On the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, when news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spread around the world, Isabella Marin ’23 was 500 miles from the Ukrainian border in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague.
Her semester abroad was about to take on an unfathomable new dimension.
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Marin’s home base is Prague’s Charles University, where she’s on a Central European studies track in a Colby-approved program through CET Prague. In the last three months, Marin has traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe, found solidarity with citizens of many nations, and engaged in conversation with young Ukrainian refugees. In the classroom, she’s discovered eerie connections between the past and the present.
Marin is no stranger to issues relating to migration, human rights, and borders. As a double major in English and global studies with a concentration in human rights, she’s researched these issues extensively. But she never imagined they would come so close or be so real.
The New Hampshire native recently talked about her experiences with Colby Magazine’s Laura Meader as her time in Prague was drawing to a close.
You were in Prague exactly one month when Russia invaded Ukraine. How did you hear about the invasion?
I think the first experience that the students in my program had with it was when we walked into our first class of the day, the morning of Feb. 24. My professor started out the class very solemnly, saying that it was the saddest day of his teaching career.
A lot of us were adjusting to life in Prague, we were busy, and we had kind of heard about what was happening on the news. But that moment in this class, where we’re constantly learning about historical tragedies and past events, to have it open like that was really sobering. It made everything that had happened in the past 24 hours really sink in.
How did things change after that day?
The weekend after the invasion, I went to Germany. So instead of actually seeing how things changed in Prague, we saw these huge protests in Germany. We came back to Ukrainian flags and protests everywhere in Prague. It was definitely a very sudden change because we had been gone for four days and watched it play out in Germany first.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia directly parallels a lot of Czechoslovakian history, first with the 1938 Nazy German annexation of the Sudetenland followed by the invasion in 1939. So, this shared history, as well Czechs’ experience living under Soviet communism, ties into the current situation. Everybody kind of rose up. It really was an overwhelming show of solidarity in the city, pretty much immediately after everything happened.
Has anything changed in your academic program?
Since then, I don’t think I’ve had a single class that hasn’t incorporated the current events into the classroom. One professor sees it as prioritizing what’s going to be in the history books. He said that from his perspective, “It makes no sense to learn about history without understanding the present times and the historical moments you are currently living through.”
My experience with these topics isn’t necessarily limited to discussions. I’m taking a class right now called Resistance and Dissent. It looks at the Czech’s history of underground resistance, mostly during their years under communism. This class was supposed to have a midterm exam. We switched our efforts for it to be a midterm project to create a group presentation during a demonstration for peace on the Charles Bridge.
For this midterm project, we allocated class time to make posters with locals in this art center, which was incredible. And then, me and five of my classmates performed two anti-war songs to a crowd of probably 100 people on one of the most famous Czech landmarks. It was an incredible experience that I had never seen myself doing before.
Which songs did you sing?
We sang “Give Peace a Chance” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
That gives me the chills. What a powerful moment.
The culture of resistance that’s risen up has been extremely welcoming. I mean, they took the time to listen to American students sing. And being able to share that with my classmates here has been incredible. We’re totally immersed in this protest culture, which is really large here and has been important throughout Czech history. It’s been moving to be able to connect even more to the Czech Republic in that way.
And now you’re volunteering with Ukrainian refugees. Tell me about that experience.
Hoping to get involved in the effort to help Ukrainian refugees coming into Prague, I found Post Bellum, a nonprofit committed to uplifting memories and witnesses of key moments in the 20th century. They were just setting up an educational program for teenagers, so I’ve joined them in that effort. I was rather nervous about how helpful I would be due to the language barrier, but they welcomed me without hesitation. So now, I teach conversational English to Ukrainian students, ages 15 to 18. I teach three different classes of 10 students each for an hour every week. I actually just got back from a class 15 minutes before this interview.
How’s it going?
The students are amazing. They speak English so well, and they’re active in class. But after I got out of the classroom on the first day, the woman who’s initiating the educational efforts of this nonprofit joked about how she could hear laughter through the walls for an hour. And my first instinct was to worry I had led the course too informally. But she told me that’s exactly the intent of what they’re doing right now, to just give them the space to be teenagers and retain some sense of normalcy with everything going on. I’m kind of taking that approach to heart and trying to run the class where English conversation is the focus but it’s structured on the students’ interests and excitement.
Can you tell how the kids are adjusting? How are they emotionally?
In two of my classes, the students have been here for two months, and for the other one, they’ve come over more recently. But it’s really incredible how positive these kids are. They joke around with each other and with me for the entire class period. And they genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is on all of them right now. But taking everything into consideration, they’re just remarkable. They’re open to sharing their stories and they bring up difficult topics. I learn a lot from them.
So how does volunteering make you feel?
It’s nice to not feel so helpless, and it’s satisfying to know I’m doing at least a little something. I never would have thought that I would be teaching three different classes while abroad.
What’s the general mood of the adults that you encounter?
We’ve been traveling a lot around Central Europe, and the general sentiment is just one of concern, both for the Ukrainians and also for the future of Central Europe as a whole. Fear is very prevalent. I think there’s this general sentiment that “we’re next.” If we’re not stopping to intervene in Ukraine, what’s going to happen when it’s our turn?
I probably saw that most strongly in Poland, where my program took us. Our tour guide had been at the border of Poland and Ukraine as a translator only days before. We talked to her a lot about that experience and more broadly about how it was in Poland. She was saying that no one has been able to sleep since it started. And I think that sums up the general sentiment of the region right now.
How has this study-abroad experience changed you?
The semester has been incredible. I’ve definitely become more independent and learned a lot. I’ve never been to Europe before, and now I’m walking away having gone to—let’s see if I can do this—the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, France, Scotland, Monaco, Greece, and Germany. All in all, I just feel very fortunate to have been able to have such an experience.
In regards to the current events, this experience has disrupted a bubble of safety that simply comes along with being an American living on U.S. soil. I’ve never felt my safety threatened. And even though the invasion is not even in the country I’m currently in, it’s been a very impactful experience.
Has it changed your academic ambitions?
I’ve always been really interested in migration and border studies. My dad actually immigrated to the United States from Venezuela, which is how I initially became interested in the relationship between migrations and human rights. This whole situation, and the fact that it’s going on in the 21st century and in a way feels so outdated, has only reinforced to me how necessary the continued study of international relations and human rights is. It’s strengthened my desire to do something to dismantle the systems that are perpetuating issues around migration and borders.
You’re preparing to come back to the U.S. soon. How are you feeling about leaving Prague? What’s going through your head?
The thought of leaving Prague, in general, could make me cry. I’ve loved every minute of the city and the culture within it. But what I’m thinking is that I’m not done with it yet. This experience has influenced my academic plans for the coming year. I’m switching the focus of my honors thesis to a comparative analysis of Central-Eastern Europe’s response to the 2015 European migrant crisis and the current situation. I’m hoping that this thesis gets approved and that I’ll be able to return to the region in January to track how everything has developed for Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic.
It’s weird to think that I’m going to be in the U.S. and just seeing this on the news when it’s been an ingrained part of life here. But I’m also really interested to see what the sentiments are in the U.S.
Do you have a final takeaway?
We’ve been really fortunate to travel frequently with this program. At times, it was like a bunch of mini remarkable moments in history. I was in Berlin the day following the invasion of Ukraine. I was in Poland when the bombing started in western Ukraine when the war was creeping closer to their shared border. And I was in Hungary only a few days after [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán was reelected, which was pretty controversial in the country. In some ways, it feels like walking through a history book. I never would have imagined I’d see this much in such a short amount of time.