In the before times, there were caps and gowns and canapés, but Mariupol State University could offer only a pared-down ceremony on Thursday for the class of 2023 on its campus in exile almost 400 miles from its ravaged home city.
Of the 500 graduates, only about 60 attended here in Kyiv to collect their diplomas in person at a new university home that is a work in progress. The rest took part online if they could, scattered by war around Ukraine and abroad.
It was a bittersweet moment for the graduates of Mariupol, a city that became synonymous with the war’s brutality and devastation before falling to the Russian invasion last year. Even in virtual form, the university has offered a sense of moving toward something beyond the war, and an oasis from the cruel realities they have all seen and felt, that were never really out of mind.
Valeriya Tkachenko, 21, continued her studies in ecology and education, even as her husband, Vladislav, underwent treatment and rehabilitation after losing a leg in the battle for Azovstal, the sprawling steelworks where Mariupol’s defenders made their last stand before surrendering in May 2022.
“It was very hard to focus, but our lessons were a distraction from the war, I can even say a kind of salvation,” she said.
Karolina Borovykova, 23, left for an exchange program in Italy four days before the invasion and stayed there, but her husband, Nikita, remained in Mariupol and also fought in the battle for Azovstal. On Thursday, she received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in Italian translation, but Nikita was not there. He is a prisoner of war in Russia, and she has not heard from him since May.
“Every day I dream about the first day that we will be reunited, and I think about how I will help him to overcome the ordeal he is suffering now,” she said, as tears streamed down her face. “I don’t know how to help him, and I don’t know how to get him out of there.”
The university stopped its work on Feb. 24, 2022, the day the full-scale invasion began, and Russian forces started pounding Mariupol, on the Azov Sea in southeastern Ukraine, with missiles, shells and bombs.
Mykola Trofymenko, the university’s rector, immediately moved its computer servers to the city of Dnipro to the northwest, which has remained out of the Russians’ reach. He returned briefly to Mariupol, but then, like almost everyone living there, he fled as Moscow’s forces laid waste to a city that once held 440,000 people.
Classes resumed online in April 2022, and despite the psychological strain and loss, most of the students dived back into their studies.
“The students are heroes for continuing to work after everything they experienced, and we celebrate them — but the real celebration will be once the war is over,” Mr. Trofymenko, 38, said in an interview.
Sofia Petrovna, who graduated on Thursday with a degree in international relations, public communications and regional studies, said, “The university has become an integral part of my life.”
“At a certain point, it became what each of us needed,” she added, “a source of steadfastness that helped to distract from the scary news feed and move on.”
The university, founded in 1991, had almost 5,000 students before the war, and became recognized for its Hellenic studies program, in part because of the large minority of ethnic Greeks living in Mariupol. Mr. Trofymenko said the students now number 3,200.
Eight students and eight staff members are known to have been killed in the war, including two students who died serving in the Ukrainian military, he said, and about a hundred people who were fourth-year students are no longer considered active, their fates uncertain.
“They are probably not alive,” Mr. Trofymenko said.
The university was preserved in digital form — the servers are now in Kyiv — but its physical home was largely destroyed and taken over by the Russian authorities. About 10 staff members stayed in Mariupol and have been accused of collaborating with the occupying authorities.
Reconstituting the university in Kyiv “plays an important role essential for us to maintain the identity of Mariupol,” he said. “These students lost everything, and what they saw in Mariupol is hard to forget. They need corners and places they can call home.”
The Ukrainian government gave the university a building in the Solomyansky region of Kyiv, which had been used as a military education center and had seen little use in decades. Soviet-era posters of American military bases and nuclear facilities still hang on the walls. One employee arrived at her new workplace to find a 1991 issue of the Soviet newspaper Pravda still lying on a desk.
The standing-room-only commencement, in one of the few renovated areas of the new campus, highlighted not only the stubborn resilience of Ukrainians, but also the constant strain of war. As the ceremony was underway, some attendees flicked through social media posts on their phones, showing footage of the missile attacks on Odesa and other cities in the past few days.
The university building, which also hosts a help center for displaced people from Mariupol, is being overhauled and prepared to open in the autumn in a hybrid online/in-person format. The smell of fresh paint hangs in the air, and the university has adopted a new logo, a dove, a symbol of the peace Ukraine craves. Among the first priorities was organizing the printing facilities so that diplomas lost by its graduates in the war could be reprinted.
There are plans to build dormitories for students, housing for faculty and their families, and even a smaller version of Mariupol’s former central square adjacent to the main building. And, of course, because the war continues, the university has a supply of generators and Starlink satellite internet connections, as well as a bomb shelter in the basement.
“We need to keep our students and our staff,” Mr. Trofymenko said. “We can liberate the city, we can rebuild — but without the people, then for whom are we doing it?”
Applications for the coming year are now open.