Speech of the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Taras Dobko, at the “ServU Kick-off Meeting and Conference”, which was held in UCU on November 28-30, 2023.

I must confess that I was probably the happiest person at our university when I learned that our application for project “Service Learning in Higher Education for Ukraine’s Recovery” was approved by the Erasmus+ program. Service learning is close to my heart.

I would like to warmly welcome all participants of this event. I extend my special greetings and gratitude to our partner universities from Ukraine, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. We are grateful that you put your trust in the ServU project and expressed your readiness to contribute to its success.

Taras Dobko and Sofia Opatska sitting at a table

Taras Dobko and Sofia Opatska

Today, many speak about Ukraine as “the country of volunteers”, “the country of the invincible”, “the country of the resilient”. How will it be called tomorrow? Will it be a “country of homecoming” for Ukrainian refugees? Will it be a “country of healed wounds” because 15M people in need of psychological help will receive it? Will it be a “country of youth” because family reunions will take place in Ukraine, and not abroad? We know that sooner or later Ukraine will be a “country of veterans”. But will it become “a country of decent life for veterans and their families”? Like it or not, the big war will define the agenda of our country not only today, but for many years to come.

Ukraine is going to become a big lab for social transformation, innovation, and experimentation where many things could be explored: building resilient institutions and communities, coping with trauma, urban planning after the devastation of entire cities, just peace and security challenges, war and environmental damage, international law enforcement and transitional justice, recovery of the cultural heritage and the ethics of remembering, migration management and aid coordination.

In this context, one of the key success factors in Ukraine’s recovery will be the revitalization of communities – strengthening the capacity of local communities for their post-war recovery and development. This focus on communities is also important given the principle of subsidiarity – one of the most significant principles of a decent society. Namely, that the problems in a human person’s life should be solved as much as possible at the level of the local community, without turning to any anonymous regional or central government authorities.

In my mind, universities have a calling, capacity and excellent instruments to contribute to this mission. Most of all, I mean Service-Learning which is an educational philosophy, curriculum development tool, and teaching method.

Service Learning is not just about volunteering, which, as a rule, is aimed at solving social problems, however, it is not always connected with the acquisition of professional skills relevant to the academic program. Service learning is not an educational practice which is usually aimed at acquiring professional skills, but it is not necessarily related to solving real-life community problems. Service learning combines it all.

Service learning is an educational approach which helps to acquire academic knowledge, practical skills and socially responsible attitudes through solving real-life problems within the community and together with the community.

In October 2020, Pope Francis announced the “Global Compact on Education”. There is a direct mention of education based on service-learning in the main document. The pope believes that socially oriented education can serve as a fundamental method by which almost all knowledge and skills can be transferred and acquired. Therefore, he calls for supplementing education for service with education as service. This is what Service Learning is all about!

The university education should give young people the feeling that they are part of a bigger life mission, that they are meant to fix the world. This commitment to service could be built not only through additional volunteer activities during free time from studies, but also through academic disciplines themselves with embedded project activities within the community and together with the community. This is also one of the best ways to make them feel their studies as relevant and meaningful during the wartime. Young people desperately look for making their education more meaningful in times of trial. Service learning is a way to build both individual and institutional resilience.

I believe that our goal in the ServU project is to embed service-learning into the DNA of our academic programs and training courses. This will encourage our teachers to become actors of social change, to remember the community in designing their academic courses and their learning results, to learn to think in terms of their contribution to the life of the community and the impact of their academic work on its improvement and its common good.

We would like our universities to become resource centers for spreading the experience and methodology of service-learning education in other educational institutions in our country – both on secondary and tertiary level.

It’s a long way to go but it’s worth doing for those who care about the recovery of Ukraine.

Student sitting on the lawn at UCU reading

The ServU project aims to enhance synergy between Ukrainian higher education institutions (HEIs) and local territorial communities to jointly contribute to the recovery of Ukraine through the implementation of Service-learning education.

The project proposes an innovative approach to stimulate the acquisition and development of citizenship competencies among students, taking into consideration the needs of local territorial communities, that have been affected by the war:

1) territories with a large number of internally displaced people, 2) liberated territories, and 3) territories in close proximity to the front lines, whose infrastructure has been significantly damaged.

Five specific objectives have been defined:

Adapt the Service-learning (SL) methodology for wartime and recovery

Remodel the Community Needs Assessment (CNA) for wartime and recovery, taking into account three types of local territorial communities affected by the war

Develop active citizenship competencies through the teaching of Service-learning courses

Activate collaboration between European Union, Ukrainian HEIs, and local territorial communities in their efforts for the recovery of Ukraine through the implementation of Service-learning courses

Create a Ukrainian Service-learning Resource Platform for knowledge sharing, transfer of best Service-learning practices, and networking.