The First Lady of Ukraine visits the Sorbonne

  • European Engagement
  • University

On November 8 and 9, Olena Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, visited Paris to inaugurate the Ukrainian Cultural Institute and raise funds for its humanitarian foundation. During this trip, she honored Sorbonne University with her presence on the morning of November 9. This special moment included the signing of an agreement with the Ukrainian Institute, as well as enriching exchanges with students from Sorbonne University, half of whom were Ukrainian.

The First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, was welcomed to the prestigious Sorbonne Interuniversity Library (BIS) by Olivier Ginez, the rector responsible for higher education and research, Nathalie Drach-Temam, the president of Sorbonne University, Guillaume Fiquet, vice-president for international relations, and Vadym Omelchenko, Ambassador of Ukraine to France. Representatives of the university’s teaching and student community were also at their side to express their solidarity with Ukraine and its people.

Upon her arrival, the First Lady spoke behind closed doors with Nathalie Drach-Temam, Guillaume Fiquet and the Director General of the Ukrainian Institute, Volodymyr Sheik. The discussions mainly focused on cooperation opportunities for the future of Ukraine and on actions aimed at jointly building the future of Europe, leading to the signing of a tripartite partnership agreement with the Ukrainian Institute.

Following a short introduction to the BIS premises by its director, Laurence Bobis, the chief curator and head of the library’s department of manuscripts and ancient books, Juliette Jestaz, had the honor of displaying a rare document, exceptionally released from the archives to the First Lady Ukraine: the charter on the statutes of creation of the University of Paris in 1215.

Unconditional support for the Ukrainian people

In the presence of the First Lady of Ukraine and the audience present in the historic reading room of the BIS, Nathalie Drach-Temam delivered a speech reaffirming Sorbonne University’s support to the Ukraine and its people, stating "Our university embodies humanist values and universalism. It defends human rights and academic freedoms. We are united by these values, which are shown in our international relations and in our scientific and cultural diplomacy."

From the start of the war, Sorbonne University opened its doors to the teaching and student communities affected by the conflict. "We welcomed approximately fifteen researchers who were temporarily displaced, and of course, students whose studies were interrupted by the war," Nathalie Drach-Temam recalled before continuing: "To allow these students to become ’’the best possible students’’, we made sure to provide them with the best possible welcome. We also contributed to the organization of national entrance exams to Ukrainian universities two years in a row."

Nathalie Drach-Temam also emphasized Sorbonne University’s commitment to strengthening Ukraine’s academic influence. Strategic partnerships have thus been established with major Ukrainian universities, notably via the 4EU+ Alliance. In March 2022, Sorbonne University launched a cycle of conferences, at the initiative of several professors from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities including Jean-Cassien Billier, associate professor and project manager at the dean’s office. These conferences, called  « Le Printemps Ukrainien » * were designed to share the Ukrainian culture to the French public, to promote the development of cooperation between Ukrainian and French cultural institutions, and to support experts in Ukrainian culture.

The partnership with the Ukrainian Institute, also represented on November 9 by Olga Sahaidak, is part of a long-term cooperation to promote culture and education in Ukraine, while promoting studies on Central and Eastern Europe carried out at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Sorbonne University.

In recognition of the reception for the First Lady of Ukraine, she offered several books relating to the history and culture of her country. In exchange, Paul Rieunier, a student at Sorbonne University and founder of the La Matrice Carrée association, gave her a model of the Sorbonne, in the colors of Ukraine, which was manufactured at the FabLab of the Faculty of Sciences and Engineering. All these symbolic gestures helped to strengthen ties between the two nations.

*available only in French
Your presence today at the Sorbonne gives meaning to our shared ambition: to meet the challenges of our world, to help build a united Europe together, beyond the crises, and to strengthen humanist ties within this united Europe.
Nathalie Drach-Temam, President of Sorbonne University

Promoting the culture and history of Ukraine

In an emotional speech, the First Lady expressed her gratitude to Sorbonne University for the warm welcome given to Ukrainian students since the start of the conflict. "Everyone in Ukraine knows Sorbonne University, it is a legendary university, synonymous with free thinkers. I am delighted to know that you have found refuge there," she said, addressing the Ukrainian students in the room. Olena Zelenska further evoked the tragedy of the student towns in her country, hit by the bombings: "You share with our students a wish: that of a better world. You will no longer tolerate violence and lies, you will forbid banning," she quoted, referring to the famous libertarian slogan of May 1968.

Bernold Hasenknof, advisor to the presidency for European engagement at Sorbonne University, asked what the goal of her visit was. The First Lady explained it would contribute to promoting Ukrainian culture and history more widely in France and in Europe, thus building solid foundations to fight together against the aggressor.

At the conclusion of this exceptional visit, four Ukrainian and French students had the opportunity to ask the First Lady some questions previously moderated by Jean-Cassien Billier. "What can we do for Ukraine and education in Ukraine?", asked Maria Didenko, Ukrainian student in English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. And the First Lady replied: "We would ultimately like you to return to Ukraine to carry its colors high, but also that here, in France, you continue to talk to those around you about your country, its history, and its culture."

Members of the Débattre en Sorbonne student association also asked the First Lady about her foundation, created a year ago to respond primarily to the immediate needs of war victims. "Today, the foundation focuses on supporting children and education, supporting the nation’s wards, and mental health." Olena Zelenska stressed the crucial importance of rethinking psychological support, particularly at school, to allow children to find serenity and "learn to dream again", she concluded.

Retour en images

  • Juliette Jestaz, chief curator and head of the library’s Department of Manuscripts and Antiquarian Books, displays the charter on the founding statutes of the University of Paris in 1215
  • Paul Rieunier, a student at Sorbonne University, presents a model of the Sorbonne, in Ukrainian colors, made at the FabLab in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

  • Signing of the partnership agreement: from l. to r., Volodymyr Sheik, General Director of the Ukrainian Institute, Nathalie Drach-Temam, President of Sorbonne University, Iryna Dmytryshyn, President of the association representing the Ukrainian Institute in France.

  • Olena Zelenska, at the podium
  • Nathalie Drach-Temam, at the podium
  • The First Lady of Ukraine surrounded by Ukrainian and French Sorbonne University students present on November 9, 2023