Shocker alum with Ukrainian ties prepares to help in refugee crisis

  • Nelsen Petersen traveled extensively in Ukraine since 2014 and plans to visit Europe later this month to help in refugee camps.
  • Petersen, a high school history teacher, is using the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a focus of his classes.
  • Petersen studied biology at Wichita State and ran on the cross country team.

The dark blue Kharkiv baseball shirt hangs over the whiteboard in Nelsen Petersen’s classroom as a history lesson and a statement of support.

Petersen, a Wichita State alum, is a high school teacher, author, filmmaker and running enthusiast who developed strong connections with Ukraine during his travels.

Later this month, he plans to go to Cluj-Napoca, a Romanian city near Ukraine, to help in refugee camps. He wants to spend four or five days during his spring break in the region.

“It’s impossible for me to just sit around and watch it,” he said. “It’s a full-on war. You show up and you say, ‘What do you need?’”

He is saddened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country he first visited in 2014 and returned to eight more times. He waits for updates from friends, follows news on social media and waits out internet disruptions.

“I get pings all the time,” he said. “Last Thursday at 5 in the morning, my phone just went nuts. They were getting shelled.”

Peterson, a member of the Wichita State’s cross country team, visited Ukraine to work on a documentary about the growth of baseball in 2014. While the Russian assault and annexation of Crimea that year spoiled the project, Petersen continued to visit friends in Ukraine.

“It goes between heartbreak and anger,” he said. “It’s hard to watch. The Ukranian people are just warm and creative, smart. You better have your current events shoes on when you sit down and talk with them. It’s a very educated culture.”

Kharkiv baseball shirtCourtesy photo
A Kharkiv baseball shirt is part of Nelsen Petersen's classroom, part of his efforts to help students understand events in Ukraine. In 2014, Petersen visited Kharkiv to look into a documentary on the growth of baseball in the country.

Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine, was the starting point for his interest in the country’s adoption of baseball.

Now the Kharkiv baseball shirt is part of his work teaching his Superior (Nebraska) High School history classes about the events in Ukraine. He discusses the similarities between Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, as well as the parallels to World War I.

“History is repeating itself, I’m afraid,” he said. “We’ve put the brakes on standard curriculum the last few days just to make sure everyone understands. You’re not going to leave my class uninformed. One of these days you’re going to be sitting in an outdoor café in Amsterdam, and at least I want someone to know ‘If you’re from Superior, Nebraska, you know a little bit.’”

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