New forms of civil society engagement in Ukraine – The Ukrainian Leadership Academy

Text: Kristin Puschmann |

[L]et the world know that a generation is growing in Ukraine, which not only dreams, thinks, but also creates, fights for a free and flourishing Ukraine.“ Roman Tychikvskyy, CEO of Ukrainian Leadership Academy

Creating a new generation of Ukrainian youth, that is the mission of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy (ULA). A youth that is aware of its Ukrainian heritage, of its traditions and values, a youth that is able to make decisions and influence the economical and political future of Ukraine. A mission that seems even more relevant in a struggling, divided country, suffering under a war that is not only challenging Ukraine as a country, but Ukrainian identity. Since 2015 the Academy is trying to raise the awareness that: “We are different, but united”.(1) We had the chance of meeting the 42 youngsters that take part in the Academy’s base in Kharkiv. During our stay we tried to figure out: What is it that makes this Academy special? How does it work? Who is financing it and what are the intentions behind the program?

Meeting the students of ULA Kharkiv

The Kharkiv ULA is one of the currently five branches of the Academy which can also be found in Chernivtsi, Kiev, Lviv, Mykolaiv and Poltava. 42 students and four mentors are calling a white, modern building just outside of the city centre from September till July their home. Being surrounded by tall, neglected multi-story buildings, the modern ULA building shows a huge contrast to the local architecture. Big windows and a lot of glass, inside and outside, create a lot of transparency and openness. The interior in the common, working and bedrooms was held simple and Spartan, while the rest of the house offered a full equipped gym, meditation and “dance” room.

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The students welcomed us with the greatest friendliness, curiosity and even a rehearsed dance. After a short mutual introduction the Ukrainian students were keen to show us around the property. It was apparent how proud they were to present their Academy to us. In fact, they showed so much enthusiasm, that some of the more “northern” Germans of our group felt somewhat irritated: “A girl asked me if she was allowed to hug me. I agreed, a collective ‘Oooh’ was voiced and suddenly five girls surrounded me in a big group-hug, a very long group-hug, which only ended when I was excusing myself for being a bit overwhelmed.” (Nico M., Viadrina student)

Nevertheless, the students were happy to tell us everything about the application process and their daily routines.

The 3-stage application process

The ULA is basically a program of personal and social development which targets school and college graduates between 16 and 21 years. Every year over 200 young people participate in the 10-month training program that shares similarities with a boot camp, having tight schedules, set goals and a teaching style that includes a mix of physical, emotional and intellectual exercises.

The ULA accepts applicants from all parts of Ukraine no matter their social background. Young people go there because they seek a chance of personal and social development in a country that has not much to offer to those who are not born into a good or middle-class family. In order to give every Ukrainian the chance of participation, the ULA only charges a symbolic fee of 2000 UAH (~75 Euro). Everything else is covered through scholarships. Every year there are over 3.400 applicants applying for the 200 spots.

In its brochure, the ULA specifies for whom exactly the Ukrainian Leadership Academy is established:

For the new generation of Ukrainians: for whom nothing is impossible; (…) who emotionally, sincerely and devotedly are prepared to sacrifice for eternal values – freedom and dignity; who were born free, who will change not only Ukraine but also the world.”(2)

The application process is organised in three steps:

  1. The youngsters are asked to send in a video, introducing them and their motivation.
  2. If the video gets accepted the applicants have to participate in a training day on a regional level organised by ULA. This day simulates the “academic style” of living (that’s how the students call it) which will be daily routine during the time of the program (we will come back to this later). In the course of this day the abilities of the applicants are being tested. Sports tests, IQ-tests, English-tests, teamwork and the general motivation are all under examination.
  3. The third step is similar to the second one, just for a 3-days period and on a national level. Once accepted, the youngsters will be allocated to the different branches of the Academy.

The daily routine: A 15 hour program, 6 days a week

The application process already pointed out that living and studying at the ULA is no piece of cake. The students need to be fully committed to the program. And obviously they are because the Academy’s mantra “Create the best version of yourself” echoed through the building multiple times that evening. The program is tough. On six days a week they have an almost 15 hours program, from waking up at 6.45 am, over having the first physical exercise before breakfast, followed by three blocks of educational, intellectual and “emotional” (3) practices and an evening program that lasts until 10.30 pm (picture 2). They call this the “academic style” of living. Every month is dedicated to another topic (picture 3) and every student has a personal plan of goals they’d like to achieve. In order to evaluate their progress as well as mental and physical well-being, the students regularly need to meet up with their mentors.

During their studies the students take part and create social projects like the “Building Ukraine Together”-Camp or the art project “Remembering the Heaven’s Hundred Heroes”. One day of the week is devoted to voluntary work. The students have in-depth studies of the Ukrainian language, monthly research trips throughout Ukraine and even expeditions to the EU and Israel (the special relation to Israel will be covered later). Field trips to companies are also part of the program as well as an obligatory internship at the end of the 10-months.

In Ukraine it is impossible to get – for example – an internship at the Ministry of Education or Economy. Thanks to our many partners our students have this extraordinary chance which often leads to even greater possibilities in the future.” Katherina, Administration ULA Kharkiv

The whole training program is devoted to cultivate a special set of values including i.a. the freedom of spirit, friendliness to everyone (“the Universe” and “Ukraine”(4)), wisdom and creativity, but also self-government, teamwork and the study of Ukrainian identity.

Learning from Israel – The roots of the ULA concept

The whole concept of the Academy, it’s style of teaching and living, is based on the Israeli “Mechina”. A Mechina is an autonomous unit of specialized educational institutions practising non-formal education and pre-military training in Israel. The training in a Mechina is based on values like Zionism, democracy, pluralism and tolerance. The Mechina program prepares for the military service as well as higher education. It’s goal is to educate future leaders of local communities that could affect society and state. (5)

This informal education style has inspired Roman Tychkivskyys, Program Manager of “Economic Leadership” at Western NIS Enterprise Fund during a business trip to Israel. He went home to Ukraine in search of partners who would help him building a similar system in Ukraine.

Israel is a great country to gather insight from as it holds many parallels to the Ukrainian reality. In the last 70 years Israel has managed to build a prosperous economy and the rule of law notwithstanding permanent military threats surrounding it.” UAL Brochure “Dream Big! Educational Expedition to Israel 2017”

Tychkivskyy was able to find a lot of people from various backgrounds to help him with his idea, i.a. the Secretary of the National Investment Council, the Co-Founder of Ukraine Crisis Media Center, high members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Architects, Poets, Journalists and the President and CEO of Western NIS Enterprise Fund (WNISEF). Also on board was Erez Eshel, Former Deputy Minister of Education of Israel. He was of big value to the project for he helped developing the whole organisational structure of the Academy.

Looking at the Academy, its facility, program and excursions we can say one thing for certain: Running it must cost a fortune. How much exactly was kept a secret. We just know that the WNISEF is the biggest donor. Furthermore, it was revealed that this year the government decided to support the Academy financially for the first time ever since its establishment. A statement of support to the patriotic ideology of the ULA? Maybe.

Of course the ULA keeps track of their alumna. Up to this day there are 650 former ULA students. They still get support in form of educational programs, two annual meetings and work recommendations.

New ways of civil society engagement

The concept of informal-education in the style of a 10-month boot camp is something unusual to the German observer. No matter how ideological or patriotic the program may seem, the concept of the Academy itself is extraordinary. It seems like in Ukraine civil society engagement is much more experimental and less bound to conventions than it is in Germany. During the communist era, civil society engagement outside of the governmental sphere was mostly suppressed. Because of this lack of historically grown structures in Ukraine, the society has much more space for new ideas and forms of organisation. In Germany on the other hand, there is a strong set of long grown structures and rules that tend to suffocate new ideas right at the start. Immobility, lack of change and decreasing interest in and of civil society engagement are often enough the result. Thus, German civil society should pay more attention to the developments and manifestation of civil society engagement beyond Westernized cultures, break through old structures and try to be more experimental.

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More information on the UAL under http://www.ual.org.ua/en/

(1) Quote: Roxana, mentor at ULA Kharkiv

(2) Ukrainian Leadership Academy (2018) „For whom the Ukrainian Leadership Academy is established?“, English Brochure p.15 (I take no responsibility for inaccurate language)

(3) The term „emotional“ development in this context could also be translated with cultural development where elemtents of art, music, communication and psychology are being taught

(4) Ukrainian Leadership Academy (2018) „The Academy Oath“, English Brochure, p. 9

(5) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechina

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