Thomas Panther '18 returns from Ukraine Peace Corps
Written by: Thomas Panther
BS Political Science '18
On March 15th, for the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps decided to evacuate every post across the globe. At the time the decision was made, I had been serving as an English education volunteer in Ukraine since August 2018. In a country that is currently experiencing a war in the far east (albeit a static and isolated one), I was surprised that a pandemic was the reason we were ultimately pulled out. Although the decision was understandable, leaving the country without having the time to say goodbye to my host community or finish my projects was a deep disappointment.
Many people have an unflattering image of Peace Corps volunteers with a savior complex going to less developed countries to spread American culture. While one of the three goals of Peace Corps is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, an equally important goal is to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. With the growing attitude of “America first” in the United States, this goal is now more important than ever, especially in the case of Ukraine. Most of the coverage of Ukraine earlier this year during the impeachment proceedings followed how corrupt the country is (ironic since the investigation was on American political corruption). Given this narrative, it is worthwhile for Americans to learn more about Ukraine and the work Peace Corps does there.
Ukraine is an ethnically diverse country with a rich history. For over a thousand years the region was fought over and controlled by multiple powers including the Tatars, Poland, Austria, and Russia/USSR. One of these groups, made up of free warriors called the Cossacks, has become a national symbol of the country. Much like the American cowboy, they embody independence, grit, and bravery. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has had lively and contested elections. In that short time, the country also has experienced two political revolutions in 2004 and 2013, resulting in greater alignment with western Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, after the most recent revolution, Ukraine has been fighting a war in the eastern regions that has killed over 13,000 people. This conflict reflects the long and complicated history of the region.
Peace Corps has been active in Ukraine since 1992, sending over 3,400 volunteers to the country for projects ranging from youth and community development to education and environmental stewardship. I was assigned to a school in the small southern town of Vylkove, the last settlement on the Danube before it flows into the Black Sea. The town was founded by a group of religious dissenters called Old Believers and is nicknamed “the Venice of Ukraine” because of the canals that they dug throughout the area. I had the pleasure to collaborate with a group of bright Ukrainian English teachers and students. They taught me the power of community and the importance of multiple perspectives in our lives. Regardless of the way I left the country, I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve with Peace Corps in one of the most dynamic and interesting countries in the world.