Students work at tables in the Winter Garden of the Ross School of Business building.
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It has been 67 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” into Ukraine. Since the start of the invasion, the war in Ukraine has led to the internal displacement of over 7 million Ukrainians, over 3,000 civilian casualties and economic and social repercussions on a global scale.

Sophia Opatska, the founding dean of the Lviv Business School of Ukrainian Catholic University (LvBS), said for those in Ukraine, the war is more than statistics in the media or increased gas prices — the impact is tangible and omnipresent.

“After more than (60) days of war, it’s very important that people do not become numbers,” Opatska said. “Behind every number, there is a human story.”

Some of those stories, like Opatska’s, involve ties to the University of Michigan.

The University has been working with the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), located in Lviv, Ukraine, since the turn of the millennium, according to Opatska. Even before LvBS was founded in 2008, faculty from the William Davidson Institute (WDI) — a non-profit housed within the Ross School of Business that researches and supports businesses in low and middle-income countries — were collaborating with Opatska and other current UCU faculty on international business projects.

In 2019, U-M Business graduate students worked closely with LvBS graduate students and faculty to set up LvBS Consulting, a marketing consulting firm run within LvBS that works to support the growth of local Ukrainian companies. The collaboration was one of the over 200 different Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAPs) Ross offers annually to Business graduate students to provide them with hands-on experience working with corporations and nonprofits around the world.

Business graduate students at the University are required to work with a team to complete one of the MAPs before they graduate from their program. Kelsey Pace, who graduated in 2020, worked on the 2019 project with LvBS, which was sponsored in part by WDI. After completing the majority of the research for the project in Ann Arbor, Pace traveled to Lviv for three weeks to work with LvBS program participants from in person, including Opatska.

“They’re the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Pace said. “I am still connected on Instagram with nearly all of them.”

Having not been back to Ukraine since 2019, Pace said it is impossible for her to imagine how Lviv has changed since the war. She said she tries to check in with the people she met while working on her MAP in Ukraine as often as she can. Pace said talking to friends who have been directly impacted by the violence and hearing their day-to-day experiences has made the invasion feel personal in a way that live updates in the media cannot.

“When you know people are personally affected by this, people who are in bomb shelters, that are hiding, that are on front lines, of course you care a lot about everything you hear,” Pace said.

This year, the University had planned to allow four Business graduate students to complete another collaborative MAP with LvBS. The proposed project would have been a follow-up to the MAP that Pace worked on in 2019 — which created the foundational framework for LvBS Consulting. According to WDI President Paul Clyde, U-M Business graduate students would have analyzed data about the consulting firm’s activity to make recommendations for improvement.

“(LvBS) wanted the team to review their processes and see if there was a way to more efficiently use the finance faculty and offer their consulting in a more effective way,” Clyde said.

The MAP would have included several video conference calls between those in Ann Arbor and LvBS faculty and students in Lviv, with everyone coming together in Ukraine for two weeks to celebrate the project’s conclusion. However, when Russia started the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II on Feb. 24, Clyde said it was clear traveling to Ukraine would not be a safe option.

“Even after we found out that they weren’t going to be able to travel, they were still planning on doing it virtually,” Clyde said. “But then the war broke out and they were unable to talk to anyone (in Ukraine).”

Olga Krivchenko, a current LvBS Business graduate student and CEO of software development company Qualium Systems, is one student who might have collaborated with the U-M team on their MAP. Having relocated from Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-biggest city and one of the most bombed locations — to Western Ukraine, Krivchenko shared her story with The Michigan Daily.

After enrolling at LvBS in September, Krivchenko had to stop taking classes when the war broke out. Since she could not complete her coursework virtually, Krivchenko said she hopes to resume in-person classes at UCU when it is safe to do so. In March, Krivchenko fled the bomb shelter in Kharkiv, with assistance from some of her colleagues at LvBS, so she could continue running her company.

“Weeks ago, it was an absolute nightmare because I was sitting there in the bomb shelter in Kharkiv and it was impossible to work,” Krivchenko said. “We don’t need to lose this feeling of normality. That’s why we try to make our days quiet … but every moment you understand that the next minute might be your last.”

UCU has tried to find ways to directly assist students like Krivchenko during the war, Opatska said. While the University has demonstrated its support from afar — by divesting from Russian investments, holding vigils and lighting up Burton Tower the colors of the Ukrainian flag — Opatska and other UCU faculty members transformed their curriculum to prioritize service-based learning initiatives within Ukraine.

“We are using a lot of the methodology of service learning at (UCU), where we combine some important social projects with education,” Opatska said. “For example, I teach international business and my students were very active writing letters and appeals to the companies so that they would boycott Russia.”

According to Opatska, UCU has raised over $1.2 million dollars for humanitarian aid in Ukraine thus far. But besides organizing action and outreach projects, university faculty members everywhere — from Ukraine to Ann Arbor — also have a responsibility to help their students reflect on their feelings about the war, Opatska said.

“I see that the role of the faculty right now is to help students process and reflect on what’s going on because emotionally and psychologically that’s not easy,” Opatska said. “Nobody usually knows what time of day it is, what day it is or what the date is, but everybody counts which day of the war it is. This is how we live.”

Opatska also said she appreciated WDI allowing her to share her perspective on the invasion with the U-M community through a Q&A published on their website on March 8. Opatska said she looks forward to collaborating with WDI on future projects after UCU is able to return to a normal class schedule. 

“The William Davidson Institute focuses a lot on entrepreneurship and that is also very close to what our school is doing,” Opatska said. “They are one of our very important strategic partners for the development of the school and obviously the next year is going to be very difficult.”

WDI Communications Manager Scott Anderson confirmed that the University is also optimistic about continuing its partnership with UCU. Anderson said facilitating conversations between the U-M community and their partners in Ukraine can only serve to strengthen the bonds between the two in the future.

“There was, or there is, a lot of interest (in working in Ukraine),” Anderson said. “I don’t want to use past tense because I think there is still interest, but obviously right now there are more pressing concerns.”

The four U-M Business graduate students who were supposed to travel to Ukraine during the winter semester are still taking advantage of any opportunity to communicate with LvBS faculty and students. Business graduate student Nathan Vorwerck was one of the four students who worked on the MAP with LvBS this year. Though he said the focus of the project had to change after the war began, Vorwerck and his team continued organizing virtual meetings with the LvBS consulting staff.

“We’ve still been in touch with the Ukraine group a little bit,” Vorwerck said, “because they obviously weren’t going to be able to spend as much time with us, we broadened the scope (of the project) a lot.” 

Until students and faculty from the University and UCU can work together in person again, Krivchenko said she encourages everyone on campus to keep listening to the stories of Ukrainians. Krivchenko said that no matter how thin the connection seems between an individual in Ann Arbor and another in Ukraine, those connections are extremely valuable.

“I understand we are quite far from you, but we are fighting not only for Ukraine, we are fighting for democracy in the whole world,” Krivchenko said. “We are fighting with our lives.”

Editors Note: This article has been updated to correct an error as of May 1.

Daily News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu.