Before Russian military forces ever launched attacks in Ukraine, O’Neill Senior Lecturer Pierre Atlas was answering emails from students, eager to know more about what was happening and why. He had been writing about rising tensions between the two nations for weeks.
“Many students were already asking me about the situation in Ukraine in the days prior to the invasion,” he says.
On the morning of February 24, more questions began pouring in from students, including from Kobie Summers, a Criminal Justice major at O’Neill. Summers contacted Atlas that morning about what was going on—and to ask a favor.
“My boyfriend and I had been talking a lot about the Russia-Ukraine situation,” Summers says. “After Russia bombed Ukraine, my boyfriend wanted to know more and understand what was happening, so I suggested he attend my class with Dr. Atlas.”
Atlas agreed. He was already revamping his Terrorism and Policy course. The original plan had been to begin a new unit discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before moving into a different unit on revolutionary terrorism.
Instead, Atlas pivoted, adjusting his lessons plans for the next two weeks to devote the beginning of each class to guiding students through what they were seeing in Ukraine—history in the making.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an attack on a democratic sovereign state by an authoritarian regime for the first time in Europe since World War II. It is also a Russian war of aggression against democracy itself,” he explains. “I felt that devoting time to explaining what was happening in Ukraine and answering student questions in the classroom was warranted.”
With his background as a comparative political scientist, Atlas knew current events had a direct tie-in to their education and the concepts they were studying in class, topics like the role of media, types of weaponry, financing, and the role of ethnicity and nationalism.
“We had just finished a unit on terrorism in ethnonationalist conflicts,” Atlas says. “The Ukraine conflict has many hallmarks of ethnonationalism, including Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Several concepts from our previous unit were very applicable to our Ukraine conversation.”
The day after the attack, he added what he thought would be a brief explainer on the situation. He included a map of Ukraine showing where native Russian speakers were concentrated, another map to show where the fighting was happening, and a list of issues students should watch for in the coming weeks about both the invasion and the international response.
He had planned to spend about 15 minutes on the topic.
“To my surprise, the questions kept coming and we got into an in-depth discussion,” he says. “Many students asked questions or spoke up, including some students who were generally silent during the semester.”
The discussion in that initial class lasted 45 minutes taking up most of their time.
They talked about why Russia invaded Ukraine, the effectiveness of sanctions, NATO, and under what conditions Russia’s actions could lead to a broader war, including one involving the United States.
As the fighting has escalated in the past two weeks, students have begun asking deeper questions-ones that Atlas says must be addressed.
Michelle Sanchez-Rosas, a Criminal Justice major, says it was important to students to have that conversation.
“It’s not just learning about what is happening in that ongoing conflict,” she says. “It is more about understanding what is going on around us. This conflict is not exclusive—it influences all of us in ways we may not even know.”
That’s why faculty members like Atlas adapt their classroom plans to current events.
“I firmly believe that what students learn in the classroom—even abstract theories and concepts—need to be applicable to the real world,” Atlas explains. “How can we understand what’s going on? What are the policy implications? What can we learn from how similar cases were dealt with previously? Knowing that many students were very interested in understanding the crisis in Ukraine, I felt I needed to be flexible and adjust the class schedule to address this topic.”
Both Sanchez-Rosas and Summers see a direct connection between learning about the war in Ukraine and the work they hope to do in their future careers.
“We are all old enough to comprehend and want to know about things like this,” Summers says. “We’re very intrigued by this topic because most of us are going into fields that deals with law or helping people.”
“We are learning from the situation between Ukraine and Russia as it happens,” Sanchez-Rosas adds. “We can use this example to learn how to solve conflict between two entities—or at least get them to a place where they can hopefully negotiate a settlement.”
Both students also find value in these discussion beyond the classroom or a future career. They emphasize the human element it brings to their courses.
Sanchez-Rosas points out that by opening the conversation, professors allow for different points of view and perspectives to be heard. For Summers, blending current events into the curriculum means students can put real faces to theoretical scenarios—something she hopes will increase compassion for others.
“I just think it’s important to understand that these are actual people hurting and going through pain we cannot even imagine,” she adds. “We need to show them respect and decency.”