What began as a small effort to connect Ukrainian and American children has now grown beyond expectations for Dr. Vasyl Taras, professor at UNC Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics. With hundreds of students now involved, the professor and his business partners have expanded the project to an essay contest as the war rages on in Ukraine.
When the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, Taras – who was born in Ukraine – began to hear from friends in the country about schools being closed and children spending hours a day in bomb shelters, cut off from regular life. His friends asked if he could connect their children with someone who would help them practice English.
“I thought it would be two kids of my Ukrainian friends and maybe two kids from the United States and they would say ‘thank you so much’ and I’d be happy,” says Taras.
A FULL-TIME JOB
Using connections through his X-Culture project – an organization that brings together students from 72 countries to collaborate on international business projects – Taras began a pen pal program that has grown to 800 students.
“When we reached 500 people, I was overwhelmed,” says Taras, “At some point, it became like a full-time job.”
After several months of managing the program himself, Taras reached out to Linguado – a company he worked with through X-Culture. Lingado is a mobile app that connects people with native speakers, and the company was able to help handle the logistics of matching students.
But the work wasn’t finished for Taras; a few weeks after transferring the program to Linguado, he began to receive phone calls from teachers asking if the program was still active. So Taras connected U.S. schools with schools in Ukraine – starting with Odessa, Texas, and Odessa, Ukraine, then expanding to Washington, D.C., and Kyiv, Ukraine, as well.
“Teachers are more involved now, and so it’s becoming a community,” says Taras, who currently works with 48 English teachers across Ukraine.
STORIES FROM UKRAINE
Now, in addition to the pen pal program, Taras and his X-Culture business partner Chris Mead launched a contest that gave Ukrainian children an avenue to tell their stories. They received 180 entries answering the question: “What the past year has meant to me?”
“Some of them are sort of nice and cute, but some are graphic,” Taras says. “It’s a very traumatic experience.”
Winners were sorted into categories: illustrations, essays, photo/video, and poetry. Ten-year-old Arsen Kopy won in the 10-13 illustration category. Kopy, who lives in Okhtyka, drew a woman living in an underground shelter while Russian jets flew above, dropping bombs.
Sixteen-year-old Kateryna Dikhtiarenko from a suburb of Kyiv showed her support for the retaking of Crimea in an original illustration which won in the 14-17-year-old age category. The illustration shows an angry Ukrainian bird charging toward frightened Russian birds above a castle with a giant Ukrainian banner waving from it.
The contest received dozens of essays as well – providing a glimpse into their lives in the war-torn country.
“I didn’t have a birthday, Christmas tree or Christmas this year,” one 11-year-old writes. “I asked my parents to give these funds to our soldiers. I will never forget this pain and never forgive this war. I hate those who decided that it is possible to kill thousands of people with impunity. Those who ruined my childhood.”
The winner of the 14-17-year-old poem category, 14-year-old Veronika Priakina wrote: “Darkness is now my true friend, And I don’t see in it when war will end.”
A gallery of the submissions can be viewed here.
Although the pen-pal program has grown exponentially and expanded to the contest, Taras is not done yet. He hopes to publish the contest submissions in a book and potentially do a second round to see how American students perceive the war.
“I want to hear stories from the U.S. to see how kids in other countries see the war. As an international business professor, I’m curious about perceptions of different events and different countries,” Taras says. “Since Ukraine depends so much on international help, public perceptions of the events can shape political policies.”
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Martin Kane, University Communications
Additional photography and visuals courtesy of X-Culture
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