Where Change Is on the Curriculum

Ukraine’s Catholic university emphasizes service and integrity

by Mark Raczkiewycz

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Yuriy Didula, a 25-year-old project manager, had never worked with his hands, nor had he any experience in construction. But in July 2014 he made a leap of faith, grabbed a bag of tools and, from the city of Lviv, traveled 720 miles east to help rebuild homes destroyed by war.

Having just returned home from the United States — where he had completed his graduate studies at La Salle University and worked for a time at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. — he heard the news that Ukrainian soldiers had retaken the city of Kramatorsk from pro-Russian-separatist forces.

“I felt I should be on the other side, among those civic organizations that are doing something in the field,” Mr. Didula says of his decision to return to his Ukrainian homeland.

Despite receiving threatening phone calls after publicizing their intent on social media, Mr. Didula and fellow Ukrainian Catholic University alumnus Andriy Levtytsky headed by train to the reclaimed city to help families and show solidarity.

“We wanted to help them not to feel abandoned,” says Mr. Didula. “There was a lot of damage, killing and spiritual trauma. They needed somebody to talk with them.”

He now works with the Lviv Education Foundation in his hometown. The group’s project in Kramatorsk, Freedom Home, established a community and youth development center to foster a sense of belonging and cooperation — values Mr. Didula says Ukrainian institutions vitally need and frequently lack.

“This is kind of a wound on the whole body of Ukraine,” he says of a young nation embroiled in a war with deep roots.

Mr. Didula credits the principles fostered by his alma mater for inspiring his seemingly impulsive decision to embark on a brick-and-mortar project in a conflict zone.

“I grew up in a big family of seven,” he says. “The values at U.C.U. resemble my family’s’ [beliefs in] sharing and helping those in need, not for personal wealth, but for the benefit of society.”

In a nation wracked with corruption and graft at every level — recent international studies conducted by Transparency International and the Organized Crime Observatory vie with headlines labeling Ukraine as “the most corrupt nation in Europe” — the Ukrainian Catholic University distinguishes itself. Through the work of its dedicated administration and staff, students receive not only a first-rate liberal arts education, but also grounding in ideals of service and integrity, rooted as much in Catholic social teaching as in the principles of citizenship.

Unique in Ukraine, U.C.U. has carved out a distinctive niche in the past 20 years, serving as one of only two Catholic universities between Poland and Japan, and seeking to excel where the national educational system has fallen short. The university focuses on programs tailored to the realities of the job market — which remains mired in confusion as surviving industries transition from Ukraine’s Soviet-era controlled market policies. Even more importantly, however, U.C.U. emphasizes the formation of future leaders, an objective stressed in the institution’s very mission statement.

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