Ukrainian emerging leaders learn about reforms, improve leadership skills at Stanford

May 25, 2020, 10:15 p.m.

When arriving at sunny Stanford in September, Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program (UELP) Fellows did not expect that their year on campus would be cut short by a global pandemic.

Despite the challenges, the fellows have used Stanford’s opportunities to work on projects aimed at innovation in Ukraine and develop their leadership skills in a new culture and learning environment, while also sharing their experience with the broader campus community. 

UELP fellows spend 10 months at Stanford working with faculty on projects aimed at reforming Ukraine. The program is hosted by the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The program, intended to remedy a lack of Ukrainian presence on campus, was founded in 2017 by former John S. Knight Fellow Oleksandr Akymenko and former John S. Knight Fellow Affiliate Kateryna Akymenko, with the assistance of former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and professor Michael McFaul and political science professor Francis Fukuyama. This year, the program welcomed Kateryna Bondar, Artem Romaniukov and Pavlo Vrzheshch to campus.

In Ukraine, Vrzheshch is the co-founder and creative director of the internationally acclaimed Banda Agency that worked on developing the first Ukrainian global brand, “Ukraine Now,” by the order of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

Before joining UELP, Romaniukov worked on implementing government transparency and anti-corruption initiatives as a leader of a non-governmental organization. Romaniukov said his Stanford experience was very different from the higher education he got in Ukraine, where he majored in hydro aerodynamics: Stanford educators place a greater focus on practical applications, he said.

“I’m pretty good at math and physics, but it doesn’t prepare you for the application of this stuff,” Romaniukov said.

Bondar, a member of the Reform Support Team at the Ministry of Finance, also commented on the difference between two education systems, noting that Stanford professors were more accessible

“Ukrainian, post-Soviet system is a bit closed, official and formal, I would say,” Bondar said. “At Stanford, you can reach any professor, you can talk to any professor. In Ukraine, if it’s a lecture, it’s a lecture. The professor just talks and there is no interactive form of questions, answers, discussions.”

Romaniukov said Stanford classrooms were also a place where he was free to ask “silly questions.” In a class discussion about similarities between constitutions around the world, Romaniukov said CDDRL faculty member and law professor Erik Jensen had been surprisingly receptive after he had asked why no constitutions included the right for entrepreneurship.

“I said it because I thought of it, because I had class at business school just this day and they brainwashed me with all this entrepreneurship spirit,” Romaniukov said. “The professor said, ‘That’s an idea, that’s some right that we probably must add to the constitution.’”

Jensen said the fellows, who attend classes with other Stanford students, brought a unique perspective to his classes.

“My law students really enjoy interacting with these Ukrainian Emerging Leaders,” Jensen said. “They bring a depth of experience and local context that most of my students don’t have of another country.”

All of the fellows are currently taking classes online, with their year on campus cut short by the pandemic. Some of their plans for spring were never fulfilled, such as a Stanford conference about Ukrainian issues that Bondar was looking forward to.

“We were working on it really hard for the last couple of months,” she said. “We have already invited all of the speakers, we organized everything.”

Romaniukov said he hoped the practical knowledge from classes will help him develop his ecological non-profit start-up Save Dnipro in Ukraine. He said he missed the start-up culture on campus.

“I really regret not paying enough attention to studying start-up infrastructure here,” Romaniukov said. “I took two start-up classes this quarter and discovered a whole new world. I’m amazed with this and I love it.”

The fellows also miss their favorite spots on campus. Bondar misses studying at the Green Library, fully immersing herself in the subjects at hand. Romaniukov fondly remembers jogging and enjoying the reflections in the silence of the Lake Lag. 

‘We can’t forget Ukraine’

In June, the fellows will join the alumni cohorts of UELP, using connections and case studies they accessed at Stanford to continue reforming Ukraine.

Oleksandra Ustinova UELP ’19 and Oleksandr Starodubtsev UELP ’18 will be there to greet the newcomers into a small but strong alumni community. With the program only in its third year, the alumni community consists of six fellows. 

The fellows boast social impact in many fields. In the summer after her studies at Stanford, Ustinova won a seat in the Ukrainian parliament elections, which she credited to inspiration from faculty like Fukuyama.

“[Fukuyama] wasn’t directly saying ‘You have to become a politician,’ but it was obvious that if you can take the responsibility, you should do it,” Ustinova said. 

Starodubtsev also works in the Ukrainian government as a deputy of the head of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention. After working on developing an electronic public procurement system, Starodubtsev said he “had many dilemmas where [he] did not know how to reconcile different positions and get answers.”

“Professor Fukuyama during this program, during these 10 months, actually built back my view of the world,” Starodubtsev said.

Starodubtsev added that he had brought some of the attitudes common at Stanford back to Ukraine, such as resistance to maintaining traditions and ignoring social status. In his work as the head of the National Agency for the Civil Service, he said he often took to wearing hoodies. 

“A lot of people trolled me when I was the head of the National Agency for the Civil Service because I tried to never wear a suit,” Starodubtsev said. “I’m protesting against the form in the civil service. Because, in my opinion, in Ukrainian civil service we have a lot of form and no sense, that was my personal protest.”  

His Stanford experience helped him to shape this protest. 

“If you see the person in a suit at Stanford, it is either foreigners or Professor McFaul,” Starodubtsev said.

The program also gives back to the Stanford community. According to Akymenko, Ukrainians have valuable perspectives that people on campus can learn from, such as perspectives on radical change and revolutions.

“I think a lot of people, including Americans, have things they can learn from Ukrainians,” Akymenko said. “And we have things to learn from other nations.”

The selection committee for the next UELP cohort has already begun its search for next year. Akymenko is looking at both potential fellows’ past achievements and future project goals. CDDRL program associate and UELP selection committee member Sasha Jason said she was looking for compatibility between the future cohort members as well.

Even in the uncertainty the next academic year might bring, the program will not lose its relevance. Jensen believes that the program is important in ensuring the political stability of Ukraine and the progress of reforms.

“I think we can’t forget Ukraine,” Jensen said. “Hopefully, this group of vibrant, young Ukrainians can imagine a different future for their country where democracy is secure, where the rule of law is secure, where corruption is greatly reduced, and, you know, opportunities are available to Ukrainians across this spectrum.”

Contact Anastasia Malenko at malenk0 ‘at’

Anastasiia Malenko is the Vol. 261 News Managing Editor. Originally from Ukraine, she focuses on politics and international student life in her coverage. In her free time, she loves listening to throwbacks and catching up on book and coffee recommendations. Contact her at amalenko 'at'

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