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Impressions of an American Teacher at ZNU or How I Fell in Love with my Ukraine

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20.01.2015 09:11:00

When I came to Ukraine in late September, 2013, under the auspices of the US Peace Corps, I was pleased to be assigned to a Russian speaking part of Ukraine, so I could build upon the Russian I had studied 40 years earlier.

My assimilation into ZNU was smooth due to the efforts of my "counterpart", Anna Yunatskaya, and other colleagues who were always willing to help with any questions. I was comfortable in my “hotel” dorm room, but with my Peace Corps subsidy of 50 hryvnias a day, I started to grasp the difficulty of surviving on the salary of a professor, easily 1/20 or less of their American counterparts.

Every two months, I was rotated among classes of years 1-4 with faculty from the English Translation and Pedagogy Departments who wanted their classes to be exposed to a native speaker. I was delighted to be teaching much smaller classes than found in American schools, and to collaborate on lessons. Most students could speak on a variety of topics, some with an amazing ease, and their creativity in assignments, at class parties, and in the numerous university performances I witnessed was remarkable. I particularly enjoyed our cross-cultural discussions about anything from home remedies to capital punishment. However, what touched me the most was the students' willingness to express their diverging personal opinions about the challenges and changes occurring in Ukraine at this time. This openness, probably unimaginable to their grandparents or parents at their age, I see as a sign of a society moving toward a truly democratic future.

In my new community, I was able to study Latin dance and Argentine tango, where some of my warmest friendships developed. I thoroughly enjoyed shopping in the market, walking through Zaporizhia's numerous parks and along Prospect Lenina, and attending Magara Theater. Other highlights were working with my community English Club, dancing horovod in the snow on Khortiza, and daring to jump in cold water in the dead of winter. Overshadowing all was witnessing the emergence of the Maidan movement, people of all ages and social strata braving the cold and authority to peacefully stand up for their belief in a more accountable government. Seeing how citizens of this region also lent their moral, monetary and material support to the movement put a lie to the media implication of all Russian speakers endorsing close ties to Russia, at the expense of opening toward Europeas well. 

My heart was broken to be abruptly "evacuated" from ZNU by Peace Corps in late February 2014, where I had not only felt perfectly safe, but also experienced an overwhelming feeling of being appreciated as a valuable member of the faculty and community. I grieved from afar as aggressors invaded, and provoked rebellion where policy discords would otherwise not have resulted in bloodshed. Despite Peace Corps' continued caution, I returned in the fall for several weeks, slipping comfortably back into ZNU classes, renewing and deepening friendships. It was a joy to see the evidence of national pride with so many public places painted in blue and yellow, and the humor and tolerance exhibited by dressing Lenin in a Vyshyvanka. My admiration for the courageous people of Ukraine has only increased as I witnessed democracy in action in the parliamentary elections, and the fortitude with which you endure the anguishing sacrifices in human life, the fall in the currency, the lack of heating fuel. My New Year's came early this year as I was so finely feted when leaving with parties and loving gifts.  I hold ZNU in my heart and hope to return again this autumn.


Marya Innis

Visiting Professor from California, USA