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Voices from the Ukrainian Front: A University Perspective

By Dr. Jaclyn Maria Fowler
Department Chair, English and Literature

After four years teaching in the Middle East, I returned to the U.S. and a world that I no longer fit in. I was experiencing reverse culture shock, and I was slow to recognize it. After all, I was home.

I needed to understand what I was feeling – and fast. So I did what writers do; I processed the upheaval in my life by writing about it. In the words that spilled onto the page, I was able to find my way back. Words are powerful.

And when I was finished, I sent the manuscript to a trusted friend, an American who was teaching at a university in Ukraine.

“Take a look,” I told him. “Be honest.”

A few weeks later, he asked if he could use my memoir in his literature class. I agreed and over the next few weeks, I received texts, emails, journals, and essays from his students at Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU).

Teaching Creative Writing to Ukrainian Students

I was fascinated to see my life through the eyes of UCU students. It wasn’t long before I was meeting with them over Zoom to answer questions about my experiences in the Middle East and to talk about writing in general.

It was then that I met Professor Halyna Kurochka, the Head of the Center for Modern Foreign Languages. She asked if I would consider volunteering to teach creative writing to the students at the university. Although I said I would consider her offer, my polite hedge somehow translated as “yes,” and my creative writing course appeared on the next semester’s course catalog.

“What do you mean, my class is full?” I asked my friend at UCU.

“You said you’d teach creative writing,” he explained.

“I said I’d think about it.”

“Well, class starts next week,” he said.

And so a week later, I met with the students at UCU. As I began my first class, I had a weird circle-of-life moment.

Years earlier, I had taken a Soviet history course during my sophomore year in college. Ukraine was then a part of the Soviet Union and the course focused on the Ukrainian resistance to Nazism, including studying the tragedy of Babi Yar.

For a kid from a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania who had never traveled farther than New Jersey or Maryland, this atrocity stuck with me. The class awakened me to the world around me, introduced me to language and culture, and ultimately led to my major: Government and Russian.

After the class, I enrolled in Russian language, Soviet politics and Russian history courses. I traveled to the old Soviet Union in 1987 to study in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). From there, I visited Soviet Georgia, Volgograd (Stalingrad), Ukraine and the Baltic states.

I ran with Soviet sailors on the Neva River and swam in the Black Sea. When I emerged from the water, I was taken to the hospital with radiation burns. “A fallout from the Chernobyl accident,” the doctors told me.

I saw brave citizens topple statues in front of the KGB, lived through disinformation aimed at American expatriates, bumped into former president Jimmy Carter and his staff at breakfast one morning, and talked to a taxi driver who foresaw the end of the Soviet Union. I learned to speak Russian, and a year later, I returned as a translator.

A few years after that, I cheered when Ukraine secured its independence. Now, here I was, teaching students at a university in Lviv, Ukraine.

Absorption into the Ukrainian Catholic University Community

As the students from UCU entered my creative writing course that first day, I was excited to see their names pop up in Cyrillic on Zoom. Of course, they would – they were Ukrainian!

As each student entered our Zoom room, I spent a few minutes sounding out the name. “Welcome, Pyotr (петр),” I said. “Hello, Natalya (наталья).”

Since Ukrainian and Russian are mutually intelligible languages, I decided to be brave and try out a little Russian on my new students. Some of the students teased me with jeers; others from the east and northeast of Ukraine clapped and responded in Russian. I was speaking their first language! All of them, however, united in laughing at my really bad American-tinged Russian accent, an accent stuck in the Russian I had learned 30 years earlier.

For the next few semesters, I met more students, read their words and listened to their ideas. When they tried to apologize for their grammar, accent, or word choice, I reminded them they were speaking, learning, and writing in a second (and for some, third) language.

As I became more entrenched in the university, I was invited to participate in faculty meetings which occurred in the early, predawn hours for me. When Professor Kurochka invited me to host professional development meetings for faculty and staff in the foreign languages department, I just said “Yes!” rather than think about it.

In the fall of 2021, Professor Kurochka approached me with another proposal. She suggested I teach faculty members and professionals from around Lviv. “Teach them how to teach,” she said.

So I taught academic writing for the first half of each class period. Then, at the end of the class, we analyzed my teaching style — a Western style of teaching — so that the educators and professionals in my course would be able to adapt it for their own practice. Together, we shared our lives with each other, and we showed our vulnerabilities to become better teachers.

A Former UCU Student Reaches Out to Share Current Life in Ukraine

UCU students helping refugees at the train station. Image courtesy of author.

A few nights ago, one of my former Ukrainian Catholic University students, Anastasiia S., reached out to me. In the few months since we had last seen other, Ukraine had become a very different place. It was at war. The intellectual pursuit of the fall seemed very far away. She began her email with:

“Dear Jaclyn, I studied at your Academic Writing course that semester at UCU. I want to tell you to thank you! It changed a lot in my way of writing and teaching. Now it is a difficult time for Ukraine. I think that you pray and think about us all. We need it a lot!”

The most important part of her email, however, came in the next few lines. She wrote:

“Maybe, it will be interesting for you how our life dramatically changed. I wrote every evening smth [something] about our life here in Lviv. It helps to focus. If you would not mind, I will send you. Also, it helps to feel connected to the world, and don’t lose faith in our victory!” 

Anastasiia was trusting me with her journals of the war. While her words are the words of one person, she does speak, in essence, for all Ukrainians. Through her words, we hear the cries of a country under siege.

Over the next few weeks and months, I will use Anastasiia’s words and those of her Ukrainian compatriots to put a human face to the tragedy we see taking place each night on the nightly news. Through Anastasiia’s words, we can connect with the humanity at the center of the war in Ukraine. Words are powerful.

It is not enough, of course. When I replied to the honor Anastasiia offered me, I wrote:

“My heart breaks for you and your family. I feel so far away, too far to be of any real help to you. I want to bring you hot meals as friends do in bad times. I want to hold you in your fear and help you care for the children. I want to be brave. I want to be useful to you and your beautiful countrymen and women. All I have is my words. And now your words.”

Jaclyn Maria Fowler is an adventurer, a lover of culture and language, a traveler, and a writer. To pay for her obsessions, she works as Chair of the English Department and is a full professor at the University. Dr. Fowler earned a Doctorate in Education from Penn State and an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She is the author of the novel "It is Myself that I Remake" and of the creative nonfiction book "No One Radiates Love Alone."

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