Episode 37: Episode 37. Being a Doctoral Candidate in Times of War with Mariia Vitrukh

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ukraine, war, people, ukrainian, asu, research, students, education, happening, invasion, qualitative research, february, questions, crimea, russia, universities, fled, podcast, family, moment

Tim, Mariia

Tim 00:15

Hello and welcome to qualitative conversations, a podcast hosted by the qualitative research SIG through AERA, the American Education Research Association. I am Tim wells, a postdoctoral research scholar at Arizona State University and guest host for this episode of the podcast. The qualitative conversations podcast doesn't have a regular host. Instead, each episode is organized by our podcast committee. Normally, my role resides in the background coordinating episodes and editing audio, but today I'm behind the mic. In conversation with Mariia Vitrukh. Mariia is a doctoral candidate in the Education Policy and Evaluation Program at Arizona State University. She serves on the QR sig's graduate student committee. In the fall of 2021, Mariia had been in conversation with myself about an episode she had hoped to record for the podcast. That podcast episode was never recorded. This is because only a few months later, on February 24 of 2022, Russia made a full scale invasion into Ukraine taking over 20% of the territory of Ukraine. Over the past few months. Maria is Ukrainian, writing her dissertation on learning experiences of Ukrainian students who moved from war areas in Ukraine and continue education in the context of forced migration. For the past year, she had been living in Ukraine, she left only a month before the invasion to teach courses at ASU and finish her dissertation proposal. The country she left has changed forever. But this hasn't stopped her from returning. I don't think that's yet research to complete. But all of our family remains in Ukraine. So instead of the original podcast that we planned in the fall of 2021, I invited Mariia to the podcast to share her experience of researching and being a doctoral student, in candidate and in times of war. Mariia, I can't thank you enough for your willingness to be on this program. Perhaps we could start with you sharing a bit more about your background for the listeners, what brought you to ASU's doctoral program. And what were you doing beforehand?

Mariia 02:41

Tim, thank you so much for the invitation. I really appreciate the opportunity not only to share my experience as a student, but also to talk about the ones in Ukraine.

Tim 02:53

So what brought you to ASU doctoral program.

Mariia 02:57

So, after I did my second master's degree at the University of Cambridge, in psychology and education road, I went back to Ukraine and storage, or co founded an NGO Ukrainian Educational Research Association. We did a couple of projects on education in Ukraine. And as a member of the organization I applied for grant was the US State Department. And I collaborated with displaced universities in Ukraine. And those are the universities that moved from Eastern world areas of the country. I worked with them for about three years on the project, doing workshops, and preparing conferences, interviewing people. And I think this collaboration kind of pushed me to think what can I do more to speak about the stories and share the stories of those people, and especially students, and how to say that I was really impressed with what they shared with me. And I think inspired by their example, even though their stories were not the easy ones. And this kind of inspire me to look for PhD programs. So I applied to ASU because it offered an interdisciplinary approach and had a variety of methods to look into the ongoing problems. So I thought that that's a place that where I can find a way to explore not an easy topic of war and how to research war, especially education in the context of war.

Tim 04:35

Yeah, thanks. That's just a little bit of background that I think might help orient the listeners to this episode and kind of your own deep knowledge and experience in Ukraine and in how this connects maybe to your own research and really builds off some of that background. So perhaps we could start with you telling us what are you doing in February of this year when the war ramped up?

Mariia 05:05

So I've just finished my perspectives de France. And I was planning to go back to Ukraine in March, but then to do my data collection, but then all the flights have been canceled due to the full scale invasion. Yeah, so I think that was the moment where I had to make quiet, hard decisions first, do I continue with my dissertation? Then if I do, then how do I continue? And there were a lot of personal issues as well as research questions, ethical considerations. Yeah, so had to resolve a lot of those factors.

Tim 05:54

I can actually remember sitting down with you early in the winter of 2022. Before the, the the invasion, and we had a conversation. And I think, some, I guess, what struck me and what I still remember about that, as you were situating, lots of the events that were kind of unfolding because this was a time when Russia had started to militarize the border, and they kind of brought this big presence of military forces right around the border. And I was just kind of asking you about this. And what you did really nicely is situate this historically, you provided some context and things. And of course, this isn't a History podcast, but maybe you can give some background about the background and history of the war. And maybe share a little bit about what happened in 2014, and how that might connect in some ways to 2020.

Mariia 06:53

So although there is a very common discourse, saying that the vast and by West people usually refer to the United States and NATO, saying that they put too much pressure on Russian presidents, and it caused a triggered the war. But I think it the tension began much earlier between Ukraine and Russia back in 2010, when victory and a college, very pro Russian president came to power in 2016 Ukrainian government's decision to suspend the signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union, and choosing closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union sparked progress among the Ukrainian people. The scope of progress widened, with calls for the resignation of President victory on a college and the garment. The protests later Friday expanded into Ramadan and the Revolution of Dignity. A year later in 2014, protesters eventually occupied a government buildings in many regions of Ukraine. The uprising climaxed on 18th 20th of February 2014 and fierce fighting and cave between Milan activists and pleas resulted in deaths of almost 100 protesters and 13 police officers present in college and other government ministers fled the country to Russia. And just a week later, the so called little green man, as they were famously named in media appeared in Crimea in unmarked green army uniforms, carrying modern Russian military weapons and equipment. They took over control of strategic positions in Crimea and set Russian flags. Later in April 2014. Large parts of the Knights can Luhansk regions were seized by pro Russian terrorists backed by a Russian military since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014. With the annexation of Crimea and invasion into Donbass, which are Donetsk and Luhansk region by Russia, Ukraine has become one of the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people worldwide. And these numbers can be compared to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. And by the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian ministry for social policy had already registered close to 2 million internally displaced people, and an estimated 1 million people have fled from war zone to the Russian Federation. In terms of education, from the scarce resources available, it is known that at the beginning of the conflict about back in 2014, about 700 educational institutions suffered both higher education and school level education at the higher level education about 700,000 students and teachers for more More than three and a half 1000 educational institutions experienced psychological difficulties due to military conflict in obtaining education. And students consider about 30% of those affected by war. After the 24th of February 2022, after the full scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, over 1000, educational institutions have suffered bombing and shelling, and about 100 of them have been destroyed completely. And these numbers are continuously increasing. almost 10 million Ukrainian refugees have fled Ukraine since this escalation. And another 7 million more have been displaced internally within Ukraine, and over 12 million have been affected in the areas hardest hit by the war. And also how to remember that throughout over 7.5 million children that now are considered Children of War, and not to mention that the humanitarian needs are constantly increasing.

Tim 11:10

Yeah, thanks. So what's really clear, I think in talking with you, around this is that these events are part of a much larger, longer history that extends beyond February of this year in in dates much prior to that. But maybe you can tell us, if you're open to sharing a little bit about how you've experienced the changes of the war, the escalation within since this last year, and especially maybe how you've experienced this as a doc student doing research and qualitative research.

Mariia 11:52

Um, I think I made quite a few interesting discoveries for me both as a researcher and a human being and Ukrainian citizen, is that it's a very non translatable experience. So you can't really explain this to someone who hasn't been through similar events. Also, the news don't really reflect what is happening day by day process. After the full invasion, I had to make a decision on whether I continue with my dissertation, because the first instinct was just to pack my luggage and go back to Ukraine. And I wanted to help in some way I just didn't know how to help. I was waking up every morning with Assad if my parents are still alive. So I was sending them text messages to check in on them. And following the news constantly to make sure that the city they were in was not bombed. Also checking on my friends and their location. And I think just very recently, maybe a few weeks ago, my sister shirts that Monday, she actually saw a missile missile flying over her head. And I think that felt very surreal, because she saw that it was so close that you could literally see it. And actually, what she shared is that the moment the bomb is like about your head flying in the air, you can't really hide anymore, because it moves so quickly, that you don't really have enough time to hide. And my mom actually turned out that she saw the missile was acquired a few times, but she never told me about this. I know that my family does not tell me even half of what they're going through. And that's on the one hand, it's disturbing. On the other hand, I kind of understand that. I think another difficult aspect is that your family and France are constantly under the threat. And the first few days, of course, were a shock. I remember when I called my parents at 7am in the morning, cave time on the 24th of February. And I told them, like because they saw on the news already that the key was bombed two hours earlier, so and they were still asleep. My father saw that that's a fake news that that's not true. And I think it was true for most of my friends and people in Ukraine. And so the bombing starts at 5am. In cave time, and I think that's the most mean time to start a war because it's before the dawn. And at times, it's hard to process what is happening, especially if you're not fully awake. And some of my friends were in queue at that time. So they try to flee the city. Or normally it takes about five to six hours to get out of this key of to the most western city. And one of my friends heard that it took her about 12 hours. And it's only because she left immediately after the bombing started. Those who tried to flee like just a few hours later. If it either took them over 24 hours or even more, or they were forced to return home just because of the traffic chance, no gas, and the panic that was in the city. Also, like even now, people have to constantly be a large. They hear the sirens literally every day they have to hide in basements on some safe, safe space in their homes. It does influence children a lot, especially their education and schooling, because a lot of schools have been turned into refugee shelters, which means that in many cities and rural areas, there is no physically space to study and most of the education is done online. I guess the word is not the same throughout the time. So the first few days and weeks were the most uncertain. It is changing over time, because you learn to process things differently. It doesn't get easier, you just I think start to navigate the context of war better. At the moment, I think it's the most like drastic things is that a lot of people are dying, both civilians and soldiers. Also, the price for food is increasing constantly. Some cities just don't have access to food, water, electricity, mobile connection or internet connection. So that's that's what concerns the more like a personal explorations and discoveries I made for myself. When it comes to research, I think that the questions I was asking myself, because I was supposed to work with displaced universities and students from displaced universities. So I wondered, like how to do research with people who are under constant physical threat or whose family is under physical threat, when the cities are being shelled, and you yourself are going through this experience, or your family members, your friends are hiding in basements and trying to survive. Is it even ethical to do this type of research? Also, I know that, especially the first two weeks, people were in shock, they were panicking, there was a lot of uncertainty. A lot of people didn't know where to go and what to do. And also, like, how do you talk to people who lost their homes. So I knew that some of the students I'm may potentially be interviewing will go through the second displacement. So the first displacement was in 2014, when they lost their homes, and they had to leave the occupied territories, territories that were under war. And then in February 2022, they were going through the second displacement, losing their homes with a second time having to leave their education space for the second time, having their group mates and professors killed or injured, as well as their family members. And of course, there were like technical issues. And I just couldn't travel to Ukraine that easily. And my methods that I was using, because I'm using Artspace methodologies and somatic practices required on site participation. So this man that I need to meet with students in person, and I kind of wondered, how do we solve this issue? Yeah,

Tim 18:31

I'm actually just following up and curious. So how did you solve that issue? Were you able to meet with people in person? And have you conducted that type of research since?

Mariia 18:45

Yeah, I think that my volunteering and advocacy work actually helped me with that. Because when I started doing some volunteering at Arizona State University, I met some of the students who were from this place to universities. And through personal networking and social service. I got connected to a group of students who was in a different country. And I was very lucky to get a grant from gpsa. And travel all the way there and work with them.

Tim 19:28

This was after the invasion, correct?

Mariia 19:30

Yeah, it was actually end of April, beginning of May. And that was something completely found plans because so I thought that most probably I will have either to change the methods, change the population. Stop doing my research completely because I didn't see how it's relevant anymore because the history took a very unexpected turn, which meant that the research I wrote just half a year ago was not relevant anymore. It became a part of history. So it was not what was happening, the universities I was describing. Most of them don't exist anymore, or they had to relocate again. So when I was talking about the second relocation for people, the same thing happened for the institutions. And when I reached out professors from displaced universities, most of them told me like, we don't know what's going to happen next. We didn't know where our students are, we didn't know where most of our colleagues are. So it's very unpredictable what is going to happen next.

Tim 20:36

And that's part of well, in partly in response to that, you've also, that's you've been doing your advocacy, you started advocacy work? How have you thought about your advocacy work as related or connected in any way to your research? I know you said, partly through that work, you got funded through the Student Association at it at ASU to travel to the Ukraine correct. And do research.

Mariia 21:05

Oh, it actually was not Ukraine, I just don't want to name the country because I'm going to expose the students. I traveled to Europe to do my data collection. I think at that moment, I didn't think about advocacy, as connected to my research at all, I just had a feeling. I think there are two things First, for those Ukrainians who are outside of Ukraine, all of us feel the sense of guilt, that you are in safe conditions, and you survived. And you don't have to go through what most people are going through in Ukraine, and at times, it gets feel unbearable. And I think it's to somehow cope with a sense of guilt, and guilt of Survivor, I think you try to do something to contribute and help. So what I was trying to do was to get together those students who were at ASU into one group and organization and see what we can together do. And that's when I started meeting people. And I also had to collaborate more on meet some people from the Aspera, Ukraine people from the Aspera. And that's when I had a chance to go and talk about issues that Ukrainian students face here at ASU and had a chance to talk about was governor of Arizona juicy and as well as ASU representatives, as well as IRC and migration office asking for help both for Ukrainian students and Ukrainian refugees. Also gave interviews to local media. And I gave talks at the conferences just sharing information or what was happening at that time in Ukraine. But it was not there was not really like a goal to connect it to my research. Rather, it was like feel of responsibility to somehow do something or help in any way I could.

Tim 23:14

Write Of course. So I guess I'm Yes. still curious about research and what this process is looking like in in times of war in the middle of war and how this is, so much of qualitative research is about relationships, relationships that you form and maintain. But it's also about ethical considerations. And you're kind of in the midst of all of that, how have you navigated some of that? Both relationships, ethics, the concerns that you might have have around conduct both conducting research around a topic that's at the very least adjacent and likely very relevant to the experiences of people in war, forced migration. And then, at the same time, in this context, where so much turmoil and wars going on, I'm curious, a little bit of how you think about those and how you've experienced the research work during this time.

Mariia 24:24

I think it was not a straightforward way. And I had a lot of hesitations how and if I should continue with my research, I mean, was my dissertation. But I think working with students at ASU actually helped me because it showed where the needs are and how can I address some of the ethical issues. And in terms of building relationship, my key question was, I didn't want to re traumatize students, I will be potentially interviewing Just asking the question that may not be appropriate in that moment. So I consulted with psychologists from Ukraine that were working with refugees in Ukraine, like what is the best way to approach if it makes sense to do this research at all? And the response that I got is that, in that particular moment, people, most people feel happy that they survived. And they do want to talk they key consideration was that I do not tell them what to do, I do not tell them how to act, how to send have to feel, etc. So if I'm there to listen, and ask some questions, then have to be respectful and empathetic about their views and beliefs. And from my experience, back in 2017, when people shared although it was in retrospect, so the people I was working with back in 2016 2017, it's been already three years since the war hit for them. And one thing they shared with me is that the most traumatic experience for them was when someone would come with curious questions and observations, and would show little or no empathy. So I think I took made a note for myself and thought that if I'm there to ask questions, I have to be prepared to listen. And I realized that most of the time, it's not going to be an easy. And another aspect was that I realized that I have to be honest about my intentions for the research and the project I'm doing. And of course, confidentiality matters a lot, because for a lot of my participants, I realized they are still in Ukraine and their family members may be in danger. And also, another aspect I kind of anticipated is that the most interesting conversations are going to happen off record. And this man's that they would have to remain of records. And even though it could be tempting to use those for the project, or for the research, I realized that I mean, this is something that is shared of records, so it stays of records. Some other ethical considerations were that for most people, as it was, for me, it tends, it's hard to navigate what is happening and find, find the words to express what you're going through. So it gets easier in retrospect, that's what I've noticed, with my previous research, but it's hard. It's harder in the moment. So I had to be aware of that. Also, different people process words differently. And there are many factors for that. A lot depends on the location of the family, their economic situation, that pre will previous beliefs, experiences, involvement in the war, and how much their family members are involved. Also, the distance and safety, very often hardly an indicator indicators about how person feels because, like, as I said, like sense of guilt. And also times even helplessness can be present, even for those who are outside of the country and are relatively safe. So I realized that when I will be interviewing my participants, I have to be always aware of that. And I think also how you ask questions matter, because if you're just picking people's brain, you see what they're going through and like trying to satisfy your curiosity, this could be a very traumatic approach. And you have to be constantly aware that that these people are continuously going through the war, even though they may themselves not be in the middle of it, but their family members most probably are their friends are. And it immediately puts them in this, like continuous processing, or continuous influence. So I think these were like my key explorations. And yeah, and while trying to navigate and I think I'm still trying to navigate how to how to approach it. I don't think that that's the process that is over for me.

Tim 29:36

Yeah, of course, that makes a lot of sense. In so much is still changing. And yeah, the war evolves and continues to evolve. And what's interesting or what's concerning, I think, is that we're now creeping up on six or seven months into the war. And personally, I send It's there's just a waning of interest and it starts to get lose its front page headline status. And but so as we close out the conversation I kind of on that note, but also, I'm curious what you could share or what you would share to listeners, what else you would share to listeners, as yet we hit you know this half, half of the year moment in likely this will be a conflict and war that continues. But what else would you share with whether the listeners

Mariia 30:39

so I'm not surprised that Ukraine disappeared from the headlines. Talking about war and listening in World War on daily basis is exhausting, I think to be in the context of war is even more so. But I don't think that this is an indicator that people don't care anymore. It's just you can't be focused on world the time. In Trump's of the case of Ukraine, I believe that it opened an interesting historical consciousness. And I remember that at the very beginning on the 24th of February, the whole world was giving Ukraine about 2072 hours, and trying to predict what's going to happen next. And I think that Ukrainians refuse this bit of realization that they may lose their homeland, and they were fighting back. And we are still fighting back. Even though the whole world bugs and was waiting for Ukraine to be taking over. I think that Ukrainian population showed incredible resistance and love for their homelands. And I have no doubt that we are going to win this war, and we are going to take our lands back.

Tim 31:57

On that note, thank you so much for your willingness to share about your experience, the war, and also your experience conducting war research in the midst of this war. And also thanks for your service in the qualitative research SIG, so I really appreciate it. And it was great having a conversation with you.

Mariia 32:18

Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate this time and I appreciate listeners time to even explore this topic. So thank you

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