In the old days, there were caps and gowns and couches, but Mariupol State University could only offer a scaled-down ceremony Thursday for the class of 2023 on its campus in exile nearly 400 miles from its devastated hometown.

Of the 500 graduates, only about 60 were present here in Kyiv to collect their diplomas in person at a new university home that is a work in progress. The rest participated online if they could, separated by war around Ukraine and abroad.

It was a bittersweet moment for the graduates of Mariupol, a city that became synonymous with the brutality and devastation of war before falling to the Russian invasion last year. Even in virtual form, the university offered a sense of moving towards something beyond the war, and an oasis from the cruel realities they all saw and felt, which were never really crazy.

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 vast steel factory where Mariupol’s defenders made their last stand before surrendering in May 2022.

“It was very difficult to concentrate, 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, stayed in Mariupol and also fought in the battle for Azovstal. On Thursday she received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in Italian translation, but Nikita was not there. He’s a prisoner of war in Russia, and she hasn’t heard from him since May.

“Every day I dream about the first day we will be reunited and I think about how I will help him overcome the suffering he is going through 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 suspended its work on February 24, 2022, the day the full-scale invasion began, and Russian forces began pounding Mariupol, on the Sea of ​​Azov in southeastern Ukraine, with missiles, shells and bombs.

Mikola Trofymenko, the rector of the university, immediately moved his computer servers to the city of Dnipro to the northwest, which remained out of reach of the Russians. He briefly returned to Mariupol, but then, like almost everyone living there, he fled when Moscow’s forces destroyed a city that once held 440,000 people.

Classes resumed online in April 2022, and despite the psychological stress and loss, most of the students plunged back into their studies.

“The students are heroes for continuing to work after everything they’ve been through, and we celebrate them — but the real celebration will be after the war is over,” Mr. Trofymenko, 38, said in an interview.

Sofia Petrovna, who graduated on Thursday with degrees 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 steadiness that helped take our mind off the scary news and move on.”

The university, founded in 1991, had nearly 5,000 students before the war, and became recognized for its Hellenic studies program, in part due to the large minority of ethnic Greeks living in Mariupol. Mr. Trofymenko said that the students are now 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 four-year students are no longer considered active, their fates uncertain.

“They’re 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 remained in Mariupol and were accused of collaborating with the occupation authorities.

Rebuilding the university in Kyiv “plays an important role essential for us to preserve 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 training center and had seen little use in decades. Posters of American military bases and nuclear facilities in the Soviet era 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 took place, some attendees scrolled through social media posts on their phones, showing images of the missile attacks on Odessa and other cities in recent days.

The university building, which also houses a support center for displaced people from Mariupol, is being overhauled and ready to open in the fall in a hybrid online/in-person format. The smell of fresh paint hangs in the air, and the university has adopted a new emblem, a dove, a symbol of Ukraine’s desire for peace. Among the first priorities was to organize 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 an even smaller version of Mariupol’s former central square adjacent to the main building. And, of course, as 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 have to keep our students and our staff,” Mr. Trofymenko said. “We can liberate the city, we can rebuild – but without people, so who are we doing it for?”

Applications for next year are now open.

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