Meet Sean, an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) who served in Ukraine from 2009-2011. Sean, a friend of my brother, was kind enough to help me out with this blog post and give us a glimpse into his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Eastern Europe!
1. When and where did you serve in the Peace Corps? Did you get to pick your country?
I served in Kolomyia, a town of 60,000 people in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in western Ukraine from 2009 to 2011.
When I applied to Peace Corps, I gave a preference for Sub-Saharan Africa. I had taken a few classes and written my bachelor’s thesis on this region. However, no volunteer positions were available at the time I was planning to be ready to leave after graduation.
At that time, Peace Corps volunteers were asked to be flexible and willing to go anywhere – a philosophy that I appreciate. I was almost sent to Central Asia, but ended up in Ukraine – and the rest is history.
Kolomyia Town Hall (left) and Pysanka Museum (right)
2. How long was your flight to Ukraine?
Our group gathered for staging for one night in Philadelphia. We flew out the next morning, with one stop in Frankfurt before arriving in Kyiv. In general, with one layover, flights from the east coast to Ukraine take around 13-15 hours.
3. What program did you do? What was your title?
I was a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer.
In addition to TEFL, Peace Corps Ukraine also had Youth Development and Community Development volunteers.
For more information about Peace Corps TEFL Volunteers click here.
4. What sort of work did you do in your site? What was your biggest project you worked on?
I worked in a school composed of around 1,000 students from 1st-11th grade. What was unique about my school was that it was specialized in teaching English – and had around 35 English teachers. Students started in 1st grade with five English lessons per week, and increased up to nine lessons in 10th and 11th grades. By the time I started teaching them, many students had a fairly good foundation in English.
I taught 18 lessons a week with students from 5th-11th grade. I would teach two lessons per week with each group, and the Ukrainian teachers would teach three. This allowed me to focus on communicative activities, while the Ukrainian teachers explained more complex grammar, etc.
In addition to regular classes, I also held anywhere between two and five English club meetings per week in my school after lessons and/or at the local youth center in the evenings.
Regular classes kept me fairly busy. But in addition to that, I helped students organize a few events, including Valentine’s Day and Halloween themed parties and charity events.
The school where Sean worked (left) and a Halloween lesson he did with his students (right)
5. Where did you live? What was your house like? Did you live with a host family?
When we arrived, I lived with a host family for three months during training in a small village outside of Kyiv.
I then lived with another host family in Kolomyia during the full two years I served as a volunteer. I lived with an older couple who had three grown daughters, two of whom lived in town with their own children.
Since I lived with a family, I had a few more luxuries than many volunteers in Ukraine (and around the world), including a washing machine and a water heater for showers. I even had (slow and limited) internet in my house. (Now high speed internet is available almost everywhere in Ukraine.)
Sean’s very progressive looking shower (left), his bedroom (upper right), and host family’s house where he lived during his service (lower right)
6. What was the climate like where you lived?
As you would expect, the winters in Ukraine are cold – a bit colder than where I grew up in Pennsylvania. It’s common to have snow starting in November and lasting through March.
When the sun comes out and it starts getting warm in the spring, it is certainly a welcoming change from the long winter.
You may be surprised to know that summers are quite hot, on occasion reaching into the 90s (Fahrenheit) in July and August.
Winter in Ukraine
Carpathian Mountain Village (left) and Spring garden in Ukraine (right)
7. What was your transportation like in and out of your site?
Transportation, if not always comfortable, was very convenient. There were mini-buses called “marshrutkas” every 20 minutes from Kolomyia to Ivano-Frankivsk, the oblast (regional) capital. The trip took an hour and 15 minutes.
Kolomyia was also on the train line. Train travel is quite easy and affordable, and almost always exactly on time. Ukraine is fairly large – about the size of Texas – so traveling across the country takes a while. It took 13 hours on the overnight train to get to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Travel by car was often more difficult. Drivers always had to be careful to avoid the many and sometimes massive, potholes. In any case, I didn’t have to worry much about cars, since Peace Corps volunteers weren’t allowed to drive.
Inside the marshrutka (left) and Sean traveling by train (right)
8. What did you eat? What were your favorite foods?
Ukrainian food is hearty and healthy. Some of my favorite traditional dishes are verenyky (Ukrainian for pierogi), deruni (fried potato pancakes), and banosh (corn meal porridge) with brynza (cheese) and shkvarka (small pieces of fried pig fat).
9. What was your connectivity like? How did you call home?
Everyone in Ukraine had cell phones – sometimes even 2 or 3 with different sim cards to take advantage of the cheaper rates to call your friends with the same service provider. It was possible to call the USA relatively cheap if you registered for an additional international plan with your cell carrier.
However, usually I would talk to family via Skype – either at home when the internet was working well, or in a cafe in the center of town that had wi-fi.
10. What language did you speak? What was your language training like?
I spoke Ukrainian. And yes, Ukrainian and Russian are similar, but they are two separate languages.
When we arrived in Ukraine, half of the volunteers learned Ukrainian and half learned Russian depending on where in the country you were going to be placed. We studied 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for almost 3 months during training.
11. How close was the nearest volunteer to you?
In Kolomyia, there were typically three Peace Corps volunteers at any given time, with new and old volunteers coming and going. This was not normal for most Peace Corps sites in Ukraine, but Kolomyia had had such a positive experience with volunteers in the past, that many schools and organizations were interested in hosting volunteers.
It was nice to have a ready-made social group, people to teach you about the city, and volunteers to support your projects and share the English club organizational burden.
In addition to my sitemates, there were maybe 5-6 volunteers within 1-2 hours.
12. What was your favorite part about your Peace Corps experience?
My favorite part of Peace Corps was the friends I made – both Ukrainian and American.
I’m still good friends with many of my teacher colleagues and others from Kolomyia. I’ve been back to visit every year or two, including to attend the graduation celebrations of two groups of my former students and the wedding of a friend.
I really appreciated the wealth of traditions in Ukraine, including crafts like pysanky (dyed eggs). I was also able to learn and perform in a Ukrainian folk dance group.
Evidently, I enjoyed Peace Corps enough to return. I’ve been living in Ukraine again the last two years working for an NGO.
Traditional folk dance group
Pysanky (dyed eggs) and local ceramics
Sean at the graduation ceremonies of his former students