Kasteel Well community feels mixed emotions about the Ukraine-Russia war

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Photo: Evan Walsh

Emerson’s Kasteel Well campus.

By Mariyam Quaisar, Content Managing Editor

A mere 1,200 miles away from the fighting in Ukraine, students and faculty at Emerson’s Kasteel Well campus are anxiously watching history unfold as Europe is brought to the brink of war.

Last week’s Russian invasion spurred condemnation from member states of the European Union, including the Netherlands. At the castle, students and professors are having tough discussions about the war. And while the college has yet to have a formal conversation about it outside of the classroom, many students feel there should be. 

“I wish there were spaces that were made available to have discussions about this,” said Tyler Kavanaugh-Lynch, a junior visual and media arts major studying in the Netherlands. “[I want to know] what other people at the Castle are thinking. I would love a stronger sense of community.”

Kavanaugh-Lynch said the only communication from the college regarding the conflict was an email from Executive Director of Kasteel Well Rob Duckers on Mar. 1—five days after the conflict began—that reassured students that there is no current threat to the castle or the Netherlands. 

“For now, there seems to be no direct cause for worry,” the email read. “The conflict is over 1,200 miles away and though the European Union has presented a united front against the actions of Russia and has condemned these, there is no state of war [between the EU and Russia].”

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“We realize that the current unrest can cause stress and anxiety amongst our student body. That is understandable,” the email continued. “I hope that this message helps to put things somewhat in perspective and hopefully set your minds at ease.”

Seth Bledsoe, a professor at the Castle who also teaches at Radboud University in nearby Nijmegen, said the administration at Radboud held a lecture the day the invasion started regarding the crisis in Ukraine as part of a routine lecture series the university holds to discuss current events. 

“I had just found out that the actual invasion had started that morning, and then I saw a sign saying that [Radboud] was going to have a lecture about it,” he said. “I hope they do another one. We have structures in place [at Radboud] and a really great team that are experienced organizers, and are really good at [feeling] the pulse on big issues.”

Professor Bianca Janssen Groesbeek, who has taught a variety of ethics classes and an honors seminar at Kasteel Well since 2003, said she was uncertain as to how the war between Russia and Ukraine will unfold. 

“I am stepping back a bit and not jumping to conclusions,” she said. “We have all been surprised about the development that there is now a full- on war in Ukraine, and I’m worried.”

However, she added that the war should not become a dominant topic of conversation in class unless necessary. 

“When it’s on your minds, [students] can talk to me about anything [one-on-one],” she said. “But if it’s in the classroom setting and relevant, then yes–I wouldn’t [bring it up otherwise]. It would be a bit strange to enter a political discussion when the topic of the course is completely different.” 

Bledsoe uses his sociology class to allow students a chance to talk out the conflict in a formal way. 

“[Today] is the first time we have come together since [the start of the war],” he said. “I thought afterward I should’ve addressed something in class, but I didn’t bring it up at all because I hadn’t even checked the news that day; I knew it had happened [only] through conversation. It’s helpful to have a chance to sit and talk.” 

Ralph Trost, who has taught history courses at Kasteel since 2006, said he was approaching the conflict as a historian, from an academic standpoint.

“If I hear something in the news, I discuss it, or sometimes a student will ask me what I think about something,” he said. “When we talk about the Second World War, I say, ‘How can you compare this with what happened before? How can you compare what happened in Russian history or Soviet history with the situation of today?’”

Trost said this approach—examining the situation contextually—helped ease the concerns of students. He added that viewing the war as a passing, historical incident allows students to understand it in continuity with other landmark events.

“I was teaching here the day [former U.S. President Donald] Trump was elected and I told my students, ‘I don’t think that it will happen,’ and then it happened,” he said. “The next morning I had two classes full of crying students, and I told them, ‘It will be over one day. If we get panicked, it won’t help us. Let’s make the best out of it,’ and they made it [through his presidency].”

“Now Trump is over, and the same will be with the war,” he added.

Despite positive reactions from students discussing the invasion in classrooms, Groesbeek said that the dynamic at Kasteel Well has not noticeably changed since the invasion. 

“I asked one student, ‘How’s the mood at the Castle?’” she said. “ Ukraine wasn’t even mentioned.” 

Nevertheless, other professors say they have seen students grow increasingly worried about the conflict—especially due to their exposure to the news over social media platforms.

“[I’ve received] concerns about it being a distraction, at least,” Bledsoe said. “Causing anxiety and stress, in terms of focus. It’s impossible to get out of our minds—on the one hand, we should be attentive, but at the same time you can’t open up TikTok or Twitter or any news without this being there, occupying our mental space.” 

For Kavanaugh-Lynch, the countless posts about the conflict have turned social media into something more than a lighthearted way to connect with friends. 

“It’s really frustrating to see the immediate wartime propaganda shift into gear on these social media platforms that I generally go to connect with people,” he said. “[There is] a lack of self-reflection or critical thinking. It’s such a hellish purgatory between actual political conversation and a weird fandom space that I don’t want to hear any of what’s happening on Twitter, I don’t want to hear any of what’s happening on TikTok—I have to completely get off.”

Castle officials have not announced any changes to their academic excursions—none of which were previously scheduled to eastern European cities. Kavanaugh-Lynch said he is not worried about traveling in Europe, but understands if others are because of the demonstrations occurring across countries. 

“In terms of visiting major cities like Berlin or Amsterdam where there are currently really big protests, everyone needs to make the call that makes them feel safe,” he said. “But it’s not something I’m very worried about. In what world is Russia going to be like, ‘We have to take out the Emerson College student in Mykonos.’”

Students, both in the Netherlands and across Europe, are actively participating in protests and seeking ways to help. Trost, who also teaches at different German universities, says his students are not worried about their personal safety. 

“We have many movements in Germany [who are demonstrating and trying to help the Ukrainian people], we have many refugees who we’ll have to help, but there are no big concerns for people,” he said. “We don’t get into a panic.”

On the other hand, students in Ukraine and in bordering countries are facing turmoil, as many of them struggle to escape the conflict and its effects—including reports of African students in Ukraine who have been stopped at the border. 

“That impacts their safety, it impacts their human rights,” she said. “The countries next to Ukraine are worried because it seems that Putin wants the Soviet Union back. So would that impact students? Yes, but it’s on a larger scale—it’s the safety of people.”