How you can help Ukraine get rid of its Soviet leftovers

Agathe Bonin, a GoCamp volunteer from France with her students in Kyiv. Photo credit: Natalia Kravchuk

by Yuliia Mishyna, GoGlobal Public Relations Manager

I started learning English when I was five, when my mother brought home a book for us to learn new words from together.

"Darling,” she said, “can you imagine that children somewhere far away call everything by a completely different name? Let's try to name everything around us as they do. If you speak English, you can easily make new friends in any part of the world."

My mother has a very typical Soviet background. She doesn’t speak English, but twenty years ago, even without that knowledge, she managed to make learning the language an interesting experience for me. In a typical Ukrainian public school, English is one of the most boring subjects: you need to learn texts by heart and recite them without any real understanding of what you are saying. English seems too difficult, and so you come to terms with the fact that you will never understand it.

Once there was a special guest at my school. A graduate had decided to visit her former teachers and show her husband, an American, the place where she had studied. He came to our classroom, and we were encouraged to speak with him—but we couldn't. The words just wouldn’t come; they were stuck in our throats. We remained silent, and so this woman had to translate for us. This is a typical situation in Ukraine, where kids have the knowledge to speak English, but ultimately cannot use it. They are afraid to make mistakes, otherwise how can they get good marks?

Luckily for me, everything changed at my university. During study trips and student exchanges, I couldn’t help but speak. The first language barrier was overcome in speaking with foreigners, and the second with native-speakers. My English is much better now, but sometimes I still feel uncomfortable when speaking to others.

For me, a young graduate, the knowledge of English is an asset and .... a must, if I want to have a good job. For my relatives this skill is outstanding—they never managed to learn the language in a Soviet school. However, in Ukraine, my case is still the exception. I belong to a minority of people that speak English fluently. The majority of people in Ukraine, unfortunately, do not.

"Darling, you should use your English in a more rewarding way," said my mother last year. For half a year I've worked as a freelance translator, in addition to my main job. My mother worried it was in vain.

Twenty years earlier, we had started learning English together, but today my mother knows only a couple of phrases and some of the words she had learned with me. She tells me that she has neither the time nor the desire to learn English; I cannot seem to persuade her, either. She belongs to the generation of post-Soviet people convinced that fluency in English is something they could never achieve. Instead, they’ve done everything to help their kids learn English.

Soon after this conversation with my mother I joined a project where I could not only use my English, but also take part in truly rewarding work. In Spring 2016, the newly-founded GoCamp sent out a call to schools and foreign volunteers. The idea is very simple: invite a foreigner to work in a Ukrainian school for three weeks during the summer. The conditions for such a project already existed, because one year earlier, the Ministry of Education and Science had made it compulsory for schools to conduct summer language camps. Not every educational institution has enough resources for this, however, so in June 2016 schools all over Ukraine took part in the first GoCamp.

Volunteers who participate in GoCamp come to Ukraine, receive introductory training, and then go to their camp location. There, they work alongside the teachers, and all they have to do is...speak to children in English.

The educational part of the project is the responsibility of the school’s teacher, while the volunteer is responsible for communicating with the students. He or she is a mentor, a friend, and an example to follow. The volunteer is a mind-changer, a person who inspires. I wish I could have had such a mentor when I was a young student.

Can children learn a language in just three weeks? No, of course not. But it’s enough to break down barriers—both linguistic and cultural. It’s enough to make friends, create ties and inspire confidence in kids’ minds and souls. This has inspired real changes in foreign language learning in Ukraine.

For the second summer in a row, a team of almost twenty people organized the biggest volunteering project in Ukraine and all of Eastern Europe. GoCamp volunteers were carefully selected by the volunteer coordination and support team, who do their best to make volunteers feel at home. These two sessions of GoCamp involved almost 500 volunteers with completely different backgrounds from all over the world. Their stories are unique, and their talents are used even when they don’t expect it.

In most cases, it is an easy task to make volunteers feel at home. Ukrainian hospitality is well-known in Post-Soviet countries. Volunteers live with host families, who provide them with accommodation, meals and logistics while in Ukraine. Perfect conditions for discovering the biggest country in Europe. Some volunteers are convinced they have gained weight towards the end of the project. All that our team can do is prepare them and teach them how to say "Thanks, but I am not hungry anymore!" in Ukrainian.

The biggest impact can be made by the volunteers who go to villages and small cities, because they change the life of the whole community. At the camp, kids are working on projects that have a direct influence on their communities or schools. The volunteer’s arrival also means changes in community organization, as people want to make their location better for their foreign guest. These changes in the city last beyond the project itself.

GoCamp is pure inspiration. Volunteers inspire kids, teachers, and communities, and they all inspire us. Such a mutual benefit in action.

"Darling, I have seen you and your colleagues on TV. The journalist told viewers all about GoCamp and the volunteers. Do you really speak with foreigners in English so easily? Unbelievable!" My mother calls me fascinated by the media boom that GoCamp has caused in Ukraine. She tells me that the school where her friend’s daughter is studying is involved with the project as well. Her friend’s family is going to become a host family for a volunteer next year, and now everyone, from the grandparents to the youngest kids in the family are learning basic English words and phrases. "Otherwise, how would they communicate?" she wonders astonishingly. Most importantly, my mother has now decided to improve her English, as well. Twenty years after we started learning English together, the inspiration is with her again, and I couldn’t be happier.

The slogan of GoCamp says: if you want to change the world, inspire a kid. It is very easy to open this entire big world to the little individual. For me, the inspiration was my mother, and for kids in Ukraine, it can be you.

If you want to make an impact by volunteering in Ukraine, apply here: gocamps.com.ua. Visit gocamps.com.ua to find out more about GoCamp, the biggest volunteering project in Eastern Europe.

Yuliia Mishyna