Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his address at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School on Tuesday to urge the world to react more forcefully to Russia’s aggression and its increasingly worrying threats. The event also offered a chance for students across Harvard, many from Ukraine or with ties to the country, to ask questions of the man who, wearing his trademark olive green t-shirt and speaking remotely from Kyiv, has become both leader and symbol of his country’s resistance to the Russian invasion. They asked Zelenskyy about his leadership, about how the country will rebuild, and about the role they could play. Afterwards, we spoke to some of those students about what they heard and what the event meant to them.


Ilya headshot.I heard hope, especially for the Ukrainian audience. We saw how many Ukrainian students were here and I think it's extremely important for them to be able to speak with their president and to be able to make some kind of connection between what they're doing here and what they're going to bring back home. I know that for a lot of them it's difficult to be studying here when there's a war going on in Ukraine. And for them being able to be able to connect with their home was very special. In terms of the international audience, we saw the amazing support—everyone stood at the beginning and at the end supporting the Ukrainian president.

I also heard urgency from the president in that Ukraine really does need the support, really does need the military support. He also is sending the message, which I agree with a hundred percent, of not being afraid of Russia. I think that was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes the whole international community has made, sort of tiptoeing around Russia and trying to be super careful. I think the world should be much more determined in standing against Russia and not being afraid. 

Ilya Timtchenko MPP 2023
Founder and chair of the Ukraine Caucus


Valeriya Tsekhanska in crowd looking up.I am extremely honored to be here with all the other Ukrainian students. It is an incredible opportunity to actually speak to our president, to listen to what he has to say. It was extremely important for us to see him being optimistic about what is coming because in several interviews before, he has talked mostly about the war and of all the atrocities that have been committed. We can see some potential for the end of the war, and we can hear that Ukraine is not through. We also heard him calling for us Ukrainians who study, who work abroad, to come back and build, and to contribute while we are abroad.

For myself, I will be reaching out to our diplomatic bodies and to see what initiatives we could join, even remotely. For instance, to establish the tribunal for the prosecution of Russian war crimes. 

Valeriya Tsekhanska, HLS
President of Harvard International Arbitration Law Students Association


Tanya Kozyreva in crowd looking up.I am an investigative reporter based in Kyiv, Ukraine and a Nieman fellow at Harvard. President Zelenskyy specifically mentioned the threats that are coming from Russia of using nuclear power. I think that’s a hard topic right now in Ukraine. It’s very important that the president highlighted this issue, not only for him, but for the whole country and, I think, for the whole world. I don't think anyone, here in Harvard or anywhere in the world, wants to see any more devastating pictures or videos.  [It] was also inspiring for the leaders who are here right now at Harvard and who want to learn something from one of the most prominent political figures in modern history.

Tanya Kozyreva
Harvard Nieman Fellow


Julia Lemish and Yegor Tverdokhlibov standing in front of mic.

I was very excited to have the president speaking to Harvard students.  I was proud because one of our students, Yegor Tverdokhlibov (pictured with Julia), a Kharkiv native and an alumnus of Ukraine Global Scholars Foundation that I run, was able to ask a question to the president directly.  And you see, right now he's willing to go back and give back to his country. That made me so proud.

Julia Lemesh MC/MPA 2023
Ukraine Global Scholars


Emily Channell-Justice headshot.We are so very delighted. It was fantastic the way President Zelenskyy was able to talk to young people so directly. He’s a really inspirational figure. He’s got amazing charisma, as we all know. And being able to lead Ukraine at this difficult time and really reflect about what leadership means, it’s a really an admirable trait that he has. It’s really wonderful that we were able to have him here and we’ll all be thinking about what he said for a long time.

Emily Channell-Justice
Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

Photos by Martha Stewart

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.