English in the World: Volunteering with GoCamp in Ukraine

A few short weeks ago, I could be found in the sunny courtyard of School #11 in Pavlograd, Ukraine, leading fifteen twelve-year-olds in a rousing rendition of the Scooby Doo theme song. That’s right: “Scooby Dooby Doo / Where are you / We’ve got some work to do now…”

The boys, playing a conversation game on the opening day of our 2018 camp.

Today, I’m back home in my native environment: my air-conditioned, adolescent-free Chicago apartment, editing a conference paper on a recent Irish novel and recruiting instructors for the Honors College. I love my job at Purdue Northwest, and my midwest home, but there’s part of me that‘s still back in Pavlograd.

For each of the past two summers, I’ve spent three weeks volunteering as an English teacher at a school in Ukraine. In 2017, I saw a social media post about Go Camp, a Ukrainian NGO that aims to build new opportunities for English-language learning in Ukraine. I’m not Ukrainian and don’t have many connections to the country, but English: that’s my thing. I also love to travel, and while I’d never traveled while volunteering, giving back to the world in a positive way was feeling increasingly important to me during these dark times in American politics. So I applied to participate.

Volunteering in Ukraine has been an eye-opening, deeply rewarding, intensely fascinating experience. I learned a lot about English, for sure. As an English professor, I am acutely aware that the humanities are in decline in the US; English is not a growth discipline, here. But in Ukraine, everyone I met was so excited to practice their English. To them, English is the future. For young people, it opens doors — for their future professions, but also for travel, for cultural engagement, for communicating with people from all over the world. I know it seems like I’m exaggerating, but seriously: a random stranger stopped me in a city park, after hearing me talking with a friend in English, and wanted a selfie with the English speaker. On a flight from Warsaw to Kyiv, an older woman sitting next to me spent the entire flight delightedly rolling out her few English words, getting help from the students sitting in front (we’re all Instagram friends now). This humble associate professor was the feature of a newspaper article, and I was interviewed on the local news.

My students presenting their children’s books in English, June 2018.

Certainly, I learned a lot about Ukraine. I was assigned to a small industrial city in eastern Ukraine — the western part of the Donbass. Pavlograd is not a town I would have traveled to on my own, for sure — I would have stuck to Kyiv, Lviv, maybe Odessa. I’m grateful to have had the experience of living in Pavlograd, which is just a normal place where people try to get by and lead meaningful lives. It’s not wealthy; they don’t get a lot of tourists.

Luda’s varenyky, June 2018.

I stayed with a wonderful family — Luda, a nurse-anesthetist, and her daughter Liza, a high-school student and aspiring pianist. With the help of Google Translate and Liza’s ever-growing English language skills, I learned about their family, how to fold a varenyky, the sheer variety of ways one can conserve summer vegetables for the winter, the political economy of life in Ukraine, what words you definitely know in English if you’re a One Direction fan, the complex politics of whether one chooses to speak in Ukrainian or Russian at any given moment…and so much more. I learned about what it’s like to be a regular Ukrainian person in 2018 — about how they lead their lives, what’s important to them, what they want for the future. I made friends who I’d have never met without this opportunity.

So, this all to say, you should go to Ukraine. Especially if you’re an English student, you should volunteer for Go Camp. The experience will show you how much you, your knowledge, and your skills, can contribute to the world, even if the job market back home is less than welcoming. Go, because you’ll learn about the world, and our country’s place in it. Go, because you’ll make friends who will make you feel connected to that bigger world and who will help you to see all the opportunities available to you.

The other volunteers are also half the fun. Go Camp starts with a few days of training, where all the volunteers gather together and learn about project-based pedagogy and active learning. (Go Camp develops their curriculum with the help of the US Embassy, and it’s exceptional.) There, you’ll meet and work closely with really cool people of all ages, from all over the world. I met some Peace Corps volunteers just back from building IT infrastructure in Albania. I met a young Afghani man who just finished his master’s degree at the UN’s University for Peace in Costa Rica; he’s now working on building civil society in his hometown. I met Ukrainians from the diaspora — Canada, Dubai, Chicago — who were acting on a deep commitment to helping future generations of Ukrainians. And I spent 5 hours on the train with a delightful 18-year old Nepali entrepreneur who just might change the world. Following all of these remarkable individuals on social media after Go Camp really does keep me going on dark days — these are interesting people who are out to do good.

Yours truly with the US ambassador to Ukraine and other American volunteers, June 2018.

Then there are the political luminaries involved in Go Camp. You might meet Mustafa Nayyem, one of the founders of Go Camp. He’s a Ukrainian member of parliament and journalist who was one of the leaders of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which sought to fight corruption and restore democracy. You might even meet an ambassador. I’ve met India’s ambassador to Ukraine twice, and this year Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, also came to the grand opening ceremony at our training and took the time to talk with the American volunteers about why they choose to serve here, with this project.

Go look at the Go Camp website for all the details, but I’ll just make this note here: Go Camp makes participating in this project simple and easy. Americans don’t need a visa. They’ll put you up with a host family, buy you a train ticket to your town, and even help you get your luggage on the train. They’ll give you a sim card so you’ll have data, and can Skype your family back home. Your host family will make you welcome, and they’ll overwhelm you with Ukrainian hospitality and delicious food. You don’t need much money, beyond buying your plane ticket.

If you’re a PNW student, and this sounds exciting — contact me and let’s talk about how you can earn course credit for participating.

I hope to see you in Ukraine next June!

St. Volodymyr, overlooking the Dnieper River in Kyiv, June 2018.