Notre Dame Law School hosts two Ukrainian exchange students through partnership with Ukrainian Catholic University

Author: Sarah Doerr

Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar
Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar

When Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar arrived at Notre Dame Law School as exchange students from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) for the spring 2024 semester, they were looking forward to an esteemed educational experience and the opportunity to bring valuable international perspectives to the Notre Dame community. Little did they know, they would also play a role in deepening and enhancing the longstanding relationship between the two universities.

For more than two decades, Notre Dame and UCU have fostered strong academic, religious, and cultural connections, which only deepened following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since that time, Notre Dame has increased its solidarity and support with UCU through various initiatives. In May 2022, the universities formalized an agreement to significantly expand their relationship. One central aspect of this collaboration was the establishment of an exchange program, enabling UCU undergraduate and graduate students to study at Notre Dame.

"The relationship between the law faculty at the Ukrainian Catholic University and at Notre Dame Law School is important to us and will be enduring. Along with joint research endeavors and ongoing collaborations, the student exchange is an important aspect of our partnership,” said Paul Miller, associate dean for International and Graduate Programs and the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law. “This program is a great example of how the Law School's Global Lawyering Initiative works to forge and deepen connections across borders, enhancing our learning environments here on campus, while allowing us to build community and to support the flourishing of students and faculty of Notre Dame and of our global partners."

Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar in class
Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar in class

The application process for the exchange program between the universities is incredibly competitive but, once accepted, Notre Dame minimizes personal costs for students in the program in an effort to ensure that all qualified and deserving students are able to take advantage of the opportunity. Miller is an especially strong advocate for the value of having international voices and perspectives on campus–especially those brought through Notre Dame’s unique relationship with UCU.

“I have been deeply impressed with the quality and engagement of the students from UCU and their contributions to discussions at the Law School,” said Miller. “Their presence has enriched the experience of all of our students.”

Last spring, the Law School hosted three UCU students, while several more were hosted by the University of Notre Dame at the undergraduate level. This year, Pekar and Dudchak are representing UCU in the law exchange program, with Dudchak being the first male student to participate in the exchange program.

Dudchak is especially grateful for the opportunity to study at Notre Dame, after having faced significant challenges in receiving permission to leave Ukraine. Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent, still-raging war, male students in Ukraine cannot fully enjoy academic mobility as before. The male students have to get a special permit from the government to leave the country, and it is usually a thorny process filled with uncertainty.

“I am here thanks to the support of many warmhearted people who believed in this idea much more than I did,” said Dudchak when asked about the long and difficult permit application process.

Pekar applied to come to Notre Dame because she knew of the strong ties between UCU and Notre Dame, and shared the same goal of many of her classmates—to receive a world-class education and experience life at Notre Dame. She also knew of alumni from the exchange program who had gone on to achieve great things, and credits their association with Notre Dame with giving them a competitive advantage.

“The connection between Notre Dame and UCU is incredibly evident in the experiences we have had since coming here,” said Pekar. “The Notre Dame community hears us, and believes in our future and education, which is very valuable to us. We have also been offered this opportunity to use Notre Dame as a platform from which to tell our stories and speak up about the brutality of war.”

Dudchak agreed that the experience of studying in the United States offered him a new, different perspective on life, and helped him imagine a life for himself beyond what was expected of and modeled for him at home. He also shared that he was excited to be at such a respected university that had a big impact on the Civil Rights Movement and made it a goal to be a compelling Ukrainian voice on campus.

Both Dudchak and Pekar expressed how warmly welcome they have felt in the Notre Dame community, and the support they have received from professors and students alike. They also noted how much they enjoy participating in what they consider to be a vibrant Ukrainian community on campus. Notre Dame is proud to have various different cultures represented on campus, and Dudchak and Pekar said they are grateful to have an opportunity to celebrate Ukrainian culture and lifestyles in a way that transcends the shadow cast by the war.

ND Law Professor Diane Desierto with Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar
ND Law Professor Diane Desierto with Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar

In March, both students, along with Svitlana Khyliuk, director of the Ukrainian Catholic University School of Law, and Diane Desierto, professor of law, faculty director for the LL.M. in International Human Rights Law, and director of the ND Law Global Human Rights Clinic, presented to students and faculty across campus. They discussed the national experience of investigating international crimes during the Russian-Ukrainian War, state responsibility, recent decisions by the International Court of Justice decisions, and ways to support Ukraine from abroad.

Khyliuk visited Notre Dame as a visiting scholar in the fall of 2021 through the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. During her semester at Notre Dame, Khyliuk spent a significant amount of time at the Law School. She has been an enthusiastic supporter of the students and of the exchange program between UCU and Notre Dame.

Dudchak and Pekar are taking courses such as International Law, Education Law, Gender Issues and International Law, Freedom of Religion, and Employment Discrimination Law. They shared that they have found all of their professors to be extremely welcoming, empathetic, and helpful both in and out of the classroom. Both students are spoken very highly of by their professors as well.

Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar in Adjunct Professor Todd Dvorak's Employment Discrimination Law class.]
Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar in Adjunct Professor Todd Dvorak's Employment Discrimination Law class

Todd Dvorak, associate general counsel for the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor, teaches Dudchak and Pekar in his Employment Discrimination Law class.

“I've been genuinely impressed by Ilona and Nazar, both as students and as individuals of character. Neither shies away from using their voice in the classroom or sticking around after class to dive deeper into the material,” said Dvorak. “Both Ilona and Nazar bravely volunteer for tough questions, advocate for their positions, and ask their own questions to help drive meaningful discussion. I think we all benefit when they share their unique viewpoints and experiences, and I just feel lucky to have them in class.”

ND Law Professor Christine Venter with Ukrainian Students Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar
ND Law Professor Christine Venter with Nazar Dudchak and Ilona Pekar

Dudchak and Pekar are both taking Gender Issues and International Law with Christine Venter, director of the Law School’s legal writing program.

She commented that having Dudchak and Pekar in the class has made international human rights real in a way that teaching students about these concepts in an abstract sense could not do.

“Ilona gave a presentation to the class about the gender-based violence Russian soldiers are perpetrating against Ukrainian women in the occupied territories. The presentation was extremely powerful and led students to then debate whether domestic or international courts were best positioned to prosecute these horrendous crimes,” said Venter. “Nazar presented on how having women play an active role in military combat helped to eradicate gender-based stereotypes and resulted in women being seen as leaders.”

In Ukraine, students start their law studies in an undergraduate program and finish them in a master’s program. Both Dudchak and Pekar will complete a final year in their undergraduate program at UCU following their semester at Notre Dame. They credit the strong ties between Notre Dame and UCU and consistencies within the law programs with facilitating a smooth transition back into their curriculum at UCU.

After completing her degree, Pekar plans to pursue an internship with a Ukrainian law firm and explore effective and impactful ways to apply her U.S. legal education within the Ukrainian context. Dudchak intends to explore opportunities to utilize his law degree in a nonprofit or government setting.

“The partnership between Notre Dame and Ukrainian Catholic University is very whole and very complete,” Dudchak said. “This relationship has real and long lasting consequences for the people of Ukraine–and while Ukraine keeps fighting for its freedom, these connections can be no less valuable than weapons.”