Meet Sophia Opatska
A conversation with Sophia Opatska
By Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius
So good to talk to you – even under these horrible circumstances. I am very happy you have taken the time out of your calendar to sit down and share your perspective for our community. It is truly a story about perseverance, tenacity, creativity and resilience.
First Sophia, please introduce yourself to those in your community who do not know who you are
In normal life I am a vice rector for strategic development of the best Ukrainian private non-for-profit University and founding dean of UCU Business School. I’ve trained at the best business schools in the world and had many chances in life to live abroad. It was a very conscious choice of my husband and I to stay in Ukraine, work there and build both our lives and our country.
Since February 2022, I was one of 5 or 6 million Ukrainians who left Ukraine because of bomb shelling and the war which russia started on February 24th, 2022. For 7 months I was living with 2 children in Denmark. Our friends hosted us for some time, then we met other nice people who were ready to host Ukrainians who left the country because of war. Finally, I was able to get a fellowship from Aarhus University Institute of Advanced Studies. Since November we are back with children to Ukraine to be together with my husband, also to learn how to live, work and study in quite a challenging environment with electricity shortage, air raids and many more inconveniences connected with war. But most of all we would like to live through the history of our country even if it is a very difficult part of i
Talk to us about your university, what it is, what signifies it, size, history etc.
As some people might know by now Ukrainian history is complicated and our University history is as well. There were various periods since 1928 but the most modern is since the beginning of 90-s after Ukraine became independent. Ukrainian American graduate of Harvard Borys Gudziak came to Lviv to do research about leadership in the Ukrainian church underground (it was the biggest persecuted church in the World by soviets). And then he with a team started to rebuild the University with 3 directions – theology, history and social work (all 3 were missing or did not exist at all in our society). Everything was done from an empty page with great quality, passion and commitment. I came to UCU in 2007 with a couple of business people with the idea to start business school at the University. It was the first professional school in our University. Since that time, we have opened many more schools and programs. Now we have 11 undergraduate and 17 graduate programs. 5 of them are Executive level at Business school, 1 is the most popular MPA program in the country, best school of Journalism and Applied science, and the admission score for undergraduate programs by Independent test is the highest in Ukraine. We also have quite a complicated financial model – partially based on tuition (35%) and all the rest comes from fundraising, as we want to give a chance to all gifted young people no matter what their social status to study at our University. There are around 2200 students at all programs.
You and me back in the 90s in Ukraine through your engagement with AIESEC. Can you elaborate on how your involvement with AIESEC impacted your career choices?
It was a great experience in trying to do things (act), in meeting wonderful people from the whole world and building my own network. Of course, at that time we would not call it a network and that was not the goal. But getting to know people when you try to make this world better and discovering their values and sharing attitudes is what makes you close people no matter how often we communicate now. I could feel the support of so many friends from AIESEC in the last months tremendously.
I think it was also at that time where I got the feeling that I would like to work in some way with education. And here I am for 22 years already in business education.
Unfortunately, as an organization AIESEC globally does not have a clear position on russian war in Ukraine and it is upsetting to many members and Alumni.
Can you talk us through the start of the Russian, aggression and invasion and how that affected your university? As far as I gather, the university is still operating under these impossible conditions. Can you explain what is still running and how is that done?
UCU is located in the west of Ukraine. On the one hand, we can say that it is the safest place in Ukraine right now. But on the other hand, we were getting air raid alarms five-six times per day, or night, which means the class or any activity had to be stopped and students go to the shelter together with faculty. In spring semester we were teaching online as about 15% of our students and faculty are abroad. Though we still had students living on campus.
It was much more than a university. We hosted refugees, we did a lot of humanitarian help, during the 5 months we collected and distributed nearly 3,8 million dollars for humanitarian aid, which was organized mostly by our students. Right now, our students are learning much more from life than in the classrooms. And our effort, as a university, is to support our students in reflecting on all these awful experiences and learning from them.
Many faculty members completely changed how they teach and are focused on the service learning approach right now. Also, we help students to reflect on what they’re doing. Ukrainian Catholic University opened to students from other Universities and was supporting their learning during spring semester as well, especially from Eastern parts of Ukraine.
Doing mask net. They are being used to hide things at the frontline. It is not difficult work but very time consuming. So we have stations at UCU all the time, and whenever students can do this – they come and help
You as rector/dean/principal what was your thoughts and what were your priorities? As war on Ukraine escalated the university situation was even more so challenged: Can you please talk us through some of the events you had to deal with?
In the first days, the priority for safety of people and new processes in place. We had meetings 2-3 times per day for short updates. Then, the operational team which is about 15 people meets 1 per 2 days. So, in some way we learnt how to live in very different conditions as an organization, having many new activities – like refugees and humanitarian activities.
Another priority was to understand where our students and faculty are. Are they safe, who is abroad, do they have places to stay and how can we help them. And also informing our partners what in reality is happening.
After a week we realize that it gets worse every day and it is going to be a long way. So, we decided to restart online education to support students in community and being together even if physically they are now.
Also one of the biggest priorities for my work were international partners. We knew it will be hard this academic year and we looked for help from our partners – to host our students for the semester, to have scholars on some research fellowship no matter if they are abroad or in Ukraine. How not to create additional brain drain but support Ukrainian educational institutions both short and long term.
In the autumn semester the situation changed – we got offline on campus. Our goal is to have normal classes with interaction both in the class and outside class. However, because infrastructure in Ukraine is heavily and brutally bombarded once per 10-15 days the electricity supply is not stable. Often we teach and study in the classrooms without electricity. We also have to go to shelters for safety reasons. And not to stop the learning process we continue in the shelters which are at the same time classrooms, however during air raids we share it with other 3-4 groups of students. So, every group takes its corner and continues. Sometimes outsiders who come to the University shelter also join and listen to the class. But in all of this for us it is crucial to keep some level of normality.
One more very important aspect of our current life is that a number of our students, faculty, staff, Alumni, family and friends are right now at the frontlines. We had a number of funerals of close people from our community. The war is a horrible experience. One of our students from the Master of Science in Technology Management program (executive level program) was killed at the end of May. The day before February 24th he was in class taking a course in Leadership. What an example of leadership when a person is ready to give up his life for friends and his nation. Right now we are collecting an endowment in his memory to have a scholarship for one student in the University.
Students having a meeting in the Church
You were for months in Denmark. What brought you here of all places?
I was looking for a safe place for my children. Decision to leave Ukraine was very difficult for me. I have much to do there. But I also understand that children have to study and not spend time in shelters listening to alarms a couple of times per day.
When we left we did not know where we would go, considering going to our family in the US. We also have as a University a lot of activities in the US through our foundation. But mentally this is difficult as geographically. I also wanted to continue working and helping UCU and one-hour distance is much better for that than 7 or 8 from Ukraine. So, when my friends suggested I come to Denmark, I thought it would be a better idea.
I was accepted for a fellowship to Aarhus University and decided to take this challenge of being abroad with children as an opportunity no matter how difficult circumstances were. In AU I got a chance to meet new colleagues. With one of them we have developed a research and conducted interviews with Ukrainian businesses about their preparedness to such complicated events and how they also see the future of the country and business in Ukraine.
I also value a lot my cooperation with Kaospilots – support I have received by being invited to some of the learning events. When you are in such a complicated situation it is very important to keep clarity of mind and find new senses of what you are committing your time and your energy, and being in the right community helps a lot.
How will you continue your job as you see it? What are your priorities?
A lot of my work now is dedicated to Recovery of Ukraine and the role of our University in it.
We are already at the stage of so-called fast recovery but as a country we have to rethink and redesign so many both physical and mental models of our society. As this is exactly what we are fighting for – mental model that is based on freedom, dignity and respect. Those are very much values of our University. At the same time being a small University, we are thinking how we can create the biggest impact in the society.
With this great devastation (unfortunately in people’s lives and economy, infrastructure) we also have an opportunity to build a new country. We just need to get victory first. I think in many ways Ukrainians are really becoming a nation now.
We saw really true values of people and what they believe in and stand for. Gray does not exist during war
Leading in complexity simply does not cut the situation you are in – it sounds to me to be more survival and crises mode. What would be your advice to others that may experience hardship and enormous difficulties?
In any situation (how difficult it might be) we have to learn. We definitely know now what resilience means.
In crises we become stronger both on an organizational and personal level as we do things we never expected possible to be done.
We saw really true values of people and what they believe in and stand for. Gray does not exist during war.
At the same time crises bring up something especially human in people. We can see how those who were competing yesterday now join their efforts to help the country, those who seemed to care least are now engaged. Maybe they cared more silently and not for the purpose of personal brand.
It is an opportunity for leadership on very different levels and of various formats. Top down or bottom up does not matter – what matters if next day we are closer to victory national, organizational and personal.
Finally, how can the world help when it comes to schools, education and students from your perspective?
We appreciate the support from partner institutions to host our students and staff. At the same time it is crucial that any proposal keeps in mind how can we avoid brain drain, and make systematic steps to bring people in some time back to Ukraine. We usually talk with partners about exchanges/mobility scholarships for one semester for our students and faculty scholarships for 8 weeks abroad. Also, it would be very important to support scholars who stay in Ukraine (as many cannot leave).
There is still great need for donations – e.g to rebuild some of the schools which were damaged (indeed according to saveschools.in.ua 2618 educational institutions are damaged and 413 are totally destroyed).
As ironic as it might be, almost in a year of full-scale invasion of russia into Ukraine there are many companies which operate in russia and communicate either that they leave but they do not, or find reasons why not to leave. There are a number of Danish companies among those. The attitude with russia demonstrates not only on the level of government but what atrocities russian military did in Ukraine, constant shelling of civilians, kidnapped children and many more horrifying events that take place in Ukraine that are unbelievable for civilized world in 21 century – this country has to be banned at all possible levels, including business level.