we are working for a good cause.
- Do all candidates come directly from Ukraine or do you get people who are already living in Poland and learning, and have, for example, refugee status?
MW: It is hard to obtain refugee status in Poland, it is practically impossible. We’ve had one example of a family with official refugee status.
MK: Last year there was a change in the type of student, which is connected with very large economic emigration from Ukraine to Poland. Also, many people have appeared who have the Polish secondary school certificate but are Ukrainian citizens, and they also come to us. We consider these candidatures but we give priority to those coming from Ukraine. This year we have a female student, a Crimean Tatar, a very orthodox Muslim, who should be granted refugee status. Following the annexation of Crimea, her family experienced many difficult situations including an attempt to kidnap the children. The mum took the children with her and escaped to Poland, where they were first at a refugee centre outside Lublin and then moved to Gdańsk where our student received her secondary school certificate.
MW: She speaks excellent Polish, with no accent. Her only distinguishing feature is the scarf, because she dresses like any other Polish girl but she covers her hair. She’s a very friendly and open person, now a student of Iberian studies, where she is doing very well. And, on top of this, she’s working.
- If you could point to a difference between the students who come here and, say, local students, would there be anything noticeable?
MK: Greater determination because they are aware of the fact that if they don’t try hard enough, they will have to go back to Ukraine. There have been a few such cases that people who didn’t pass their exams, and the requirements are the same for all students, had to say goodbye to their studies.
MW: We tell them at the beginning that the same rules will apply to them as to other students. They are only accepted on financially preferential conditions, but that’s all.
- A few times you have mentioned the graduates and the fact that you remain in touch with them. Do you have any specific numerical data as to how many people who finished their studies here have gone back to Ukraine and how many have stayed in Poland or gone to other countries?
MK: Between 2014 and 2017 we accepted 42 people ─ 23 are current students, 13 of them in first-cycle studies, 8 in second-cycle and 2 in doctoral studies. Although, in fact, we accepted those 2 people into third-cycle studies for the last time. It has not really worked in the case of doctoral studies.
- Why not?
MK: A doctoral student is a developed individual in the academic sense. In the case of Ukraine the system is different and it is hard to fit into our programme of doctoral studies. Apart from this, there are also many classes in Polish and you have to be fluent in it. That is why we’ve stopped admissions to third-cycle studies. Second-cycle studies have worked out best because those who get to them are mature individuals. When it comes to graduates, though, the proportions are fifty-fifty: half of them have stayed in Poland and found employment, the other half have gone back to Ukraine. We know them because apart from the fact that we conduct conversations with them, we also get to know each of them personally. At the start of the session I write an email to each of them, asking them to come to us at the end of the session and tell us if there are any problems. And they come, sometimes with purely academic problems and at times simply with human problems because different things happen.
- Talking to you, I sense that you are proud of ‘your’ graduates.
MW: There are many examples that we can boast of. For example, we have a graduate of first-cycle Sinology who got her BA with us with a very good result and wanted to go on studying in China. In Kiev she applied for a programme for Ukrainian citizens financed by the Chinese government. Only two out of several dozen candidates passed the entrance test in language, and she was one of them.
MK: Our students make use of the full offer available to University of Gdańsk students so, for example, they go on an Erasmus exchange, or search for programmes outside what the university can offer. Now we have a third-year student of German Philology who this year is studying in Germany as part of a programme which she found herself, applied for and won.
MW: She graduated from a school in Lviv which has German as the language of instruction. She had language certificates of nearly the highest degree of proficiency and no problems with her practical German here. Apart from this, she is also a very interesting person, she writes poetry, sings and composes. She is coming back from Germany to finish her studies in Gdańsk.
MK: We also have several students who go to the States during holidays as part of the Work and Travel programme. There’s also a student of American Studies who is applying to the University of Barcelona within the International Relations Media Diversity programme.
- So you could say that, after a difficult start in Poland, they get the momentum and go on into the wide world?
MK: We are often confronted with the question, or an accusation in fact, “Why don’t half of those graduates go back to Ukraine?”. I answer that the world is open and everyone seeks a place for themselves which they consider the most suitable. On the other hand, they maintain contact with Ukraine, go to visit, talk about Poland and the Polish education system, and that is the best advert there can be.
MW: They do not ask the questions which are often asked by Polish students: “Where are we going to be working when we finish all the studies?”, “What do we need all this for?”. The students from Ukraine do not ask such questions, they know that they will get certain tools and are aware of the fact that this will come in handy in life, although it might seem that studying, say, American culture doesn’t make much sense. Later it turns out that it does.
MK: We have students who, for example, have become advisors at Thomson Reuters.
MW: The company chose them in a competition because they’re fluent in four languages and their HR specialists know that this graduate profile is exactly what they need and that they can teach them everything else in the space of three months.
- The City of Gdańsk has devised the Immigrant Integration Model. There are more and more Ukrainians living in the Tri-City and the voivodeship. After four years of running the programme for students from Ukraine, can you say that the processing procedures for foreigners not on a university but a city and a voivodeship scale have improved? Are we heading in the right direction?
MW: At university there’s been an enormous change for the better. Here we can talk only in superlatives.
MK: The employees of the Research and Foreign Cooperation Office have been doing their best to help us.
MK: They make things as simple as possible, in line with the regulations of course, but as simple as they can, to make the whole process the least burdensome for students. The application procedure I mentioned has really made our work easier. Before that, we got all documents in paper form. They were delivered by a courier, who was sometimes late, sometimes would leave them in the wrong place, even in a different building. Sometimes we had to look for the documents. And now there’s no problem. But when it comes to offices, our students deal with the Pomeranian Voivodeship Office most often. And here, the situation has really deteriorated, I’m afraid.
MW: The Voivodeship Office’s Foreigner Affairs Department is too small. Given the enormous rise in the numbers of Ukrainians in our voivodeship, the number of clerks, overburdened with work, is insufficient and the queues which have formed are five or six months’ long. The past two years have been a complete catastrophe.
MK: If a student wants to get a residence permit, which they have the right to, he or she has to wait between three and seven months just to submit the documents.
MW: Regrettably, the Voivode is doing nothing to improve the situation.
MK: I have analysed the situation of students from Ukraine in other voivodeships and with us it is, as far as the voivodeship office is concerned, the worst. They could do with a separate desk with a person who speaks Ukrainian. For example, the Employment Office has employed a person to deal with clients from Ukraine and I think it is really helpful because these people often don’t speak fluent Polish, and there’s the additional question of documents, money etc. When it comes to students’ visas, however, this is not a problem which concerns the voivodeship or the city, Polish consulates don’t accept scans of invitations for people accepted for studies. The university has asked many times for scans to be accepted, but to no avail. And the original must be sent by post, which works differently in the two countries. The students sometimes are very late in getting their visas and we would want them to come here at the end of September during the induction days at the Faculty. And with us this is always cutting it really close. These changes are still ahead of us.
- Thank you for talking to me.