Our New Home

We have arrived. After beginning our Peace Corps journey 11 months ago with the application and arriving in Ukraine 3 months ago for training, we have finally made it to our home for the next 2 years and are now Peace Corp Volunteers.

What this means is that we now begin working with our respective organizations to share our knowledge, skills, and abilities and work to help build up the community we live in. Jessica will work with the teachers and students at one of the local schools, teaching 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, while Chris will work with the city council and the Mayor’s office.

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Here is a little bit about our new site. We are in the Ternopil oblast (different from Chernobil, no worries), which is in western Ukraine and is in the Trans-Carpathian area. What that means is that it’s less flat than our Illinois home. In fact, we live in the valley of the Dniester River Canyon with the river surrounding our town on three sides like a peninsula. It makes for a great view both in the town and from above on the canyon ridge.

One of the great benefits to living in the valley of a canyon is something called a micro-climate. Basically, it’s often about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer here than in the surrounding areas. This will be great for the long Ukrainian winters, but will make for some steamy summers.

The town is very scenic, and it also has an interesting history. Up until WWII, the town was actually Polish, in fact it was a border town between Poland and Austria-Hungary. The Dniester river was the boundary between the two countries (and today is the boundary between the Ternopil and Chernivtsi oblasts) with a bridge that spans the river.

There are some remnants of the Polish in our town, including an interesting stone building which was previously the passport checkpoint, and now is used as a municipal building, including the tourism office. While some of that Polish infrastructure still stands, much of it was destroyed during WWII and by the USSR. It used to be a resort town with thriving tourism on the beaches, hotels, and cafes. While much of that infrastructure is gone, the potential still remains.

 

Zhytomyr, Ukraine – Our Pre-Service Training Site

We have one week left in Zhytomyr before we will move to our permanent site in Western Ukraine. But this has been home for the last 10 week during Pre-Service training and is where we’ve learned how to start navigating life in Ukraine.

The city center:

The main city park in Zhytomyr: Gargarin Park

Shopping in Zhytomyr:

Where we live:

 

We arrived in Zhytomyr on August 20th, and we will leave Zhytomyr and go to Kyiv on October 22nd. After spending 4 days at the Transition to Service conference and meeting our counterparts, we will finally swear-in as Peace Corps Volunteers on October 25th. That evening or the next day we will, accompanied by our counterparts, take a 13 hour train ride to our permanent site, where we will be living for the next 2 years.

Ukrainian Language Learning

Добрий день!

We are about 3/4 of the way through our pre-service training with Peace Corps. The weather is turning to fall, we have our site placement, and the Ukrainian language is really difficult. Ukraine has a mixture of languages, those being Ukrainian, Russian, and Surzhyk (a blending of the two languages). Russian is spoken primarily in the cities, and in the south and east of the country. The community in which we will be working speaks classical Ukrainian.

Language learning is the catalyst for so much of our success in Ukraine. This, however, is probably the most difficult part of our training. We have about 4 hours per day of language classes with our cluster, then we are able to practice with our host families and in public. Nevertheless, learning is slow for both of us.

A few of our milestones with language are ordering food in a cafe/restaurant, shopping at the bazaar, being able to ask for directions (not that we can totally understand directions once they’re given, though), and being able to talk about where we live (both our cities and our homes).

Forming sentences

An activity for the creation of sentences using “to go” and prepositions.

As native English speakers, part of what makes Ukrainian difficult for us, in addition to the new alphabet (our names: кріс і джессіка старберд) and pronunciation patterns, is the concept of cases. The Ukrainian language has 7 cases, which means that words change, depending on how they are being used, into 7 variations of that 1 word.

For example: школа (school), can also be школі, школу, школи, depending on the sentence around it. This applies to pretty much all nouns, and adjectives, and adverbs, (and prepositions?) which also change depending on singular/plural and gender (masculine, feminine, neutral).

This is in addition to the other manners in which words change, for example, tenses of verbs or to move from singular nouns to plural.

Also, like English, even given this grammatical framework, there are even still exceptions with some words.

We are however comforted to know that we both will have some English speaking co-workers. This will go a long way in helping us to have a smooth transition into our respective jobs.

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Just a few questions in Ukrainian to answer in language class

Pre-Service Training

On October 25th we will be sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and will move to our site in Ukraine (location TBA). The period from now until then is known as Pre-Service Training (PST) and we are known as trainees, not volunteers. Trainees are divided into “clusters,” groups of 4-6. Chris’ group has 6, Jessica’s has 5, and trainees are divided by their sector. So Chris is only with Community Development trainees, and Jessica is only with TEFL trainees. We are spending most of our waking hours with these people; everything in PST is done with our clusters.

During PST we have 4-6 hours of language training a day. It is lengthy. It is learning how to learn, because there is just so much material. It is rigorous. In school, the amount of material we are covering would take about 6 month. We are doing it in 9-10 weeks. Leading these intensive language sessions are LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators), Ukrainians. Our LCF are both language instructors, and are responsible for helping us navigate this new country and the cultural norms here.

During language lessons, first, we receive a list of vocabulary, then work on practicing it through pronunciation repetition, games, and flashcards, then apply it through dialogues and role-plays, using a growing repertoire of grammatical principles. Because we are living with host families who speak Ukrainian, we have ample opportunity to hear and practice this language after class as well.

In addition to language learning, there is a technical portion of PST which is different for each of us because Chris is serving in the Community Development (CD) sector, and Jessica is serving in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

Chris: My technical training is a combination of workshop sessions with a Technical Facilitator (TCF), and practical application in working with two partner organizations in Zhytomyr. Workshop topics range from how to work with language interpreters to designing lesson plans for a English Club or a Workshop. We take a lot of what we learn in these workshops and apply it in the organizations that we are partnered with. Our cluster is assigned the Zhytomyr Oblast Department of Economic, Agricultural, and Industrial Development and a local NGO that does animal protection.

There are three steps that we perform with both organizations. The first is performing what is called an Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA). This is basically to find out what they have, what they do well, and what is an opportunity for improvement. With that OCA, we also put together an 6 month action plan for them to work from after we leave Zhytomyr at the end of October. The second step is English Club. We have offered this to every organization because it is both a great skill to share and a great to get acquainted with the community. The third step is to perform a workshop for both organizations. Typically, the topic of this workshop is something that is revealed through the OCA and is a good opportunity for the organization to grow.

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Chris’ Cluster at the bazaar (in front of fresh milk)

Jessica: My technical training is comprised of weekly workshops with my TCF and partnering with a local school to co-teach English classes. We have workshops on “Teaching Young Learners,” “Lesson Formatting,” etc. Then in the schools, with Ukrainian teacher counterparts, I am also observing 6 lessons, team-teaching 3 lessons, and independently teaching 3 lessons. My students during this period will range from 2nd-5th form (grade). Additionally, my cluster will facilitate 6 English Club sessions.

For both of us, there is also tutoring (technical and language) and Inter-Cultural Competency workshops led by our LCFs and TCFs. It is a whirlwind, and we’ve heard that the pace slows down some when we get to site and have more of a rhythm and consistent schedule.

First Impressions

We have been in Ukraine now for a couple weeks. Upon arrival in country we spent the first week in Irpin, learning the basics of Peace Corps service in Ukraine, then moved in to our homes for the next 2 months with our host families in Zhytomyr. While we are still in the adjustment period, there are a few things that have struck us in our limited time here.

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A walk in the park

  1. The Ukrainian people we have met are tremendously positive and proud of their country and their home cities. The people are working to move forward to make their country and cities even better. This is where Peace Corps comes in, to provide support in that process.
  2. There is a very high sense of hospitality in Ukraine. We are both spending time living with separate host families. When we come home from a long day of training, we are each offered an array of sweets, coffee, tea, or an entire meal.
  3. For TEFL project in Ukraine, it is stressed to us by Peace Corps staff that we are not present here solely to be native-speaking English teachers. Ukraine does not lack good, well-educated teachers, they are well trained in universities across the country. We are here to model student-centered approaches, differentiation, and the integration of confidence and critical thinking skills, as well as to help with the implementation of a massive reform, the New Ukrainian Schools, which began September 1.
  4. Meanwhile, the Community Development project methods in Ukraine have just been revamped and our group is the first to use this new format. There is a lot of emphasis on relationship building and communicating organizational/technical skills in a more simple manner (i.e. strip away the business jargon). Furthermore, in order to provide sustainable change, volunteers will work with their assigned organization to co-facilitate, co-train, co-create, etc. The idea is that Peace Corps is not here to dictate what should be done differently, rather working with Ukrainians to improve what they already have.
  5. Ukraine is going through a lot of changes right now. As a result of the revolution in 2014, there is an ongoing overhaul of federal, oblast, and municipal governments. The big idea is that the government is in the process of decentralizing many services and operations (something us Americans take for granted; can you imagine having to go to the federal government to get a drivers license?) The goal of this process to give more power to local governments.

For now, our days are spent learning Ukrainian for 4 hours, then another few hours of technical training and practicums. These are some long days, but we’re tough. More on that later…

Packing for Peace Corps Ukraine

According to Peace Crops guidelines, we get “two checked pieces of luggage with combined dimensions of both pieces not to exceed 107 inches (length + width + height)… with a maximum weight of 50 pounds per bag“. So, basically:

All packed

the first leg of what will be lots of travel

We’d been saying for weeks that we’d be fine, it was so much space! Those suitcases are massive! How can people struggle to fit everything they need! Other people must over-pack so much!

Then we actually started packing, and realized that, in fact, sweaters and shoes take up a massive amount of space. So do winter boots and coats. And actually we both needed at least 100 of those 107 allotted inches. Oops. It was supposed to be an hour or two of putting stuff in suitcases and turned into a 7 hour marathon of spreading all of our things across our room, doing laundry, folding clothes, manipulating packing cubes, and making decisions about what really mattered.

Jess' mess of a suitcase #1

stuff strewn across the room because this was harder than we thought it’d be

Personally, I kept getting frustrated with the packing cubes, because I felt like there were nooks and crannies that I could sneak another pair of socks or something into, which the packing cubes made me miss out on. But Chris was the brilliant voice of reason that the great utility of packing cubes isn’t the actual packing/space, but the keeping one organized upon reopening the suitcase. Now that we are living out of these suitcases, he was 100% correct. Get some packing cubes. Worth it.

Packing for Ukraine

killin’ it with the packing cubes

 

Peace Corps Ukraine Packing List

Jessica: So I am known for over-packing. It’s usually an issue. But I’m also a super Type-A compulsive researcher and Excel-lover, so 4 months before we were set to leave I spent a Saturday morning combing through the internet and every PC Ukraine blog that I could find and assembled a cross-referenced, fully detailed, color-coded, Excel packing list with the exact items I owned and which I needed to buy then updated it as time progressed. Necessary? No. Did it keep me from adding an extra dress or two? Also no. But it made me feel prepared, so worth it! (This was also the reason Chris did not write a packing list; I was going to obsess enough for both of us.)

I’ll update this list when we arrive, because most likely I over-packed and missed some things that I’ll be wishing I spent the precious space on, but this is what I’m taking: Jess’ Peace Corps Ukraine Packing List (PDF)

In addition to the items like those on that list, Chris also has a good kitchen knife, a honing rod, and a measuring cup with metric and standard markings.

TEFL Peace Corps Packing List

Barring the 2 coats, 2 pairs of boots, and blanket, all of that went into one 28-inch rolling suitcase. But, I’m a TEFL volunteer and a teacher by trade, so I really wanted to bring teaching supplies and have been on the lookout for months for good tools. This is what I brought, and it, plus the 2 coats, 2 pairs of boots, and a fleece blanket, fit in a 23-inch rolling suitcase:

TEFL Teaching Tools for PC Ukraine

teaching supplies for TEFL

1 binder with dividers (for pre-service training)
Realia (menus for teaching food and ordering etiquette and 1 gallon Zip-Loc bag full of laminated scenes from American magazines)
1 flat clipboard
Pens
Markers
Sharpies
Expo Markers (and 15 laminated white sheets of paper)
15 EIU pens to give as prizes
50 States early reader book
Motivational Stickers
150 “Hello My Name is …” stickers (for English clubs)
4 inflatable dice
10 regular dice
1 deck of alphabet flashcards with animals
1 deck of English shapes and colors cards
1 USA Map
1 inflatable globe
Binder & paper clips
1 stapler & staples & staple remover
1 small calendar from Obvious State
1 Hate Has No Home Here sticker
Post-its
Hole Punch
White Out
3 packs of index cards and a case for them (for pre-service training, not teaching)

The Dollar Store and the “dollar” section at Target were incredible for acquiring stuff on the cheap. But, most of this teaching stuff I expect to mostly stay packed away until we get to the placement site and I’m at the school in which I’ll be working.

And some of the things on this list definitely seem frivolous (small calendar, blanket, two paperbacks) but one of the things I kept reading on other PCV blogs was that almost no one regretted bringing some things that made them smile or made a host-family’s room seem more like a home.

 

What Do You Do Before Leaving for Two Years?

Step 1: Spend lots of time contemplating life in Ukraine and the massive undertaking that this all feels like.

Step 2: Quit your jobs.

Step 3: Get rid of most of your stuff. Pack everything else into totes and a couple suitcases.

Step 4: Spend time with family and friends.

(You don’t even really have to save any money for stuff like this!)

We did all of that and went through a whirl-wind packing/moving weekend. On Thursday, July 18 we spent the day packing our suitcases for service (more on that later). On Friday we packed the entire apartment with help from our wonderful sister-in-law. The next day Chris’ brother helped load/unload 14 totes, a desk, and a bed into a U-Haul to store at their parents’ (thanks!) and then we loaded it again with stuff to donate to a local charity.

Monday the 23rd – Thursday the 26th we got to spend time in St. Louis with Jason, Vanessa, their kids, and Kathryn (Chris’ brother and his family, and Chris’ mom). It was such a blast to get that time with them, exploring St. Louis.

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We’re spending time at Chris’ parents’ home until August 4th, then flying to Raleigh. We’ll spend a week with Jess’ family then Chris will fly to D.C. for staging on the 11th, and Jess will spend another week with them until flying to D.C. for staging as well.

As we do all of this, it is a whirlwind. Sometimes it’s difficult to be present where we are with the impending travel and adventure ahead of us, but it is nice to have a break from the researching, planning, packing, and then repacking. It is good practice for the next couple years, though!