CMU students unite in solidarity with Ukraine

When news arrived on Thursday that Russia had invaded Ukraine, three Carnegie Mellon students sprang into action.

Eric Cheng, a senior, took to social media to gather a group. His path intersected with Vladyslav Oleksenko, a junior who was mobilizing his friends. They were then referenced in an email sent to senior Julia Timmons, who had reached out to Russian history and language faculty for support.

“As soon as the events happened, several different groups of people immediately thought something should be done,” Oleksenko said in an interview with The Tartan, Cheng, and Timmons. “And what better way than to paint The Fence?”

Cheng created a document to coordinate a schedule, supplies, and snacks. He shared the link on social media, alongside a Linktree by Oleksenko that details how Carnegie Mellon students can help Ukraine.

“We ended up with a huge group, and that wouldn’t have been possible without each of our individual efforts,” Timmons said. More than 20 students gathered at 12 a.m. on Saturday to coat The Fence in blue and yellow, Ukraine’s national colors. The side facing Hunt reads: “NO TO WAR.” On the other side, the Ukrainian coat of arms is flanked by “Glory to Ukraine” in English and Ukrainian (Слава Україні) and “No to war” in Ukrainian (ні війні) and Russian (нет войне).

Providing students with accessible, digestible information is central to the organizers’ mission. That means answering questions, sharing the Linktree, and introducing students to ways they can support Ukraine. “I’m going to make myself available at those tables [next to The Fence] for as long as it’s still painted,” Timmons asserted.

The organizers appreciate The Fence’s highly-trafficked location on campus. They see their role in the coming days as docent-adjacents, preparing “to answer any questions students might have, especially when they come back on Monday,” Cheng explained. Even while painting, the organizers answered questions from passersby who did not know about the war.

President Jahanian acknowledged the crisis in an email to Carnegie Mellon community members on Friday afternoon. He voiced his support for Ukrainians and those who are connected to the region. Jahanian condemned “these recent acts of unprovoked aggression by an authoritarian government, which are in direct contrast to basic human decency and the values of a peaceful society.” Neither Russia nor its president, Vladimir Putin, were directly referenced.

Timmons appreciated the email. “Jahanian voicing his support is great because it goes into everyone’s inbox,” she said. This helps raise awareness on campus and presents a clear, albeit universal, stance on the situation.

Oleksenko, who is an international student from Ukraine, felt that the email was an important first step in the university’s response. But as events continue to unfold, the need for relevant information is increasingly urgent.

This is especially true, Cheng pointed out, because unlike the usual emails from the university’s President, this one addressed an ongoing crisis. “Most things that President Jahanian deems appropriate to send have already happened,” Cheng explained, citing last year’s insurrection as an example. “This situation is unique because it will persist for days or weeks. There is fighting happening in Ukraine right now. We haven’t seen the aftermath yet, which is why paying attention is so important.”

Finding credible sources can be difficult, though, especially with the language barrier. “What’s most useful is words from the mouths of people there on the ground, in their language,” said Timmons, who understands both Russian and Ukrainian. She has been following live streams on social media to better understand the war.

“Americans report on facts,” Oleksenko observed. While this is an important foundation of reporting, he believes the only way to appreciate the depth of the conflict is through emotional appeal. “That’s what my Ukrainian friends and relatives are doing: trying to spread the … ‘these are real people’ details.”

Beyond news and stories, the organizers think that opportunities to learn on campus are essential. Posters appeared last week advertising “On the Brink: A Panel Discussion on Russia and Ukraine,” planned for Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. Cheng saw one last week in Baker. Timmons saw one this weekend and thought: “It’s not on the brink anymore.”

Oleksenko hadn’t heard about the event until Timmons brought it up during the interview. “We should be trying to do a better job about sharing events,” he said. The organizers’ Linktree is an information hub that includes upcoming events on campus and in the Pittsburgh community.

Americans, Timmons noticed, are primarily interested in supplying humanitarian aid. “While humanitarian efforts and donations are appreciated,” the group wrote in a follow-up email to The Tartan, Ukrainians “are pleading for monetary support for the army above other efforts.”

Oleksenko agreed. Ukrainians, he said, “are alone. Zelensky” — Ukraine’s president — “has asked so many nations to send physical help ... The rest of the world shouldn’t just be watching upon this horror and trying to help from a distance.” He noted that the war is extremely tenuous; Ukraine was not a part of NATO and both the U.S. and Russia have nuclear capabilities. But that doesn’t mean that Americans have no stake in the war’s outcome.

“Not all countries have the privilege to say their military doesn’t need funding,” Timmons said. She hopes that the international community will support Ukraine in the ways that it needs, not just in the ways that are easiest.

One slogan floating around social media has left a particularly large impact on Oleksenko and Timmons. It reads: “If the Russians stop fighting there will be no war; if the Ukrainians stop fighting there will be no Ukraine.”

While Timmons agreed wholeheartedly with the mantra, she pointed out a caveat: “Putin does not equal ‘Russian people.’ That makes my blood boil,” she said, referring to the conflation of Russian actions and the will of its people. “People [are] risking their lives protesting against Putin in Moscow, St. Petersburg, all over the place … It’s not the Russians; it’s Putin and his minions.”

In addition to Jahanian’s email and panel discussions, Carnegie Mellon demonstrated its support of Ukraine with blue and yellow lighting on the Pausch bridge. Cheng would like to see Hunt adopt the same practice. He would also appreciate a “centralized resource on campus that directs us to a donation site that extends beyond the boundaries of humanitarian aid.”