Durham student Alexandra Hart is leading a growing network of volunteer tutors supporting Ukrainian children with English language learning.
When war hit Ukraine, one Durham student decided that she wanted to do something with a real-world benefit for those hit by its consequences.
Chad’s student Alexandra Hart had previously run a summer camp for children in Ukraine, and felt the effect of the conflict through her personal connections and memories.
Driven by that connection, Alexandra had the idea of offering free English tuition to Ukrainian children who may end up living in the UK, where some prior knowledge of the language could help them settle in faster.
Alexandra found a relevant Facebook group and sent out an initial message. While at lunch, a friend who joked that she might get home to hundreds of requests. That joke turned out to be prophetic when Alexandra returned to over 500 responses.
''It’s an example of social media making a positive impact on the world!” exclaimed Alexandra when she spoke to Durham University’s Dialogue Magazine. “I was amazed by how many people wanted to join the lessons, but it comes down to what you consider essential in a crisis situation and communication is key, especially when you’re trying to move countries.''
Having received such a strong response, Alexandra then needed to work out how to meet people's needs, and approached Durham University Student Volunteering & Outreach (DUSVO) for some help.
Although she had been concerned that setting up the project might be lengthy and complicated, she has nothing but praise for DUSVO and their efficient support.
“Within one week I was completely set up online and within two weeks I had my first ten tutors,” said Alexandra. “I’m incredibly grateful to DUSVO for all of their amazing support. It was a remarkably easy process and they've been wonderful.”
The resulting project is Tutor for Ukraine, which provides free online English language lessons to children aged seven to 17 over blocks of ten weeks. Since May, over 200 students and 25 tutors have taken part.
Alexandra, who has been a tutor herself since the age of 16, now has two of those volunteer tutors helping her to run the project. A qualified teacher of English as a Foreign Language assisted Alexandra with the writing of 40 different lesson plans to cater for older and younger students at beginner and intermediate levels of English.
Tutors volunteer for one hour per week, making it feasible alongside university studies, and Alexandra and her team ensure that new recruits receive the appropriate induction.
“You don’t need any prior experience,” explained Alexandra. “A DBS check, safeguarding training and volunteering induction are provided by DUSVO. Then we have a Zoom call to answer questions and go through a few practicalities. We also provide resources, top tips, and the lesson plans themselves.'
“You just need patience, enthusiasm and adaptability because the lessons don’t always go exactly to plan.”
As you may imagine, the children's circumstances are not always conducive to learning.
“Numbers do fluctuate in the classes – understandably,” Alexandra reflected. “Some children are still in Ukraine and you can hear planes passing overhead. Some of my students once joined a call from a Berlin train station as they were travelling across Europe. Some started their course in Ukraine and ended it in the UK.”
Nevertheless, Alexandra notes the progress that is made: “We aim to give the children confidence as well as skills, and it’s a social induction as well as a linguistic one. To be able to offer that support during such a huge upheaval has been really valued.”
Alexandra hopes that the programme can continue and perhaps even expand further.
“It would be wonderful to provide free English lessons to anyone struggling as the result of a crisis,” she said.
“DUSVO are helping me to recruit new volunteers at the Freshers’ Fair, create a SharePoint site and promote the project through social media. I would love to expand the programme to other universities, so we’re also in discussions about possible collaboration.”
Katie Binks, Volunteering and Community Outreach Senior Manager at the University said: ‘’We have such innovative students here at Durham and so many students are eager to ‘give back’ and work with the broader community.
‘’It is great to support student volunteer initiatives such as the one Alex has developed. When we have a student with a brilliant idea that meets the needs of the community and they have the drive and passion to make it happen, we see volunteering at its best and it is a great thing to be able to get behind.’’
When it comes to her own career plans, Alexandra, a third-year student of English and History, has some exciting irons in the fire.
“I’m thinking about staying on for a master’s, potentially in creative writing. I actually had my first novel published in March – it’s children’s fantasy fiction where your magical powers depend on your birth month.”
She may also retain leadership of Tutor for Ukraine, as she explained: “I had no idea that it would become such a big project, and the response from others has been overwhelming. If it remains a Durham University project, I’ll be happy to hand it over, and if it expands, I would love to keep working on it.”
Alexandra is clearly someone who takes action and that is reflected in her advice for anyone else thinking about setting up a new project.
“You have to be certain it’s something you can commit to – you need to feel passionate about it,” she explained. “But, on balance, don’t spend too much time worrying about whether it’s going to work – simply try it.
“Be passionate, but also just take the plunge!”
If you would like to get involved in Tutor for Ukraine or find out more, email email@example.com or visit the Tutor for Ukraine SharePoint site.
If you would like to find out more about our volunteering programmes, please visit the University’s Volunteering and Outreach platform.