Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska addressed over 700 students, faculty, and Ukrainian visitors in Gaston Hall during an event hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS) on Sept. 21. As fighting continues 19 months after Russia’s invasion, Zelenska urged the Georgetown audience to remain attentive to Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, announced a donation of Ukrainian books to Georgetown’s library, and was honored by GIWPS.
Zelenska’s words came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the U.N. General Assembly, members of Congress, and President Joe Biden this week. The pair’s visit to Washington aimed to secure continuing U.S. support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. On the same day that Zelenska highlighted humanitarian concerns to the Gaston Hall audience, including protecting education and gender equality, Biden announced that the U.S. will provide long-range missiles to support the ongoing conflict—a victory for Kyiv.
Melanne Verveer, executive director of GIWPS, made the opening remarks.
“She has become the visible face of a society shattered by war, doing all she can to help the Ukrainian people stand their ground against Russia’s unprovoked aggression,” Verveer said.
Verveer spoke directly to the Ukrainian students at Georgetown, listed some of the cities they call home, and asked them to stand. The first several rows of Gaston Hall rose to a round of applause.
Georgetown President John DeGioia also made remarks, reiterating Georgetown’s continuing support for Ukraine. He highlighted Georgetown’s establishment of a scholarship fund in June 2022 to provide financial aid for Ukrainian students impacted by the war. DeGioia also underscored the strength of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s aggression overseas.
“We’ve also seen extraordinary resilience and creativity– a Ukrainian people who continue to fight, to pursue education, to care for one another, to support their country and its freedom in any way they can,” he said.
At the end of his remarks, DeGioia welcomed the Ukrainian first lady to the stage. The audience met her entrance with a standing ovation.
At the podium, Zelenska, too, praised the resilience of the Ukrainian people. She spoke directly to Georgetown students, sharing the stark realities of the student experience in war-torn Ukraine.
“Unfortunately, on the first day of the academic year, it was interrupted by dozens of air raid alerts over the country,” she said. “You may have seen the photos of our first graders who went to the school for the very first time, who spent their first day of school in bomb shelters.”
The war has had a heavy cost for Ukraine’s university students, many of whom have died defending their country. Zelenska identified similarities between Georgetown students and the students in Ukraine who were thrown into dire situations.
“I’m looking at you, and I can see our students. I don’t think you’re that different, and you have one trait in common, and that’s empathy and wanting to change the world for the better,” she said.
The attack on Ukraine also threatens Ukraine’s educational infrastructure. According to Zelenska, only a third of students are in school because near-constant air raids prevent them from returning to buildings without bomb shelters. But books, to Zelenska, allow those in bomb shelters or in the trenches to escape from the realities of war.
As part of the Ukrainian Bookshelf Project, Zelenska announced a donation of 260 Ukrainian books to Georgetown’s library, including fiction and historical literature. The project aims to preserve Ukraine’s identity and legacy through donating Ukrainian literature, in its original language and translation, to libraries across the globe.
“Books are a very important thing in the confrontation with the enemy. Our people are fighting for their survival and so are our books,” she said. “Dozens of libraries have been burnt down by Russian missiles. When we hand over living books, we are basically saving them physically. We’re giving them a chance at life.”
After her remarks, Zelenska was formally presented with the Hillary Rodham Clinton award by GIWPS. Zelenska was given this award in Dec. 2022, though she was in Ukraine at the time of the ceremony. The award highlighted her tireless efforts to rally the world in support of Ukrainian freedom, democracy, and women’s rights.
In the subsequent panel discussion moderated by Verveer, Zelenska spoke to women’s roles in the Ukrainian war effort: fighting on the front lines, caring for their families, or engaging in humanitarian efforts. She highlighted the prevalent wage gap and lack of equality that Ukraine is now working to resolve, even during wartime.
“Sometimes it looks like equality, but it’s only equality in the sense of equal responsibility. We are all responsible, it’s equal. But in some ways women are losing out, for example, in the area of equal wages,” she said.
After the panel discussion, Verveer invited Ohla Kovach (SFS ’26) from Kyiv to pose a question to Zelenska: what can students do to help look after the vulnerable sectors of Ukraine?
“Anyone in the world who knows what’s happening in Ukraine has the ability to help Ukraine,” Zelenska said. “You can spread true information about what is happening. You can tell people about what is happening in Ukraine. You can tell them the truth.”
In her final response, Zelenska argued that the world must not lose attention or interest in the war, and the heavy toll it has taken on the Ukrainian people. According to her, a loss for Ukraine would be a loss for the free world.
“No one can feel safe in a world where might is right. Where the strong are in charge,” she said. “And this is why we need to keep the focus of the attention of the world on this impossible, tragic, and terrifying situation that is happening to Ukraine right now.”