When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Iryna Zenyuk watched as the war unfolded in her childhood home.
"I woke up with the news and went to bed with the news," Zenyuk, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Irvine, said. "I'm as far away from Ukraine as I can be."
Soon, though, Zenyuk, who came to the United States at 15 and still has family and professional colleagues in Ukraine, decided she had to do more. She began to lay groundwork to bring Ukrainian scientists and other scholars displaced by the fighting to Irvine.
Zenyuk was able to turn to a colleague for guidance — Jane O. Newman, a professor of comparative literature, started a campus chapter of Scholars at Risk
, an international network of individuals and institutions that supports displaced scholars and promotes academic freedom, five years ago. Recently, she worked to sponsor four Afghan professors, including a human-rights lawyer and an advocate for women's education, at Irvine.
Newman gave Zenyuk a roadmap to move ahead. She has begun a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of raising $100,000 to support the scholars' needs and made fund-raising trips to New York and Los Angeles, which have large Ukrainian diaspora communities. Irvine's vice provost for research committed $25,000 in funding. Now, Zenyuk is working to identify potential academic positions for displaced researchers.
Irvine isn't alone in opening its doors to professors fleeing the war in Ukraine. Other colleges, such as Purdue
Universities, have committed to hosting displaced scholars. Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, said there are already efforts underway to welcome Ukrainian academics into European universities, where many have robust networks. Along with Scholars at Risk, the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund
helps identify and vet scholars and provides some fellowship funds.
Yet there can be challenges to supporting scholars displaced by war and other threats to their safety and academic freedom. It can be more difficult to rally campus and community support for displaced scholars without a high-profile crisis to galvanize attention. And such programs are often reliant on the efforts of faculty and staff volunteers who are juggling other responsibilities.
The work required to sponsor a displaced professor or researcher is substantial: In addition to temporary positions, they typically need housing, clothing and furniture, health care, and travel and visa assistance. They may have families in need of English lessons, help securing cell phones and driver's licenses, and assistance in getting their children into local schools.
"I'm a scholar of 16th- and 17th-century European history," Newman said. "I never thought I'd know so much about the visa process."
Newman and Zenyuk said Irvine administrators have supported their work, and all 10 University of California campuses now have Scholars at Risk chapters. Still, both professors said they would like the university system to have a formal displaced-scholars program, with dedicated funding and staff members.
Some of the barriers to aiding threatened scholars are beyond higher ed's control — many Afghan academics, for example, are still waiting to secure visas to come to the United States. But having infrastructure on campuses can make efforts to support scholars more sustainable, especially when threats against academics don't make the headlines, as they have in Ukraine and Afghanistan.
"It's not enough to respond to the crisis of the moment," said Newman, who also currently sponsors a professor who fled Cameroon's civil war. Assisting such scholars isn't just altruistic — visiting academics are often outstanding scholars and their presence enriches American campuses, she said. It also fits with colleges' global missions.
For Zenyuk, "What is happening in Ukraine is personal to me," she said. "But the need is not going to end with Ukraine."