Mechanicville native Kyle Adams has been serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine since 2009. Here, he talks about the work of a volunteer, life in a foreign country, and the decision that brought him from a small town in New York to a small town halfway around the world.
by Kyle Adams
There are times when I stop and realize where I am. They’re usually ordinary moments– ordinary, at least, for the life I live now. Like when I’m in the middle of rehearsing a waltz for graduation at a Ukrainian secondary school. I’ve been rehearsing all school year. I know the teachers and students that surround me. We speak easily in Russian. It’s all very ordinary. But suddenly the surrealism of the situation hits me and I feel like an alien in a dream. I’m in Ukraine, learning to waltz, to dance at a graduation that I have no reason to be involved in. My hometown and family are 5500 miles away.
It’s times like that that almost unanswerable questions pop into my head, like, What am I doing here? How did this happen?
I live in Ukraine. I’ve been living here for two and a half years, and I lived in some other countries before that. In fact, I haven’t celebrated a Fourth of July in the United States since 2006. People sometimes approach me with a question like, “Man, you must really hate America, huh?”
No. I love America.
That’s why I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. I was lucky enough to be born in a country where I could grow up happily, free of war, famine, poverty or oppression, where I could express myself and explore different values and ideas freely, where I could go to college and get a world-class education. I was lucky just to be born speaking English.
I was lucky. Most Americans are. So I felt a responsibility to share my luck– to take the opportunities that my country gave me and try to spread them out a little bit. That’s what I do here.
Since 2009, I’ve been teaching English in Bilovodsk, a small town in eastern Ukraine. A lot of people have a certain mental image of the Peace Corps: a volunteer in sandals and khaki cargo adventure shorts sharing a coconut with locals in Africa in the 1970s. I don’t know how they do things in Africa now, but that’s not what I do in Ukraine.
I wear a tie to work every day. I shine my shoes. I have a nice apartment, with electricity, hot water, 600 channels of satellite television, and an internet connection. I teach in a classroom with computers and a projector– I helped buy them with grant money, but other rooms in my school are similarly equipped. My biggest problem in teaching is not a dirt floor, lack of materials, or goats wandering in; it’s kids surfing the internet with their cell phones.
Peace Corps works in 68 countries in dozens of areas of development, from health and sanitation to youth development and, of course, teaching English. Every volunteer is assigned a primary project area. Mine is Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Within each project area, we have certain requirements. For instance, I’m required to teach at least 18 hours a week. That’s not much. It comes out to three or four classes a day.
But there’s a reason for that. In addition to our primary projects, we’re encouraged, though not required, to engage in secondary projects. These vary depending upon the needs of the community and the skills and experience of the volunteer. As a journalist by education, I chose to start a school newspaper and teach journalism, and my school was eager to cooperate. This secondary project has turned into my proudest accomplishment. Note that I didn’t say “…of my service.” This is the best thing that I’ve done in my life.
People– both here and in the US– often ask me why I chose to do this. That’s a hard question to answer. For newly-capitalist Ukrainians, working for free is mind-boggling. For Americans, the idea of Peace Corps is tied up with the image of college grads delaying the real world for two years, and there’s some truth to that. Every volunteer has different reasons for joining, and none of them are simple.
Another volunteer once said something like, “If you join the Peace Corps looking to challenge yourself, you’re likely to fail. If you come here to serve, all the challenges are just speed bumps.”
I was supposed to go to Turkmenistan. I went to Philadelphia for pre-departure staging, where they told us that Turkmenistan changed its mind, and we could all go home. Here you had some fifty people who had just put their lives on hold to live in another country for two years– some quit their jobs, sold their cars and houses– and poof! Gone. Go home.
It was shocking. At the time, my reason for joining Peace Corps was probably leaning toward the personal challenge side. But as I sat there on the plane home, one thought bothered me more than any other: Now what? I just get a job and start a career?
It felt so… selfish. I realized that I was prepared to serve, and I needed to serve. I didn’t want to start paying myself before I’d spent some time paying the world back for what I’d been given. At the time, I would’ve considered a thought like that– not to mention a statement like that– corny beyond belief. But here I am two years and seven months later, and my simple answer to the “Why did you do it?” question is: I wanted to do something good.
I teach in a school of about 350, in a town of about 5000. It’s located in Russia-centric far-eastern Ukraine, about 40 minutes from the Russian border. Lots of people here still call their money “rubles” instead of “ghrivna,” which is what it’s been called since Ukrainian independence in 1991. It’s common to hear older people reminisce about “when we had Lenin” and things were simple and life was good. The store where I buy toothpaste is owned and operated by Vladomir, the editor of the local Communist newspaper, who loves to talk about history.
In regular English classes, I teach grades six through 11. Every volunteer is assigned a counterpart: a Ukrainian who is willing to work with the volunteer closely, helping to solve all the problems that come with living in a foreign country, like finding a place to live, finding a plumber, and translating when necessary. My counterpart and I teach most classes together, and we’ve become good friends.
Classes can be rewarding, but I prefer my extracurricular activities. I host an English club once a week, where I teach whatever I want– music, film, politics, cryptids. I have a great group of students who come regularly, eager to speak English and explore the issues of the day. Each June, my counterpart and I organize a two-week English camp, where we do similar activities, as well as field trips to local destinations.
After the first camp– Camp Awesome, as I named it in a moment of brilliance– some students wanted to continue practicing English. So I started privately tutoring a handful of kids once a week. After two years, I can have a conversation with them without English being much of a hindrance. It’s not about learning the language so much now as it is about opening their minds to the big, amazing world that we live in. I try to show them what their options and opportunities are, explore what kinds of things they might want to study further and what role they want to play in the world. I try to show them– especially the girls– their potential to do something beyond the boundaries of traditional gender roles and lifestyles, beyond the boundaries of Bilovodsk or even Ukraine.
Then, of course, there’s Journalism Club and our school newspaper, Globus. In my first spring here, my school approached me about writing a grant to get some computers, furniture, and other equipment in our English classroom. Because of the way the grant works– it was a Small Projects Assistance grant from the United States Agency for International Development (or, a SPA grant from USAID)– the equipment had to be tied to a project that “increases civic capacity” or some jargon like that.
So I suggested that I could start a school newspaper, which would require computers and everything else that the school wanted. We wrote the grant, got the money, bought the equipment, and in the fall we opened our new media center with the first meeting of Journalism Club. We founded Globus, chose editors, and got cranking on our first issue, which featured an interview with the school director. In the process of teaching journalism, I ended up writing a handbook for other volunteers to do the same.
Though I teach in English, I encourage the students in Journalism Club to speak and work in Russian. I don’t want language to be a barrier there. I accompany all my lessons with Russian Powerpoints, and I have stronger students translate if I think it’s necessary. We publish 12 pages, about twice a semester. It’s all Russian, except for the “English Page” in the back, where the students showcase their work from English Club. We pay for printing with revenue from sales and a little advertising.
I’m proud– almost teary-eyed proud– to say that Globus took first place in a competition for school newspapers in which 200 schools in the Lugansk region participated this April.
There have been challenges. Freedom of speech and an ethical press are new concepts here, and not easy ones to push through. Peace Corps always stresses that volunteers must be flexible. They love the word “flexible.” Most volunteers take this to mean that when a schedule changes at the last minute, you shouldn’t freak out. That’s part of it, but honestly, that’s easy. It takes maybe a few months to get used to the lack of American-style planning and organization, depending on your personality.
What I‘ve found difficult is being flexible on my values. I always considered free speech to be inflexible. To paraphrase Jefferson, you have it or you don’t; there’s no middle ground. That stance doesn’t work here. Very early on, I faced this decision: stick to my guns and bring the whole project to a halt, or back down and live to teach another day. I chose, with clenched fists and flared nostrils, the latter. It was more important to continue teaching than to have a perfectly free and independent school newspaper.
And that’s another Peace Corps warning that many volunteers forget: we’re part of a process. We’re making small, small changes. Everyone wants to see their progress written large on the face of their community. They want a monument in the center of the town casting its shadow on Lenin.
It doesn’t work that way.
Coming into Peace Corps, I thought I had cross-cultural work down. I had a degree in anthropology, I was naturally easy-going and always tried to see both sides of a situation. I made a habit of putting myself in other’s shoes. I was reasonable, and I could make reasonable compromises. What I didn’t know was that cross-cultural work demands that you often make unreasonable compromises based on logic that is not your own, and maybe not even logic, but tradition, custom, or emotion.
We’re often told that compromise is when you meet someone halfway. Go 50/50. Here’s the truth: When you’re one person working in a stubborn, old culture, you give 90 percent on every deal. And it’s your job to look at the ten percent that you held on to and smile. That ten percent is your legacy.
My ten percent is when a 14-year-old student rants against a teacher in defense of free speech. When a senior tells me she’s going to study journalism in college. When I hear the younger editors planning for next year. Whenever a girl says she wants to be a surgeon or lawyer, not just a wife. When a student answers the question, “Who’s your role model?” with, “You are.”
That’s all the monument I could ask for.
Kyle Adams is an editor at The Mechanicville Mile.