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Without Peace Corps Response, I Wouldn’t Be Here

Margaret Ellis

Peace Corps Response Ukraine 2013

I live in a beautiful Ukrainian city full of onion domes and grape vines in Western Ukraine, where ladies in babushka scarves stand on the sidewalks and sell milk from their cows and dill from their gardens. Living and working here has been my dream for years, but I never imagined that Peace Corps would be the key to realizing that dream.

It is not that I hadn’t heard of the Peace Corps before. I have friends and acquaintances who are returned Volunteers. In fact, my husband, Shan Weatherbee, served in Kazakhstan and loved the experience. As someone who has traveled to former Soviet countries, speaks Russian, and has a master’s in TESOL, many people assumed the Peace Corps would also be a perfect fit for me. However, I knew that the application process could last months and there was no guarantee I would end up in a Russian-speaking country. In addition, as a married person, I didn’t want to be separated from my husband for two full years.

Luckily, my husband has always remained active in Peace Corps and has done more than his share of spreading the word about his experience in Kazakhstan, and fulfilling the third goal of the organization. He was president of the Indiana University Returned Peace Corps Organization and there learned that Peace Corps Response is now accepting applicants without prior Peace Corps experience. After suggesting I check their website a few times, he finally looked himself. He found a position for a candidate with a master’s degree, basic knowledge of Russian, and some experience traveling in former Soviet countries. The ideal candidate sounded a lot like me. The Peace Corps Response position offered an opportunity to serve for several months in Ukraine in one of several major cities. I knew Peace Corps Response would offer me high quality health care, life insurance, living arrangements, and a network of support that would solve any problems I might encounter. Suddenly, I realized that the Peace Corps was by far the safest, most secure option available to me. I filled out my application that Saturday afternoon.

Things happened breathtakingly fast. A Peace Corps recruiter contacted me on Monday and I was interviewed and approved within two weeks. I left for Ukraine about two months after I first saw the job description. I am currently working at an institute that provides continuing education to Ukrainian school teachers. I also teach English to staff and make many guest appearances at colleges, universities, and schools in the area.

Many other Volunteers ask me if taking on a Peace Corps Response position without any previous Peace Corps experience might be too much. People ask if I really knew what I was getting into. Personally, I feel I understood what my life would be like as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Also, I had previously studied Russian, I was able to get directions and chitchat with locals right away. Knowing some Russian also made it much easier to learn Ukrainian, which is spoken by many people in my city and by nearly everyone in the towns and villages in western Ukraine. I had visited Ukraine before my Peace Corps service, so I knew what to expect, such as how crowded the buses get and that I would most likely have to ask the shopkeeper for all my groceries item by item, since the stock is kept behind a counter. Local food was also familiar; in fact, I had been making my own borscht at home for years. I have many friends and acquaintances from Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, so most of the holidays and cultural quirks were also not surprising to me.

Most importantly, I chose Ukraine. When local people ask me why I am here, I am easily able to explain. I love Ukraine, and I am so excited to have an opportunity to live here.

I have been living in Ukraine for seven months now, and I am looking forward to going home to my husband in Portland, Oregon, but I am also sad to leave. In just a few months, I have made friends in Chernivtsi. Chernivtsi isn’t a village but a city of 300,000 people. Still, I am stopped and greeted almost every day by people who know me. I will miss the excitement my students have for learning English and the amazing challenge it is to convince a room full of teachers that they can learn from someone like me, a person with far less experience than most of them have.

I hope Peace Corps Response grows and expands. While a full two-year stint in the Peace Corps is not likely an option for me, as I have roots in America, students loans to pay, and a career to pursue, I think it is entirely possible that I could accept another assignment with Peace Corps Response in the future.

Last updated May 03 2016

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