Meet the HUSI Class of 2020

June 30, 2020
photo from zoom

The 2020 Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute is off to a great start! Like many things this year, the summer program is an unusual one, moving online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Harvard Summer School as a whole is conducting its courses online, requiring professors to adapt their courses to the virtual environment. Our extracurricular activities, such as public lectures, have also moved to the Internet; students join via Zoom and the session is live streamed to YouTube for the public to watch and ask questions.

Despite the challenges and the disappointment of not being together on campus, the social distancing situation has its benefits. We have a large class, with 30 students from around the world. Because our extracurricular events take place online, we’re able to invite the public as a whole and the HUSI alumni community in particular to share in the experience on YouTube. Time zones, naturally, are tricky since our students span from the middle of the USA to Ukraine (spanning nine time zones), but everyone has adapted wonderfully so far.

photo of HUSI class zoom session

We’re also thrilled to have a new Programs Coordinator this year to assist with HUSI programming. Megan Duncan Smith joined HURI in April and has already made a huge difference in making HUSI run smoothly, despite the many uncertainties and complications.

Our talented class of students this year is particularly diverse, spanning from advanced high school students to seasoned professionals and scholars. We have students joining us from their current locations in Luxembourg, Germany, Ukraine, Switzerland, Canada, and a range of states in the US. 11 students are taking Professor Volodymyr Dibrova’s language course, 15 are in Serhiy Bilenky’s course on 19th and 20th century history, and 10 are immersing themselves in the world of Ukrainian literature with Professor George Grabowicz, with 6 of these students taking both the history and the literature course.

We asked the class to share some information about themselves, their interests, and what they think of taking their studies online.

Kate Ovsianyk 

kateryna ovsianykKate Ovsianyk is joining us from Kyiv, Ukraine, and is taking HUSI’s course on Tradition and Modernity in Ukraine: 19th and 20th Centuries. She's a fresh graduate of the Institute of International Relations Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv where she majored in Governmental Communications with a focus on media as a tool of propaganda.

During her summer at HUSI, she expects to discuss the issues which Ukraine is facing through the lenses of history, political science, economics, sociology, and other related disciplines to better understand the mechanisms of mentality and public opinion. Specifically, she is interested in focusing on analyzing long-lasting consequences of war, extremism, and violence in society as she assumes that the current situation in East Ukraine is of the highest concern and requires immediate solutions.

Larysa Karachevtseva

Larysa KarachevtsevaDr. Larysa Karachevtseva is taking Prof. Grabowicz’s “Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Ukrainian Literature: Rethinking the Canon.” She is a research fellow at the H. S. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy of NAS of Ukraine (Department of Philosophy of Culture, Ethics, and Aesthetics) and teaches Jewish philosophy at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

“I plan to extend my academic “romance” with the world of ideas, revising my knowledge of Ukrainian literature,” she said. Why is literature so important for a philosopher? While working on the last chapter of her book Returning the Subject: Rethinking Subjectivity in the Post-Heideggerian Discourse, she discovered a significant dependence of ideology and politics on literary ideas. (As an example, she points to the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas about metaphysical justice and infinite responsibility as strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his famous novel Crime and Punishment). She expects her HUSI studies to help her explore the links between Ukrainian literature of the twentieth century and current ideological changes in Ukraine more deeply.

Maria Kovalchuk

Maria KovalchukMaria Kovalchuk, a Masters student at Ludwig-Maximillian University (Munich, Germany) is taking both HUSI subject matter courses: literature and history. Born and raised in Kyiv, she obtained her BA in Ukrainian Philology and her first MA in Comparative Literature at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. At Ludwig-Maximillian University, she is working on her second Masters in Eastern European Studies with a focus on interconnections between literature and politics. 

She looks forward to becoming familiar with the tradition of Ukrainian studies in Western humanities, including its prominent scholars, and to take a different perspective on Ukrainian history and literature. She believes this course of study will serve as excellent preparation for a PhD.

“I see the online format mostly as a challenge, because for me presence within the same space with educators plays a great role,” she said. “But what helps tremendously is will and motivation to overcome these difficulties, which comes from both students and professors. This energy helps even physically to be attentive and focused in front of the screen for 3 hours.”

Orest Mahlay

Orest MahlayComing from Cleveland, Ohio, Orest Mahlay is a rising Junior at Georgetown University studying Political Economy and Russian. His interests include Slavic languages, political trends of the former Soviet Union, and the sociopolitical affairs of Ukraine. As a Ukrainian-American, he strives to understand more about Ukraine's current crisis and possible solutions through an analysis of geopolitical realities past and present.

By taking the Tradition and Modernity course, he hopes to gain a greater understanding of the broader trends that influence Ukraine's current social, linguistic, and political trends. Furthermore, his goal is for this course to inspire his further research in this field. The HUSI program, although taking place during the COVID pandemic, has presented him an opportunity to meet other students passionate about Ukraine from around the world.

Alina Bykova

Alina BykovaAlina Bykova has a Master's degree in European and Russian Affairs from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Ryerson University.This fall, she will start her PhD in History at Stanford University. Her research focuses on Soviet environmental history, industrial development, and deindustrialization. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Alina moved to Canada at the age of five. For the last year, she has been living in New York City.

As a native Russian speaker from Ukraine, she hopes that the HUSI language course will help her become better versed in Ukrainian, bring her closer to her home country, and give her a deeper understanding of Ukrainian culture and history. Although the program has been slightly hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Alina is glad that the classes are still being offered online and have brought together many students and scholars with similar interests. She is looking forward to an exciting summer!

Nicholas Slabyj

Nicholas SlabyiNicholas Slabyj, a student in Prof. Dibrova's language course, is pursuing a Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Ukrainian religious iconography at the University of Maine. He traveled to Ukraine in the spring of 2018 to visit his family's home city of Chernivtsi and again the summer of 2019 to attend an icon writing course at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

"I am excited to learn as much Ukrainian language as possible to assist with researching my thesis in Ukrainian religious iconography," he said, noting that he is also excited about the Friday afternoon lecture series. "While online learning certainly has its challenges and prevents much of the social aspect of in-person interaction, it will also encourage much creativity to make the Institute a success, highlighting benefits otherwise unknown."

Kristina Sorochan 

Kristina SorochanKristina Sorochan is taking the Tradition and Modernity in Ukraine course with Prof. Bilenky. A rising junior at Shore Regional High School, she is one of our ambitious pre-college students. It is her first time studying at the Harvard Summer School, and she is studying Elementary Chinese along with the course on Ukraine. 

"My interest in HUSI mostly stems from my own personal background as a Ukrainian-American. I am most looking forward to learning more about the history of Ukraine and how it affected the world. The most fascinating topic to me in Ukrainian studies is the relationship between urbanization and Ukrainian culture such as how industrialization affected Ukrainian values," she said. "It is unfortunate that we cannot hold classes at Cambridge, since I have traveled there before and can say that it is indeed a beautiful city. However, the COVID-19 situation and studying online has its own pros, as we can now experiment with technology and it has opened our eyes to the vast educational resources online."

Myshko Chumak

Myshko Chumak is also taking Prof. Bilenky's "Tradition and Modernity in Ukraine." A fourth-year undergraduate at Tufts University majoring in Political Science and Russian and Eastern European Studies, he was born in Kyiv but has lived in the US since 2003. He returns to Ukraine when he can to visit his family.

"Although I feel that the current situation is on the whole dentrimental to learning, I am excited to study Ukraine in depth (for the first time!). Ukraine has always stuck out to me as a place of precarity that, despite its genuine successes at wresting democracy from the hands of kleptocrats (at least somewhat), the study of its progress remains underappreciated in academia," he said. Myshko is interested in "learning more about the material and political histories that have borne Ukraine into the 21st century, and how it might further develop and even prosper in the face of geopolitical tension and global crisis."

Samuel Finkelman

Sam FinkelmanSamuel Finkelman, a language student, is currently a PhD candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, specializing in Modern Russian/Soviet and Modern Jewish History. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Amsterdam. His dissertation project reframes the history of grassroots Jewish national politics in the post-Stalin USSR by placing it in the comparative perspective, exploring the interactions, affinities and tensions between the inchoate Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian national movements. 

Regarding his interest in HUSI, he said, "On the most practical level, I enrolled in Dr. Dibrova’s course to acquire reading skills that would benefit my dissertation project by enabling me to read Ukrainian primary sources, mainly samizdat, as well as secondary literature in Ukrainian on late Soviet history. But on a deeper level, I have wanted to learn Ukrainian since I first travelled to Kyiv, Odessa, and L’viv in 2013 and was struck by the euphonic qualities of the language. While the focus will be on reading this summer, I am very excited to become proficient enough so that on my next visit to Kyiv, I won’t have to agonize about whether to answer waiters and baristas in English or Russian."

Heidi Lernihan

Also developing her Ukrainian reading skills, Heidi Lernihan has spent her career in healthcare. "I am lucky to have had the flexibility while working to indulge in a number of extended learning vacations, including this staycation sponsored by COVID-19," she said.

While acknowledging the difficulty of the pandemic, Heidi sees the ways it brings out the goodness of people – including her classmates at HUSI. She also hopes that this experience with online programming will lead to greater accessibility of educational instruction moving forward, with the ideal situation offering both in-person and online access simultaneously.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for niche subjects, such as Ukrainian, in which there are scarcities in both the number of experts and interested students," she said. "For me, the greatest enjoyment in being a part of HUSI is in the journeys taken that have brought us together. Everybody has a story and I am so looking forward to hearing from my fellow students about theirs."

Pavlo Radchenko

Pavlo RadchenkoPavlo Radchenko is an undergraduate student of International Studies, specializing in the European region, at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Originally I am from Kyiv, Ukraine but for the last 6 years I’ve been living in the Netherlands and in Switzerland, where he's currently staying with his family. At HUSI, he is taking Prof. Bilenky's history course.

"I’ve always been interested in Ukrainian history and all things Ukrainian, so this course gives me a great opportunity to expand my knowledge and gain new perspectives for understanding Ukraine better," he said. "I hope the course will provide answers to questions I might already have while also pushing me to raise further, deeper questions to ponder about and explore." As a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that the need to take courses online has provided a truly unique opportunity for students to come together from around the globe.

Elaina Karpenko

Elaina KarpenkoOriginally from Monroe, Michigan, Elaina Karpenko is studying Russian at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, with potential minors in American literature and music theory. She plays violin in the orchestra at Vassar and is involved in a student-run orchestra specializing in modern and contemporary orchestral music.

Studying Ukrainian language at HUSI, she sees it as an opportunity to connect with her family history and expand her knowledge of Slavic languages beyond Russian. "I am looking forward to a different approach to language, not so much focused on conversation but on practical academic use, rounding out my knowledge of grammar and vocabulary," she said. She hopes to apply these skills to her literary and musical interests. Regarding the virtual HUSI experience, her disappointment at not being on campus is balanced with her enjoyment of time at home with her family while still continuing to learn.

Oleksandr Zavalov

Oleksandr ZavalovOleksandr Zavalov, a student in Prof. Grabowicz's literature course, is a highly motivated student at North Penn High School, PA. A native English, Ukrainian, and Russian speaker, he takes opportunities to challenge himself and advance his education. He was born in Kyiv to a family of physicists and notes that his grandparents are from Volhynia, where they suffered from Soviet repression.

"I look forwards to embarking my journey toward learning more about Ukrainian cultural values and expanding my knowledge about the masterpieces of Ukrainian classical and modern literature" he said. "My interests are focused on a variety of topics in Ukrainian literature, including tradition, romanticism, and modernism. I am fascinated with the poetry of Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna. Even though the situation with Coronavirus prevented real-life communication, overall, I believe it will be a productive and engaging summer, studying Ukrainian literature."

Matthew Pyskir

Matthew PyskirMatthew Pyskir is from Naperville, Illinois where he is living during quarantine. An incoming junior at the University of Kansas studying Slavic Languages and Literatures and Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies, he is studying the Ukrainian language this summer.

"I am really looking forward to learning from Prof. Dibrova and studying with other students who are also interested in Ukraine," he said. While he would love to be on campus at Harvard, he recognizes that the online summer program may allow for a more diverse group of students, including those who otherwise would not have been able to attend. "I am excited to hear everyone’s experiences and learn as much as I can," he added. "I am most interested in language policy in Ukraine and how language affects cultural identity."

Courtney Bower 

Courtney BowerCourtney Bower is a graduate student in Cornell University’s Masters of Regional Planning program, with an emphasis on international planning. Originally from Wichita, Kansas, he has carried out an internship with the United Nations (Disaster Risk Reduction) and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. He has a background in communications and is taking the language course at HUSI.

"I’m looking forward to seeing considerable improvement in my language skills. Beyond language improvement, I am fascinated to discover more about Ukrainian culture, mentality, and how Ukrainians – past and present – have planned cities such as Lviv," he said. "Regarding the COVID situation, while it might be less than ideal to have class virtually, online courses expand access for those unable to attend in person. This is a huge pro."

Isabelle DeSisto

Isabelle DeSistoIsabelle DeSisto, also a student in Prof. Dibrova's language class, grew up in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 2020 with a BA in Government and an MA in Regional Studies: Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Isabelle's principal research interest is in Soviet-Cuban relations. She was inspired to enroll in the Ukrainian for Reading Knowledge course to help further her research on Cuban medical aid to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

This summer, Isabelle looks forward to not only learning the Ukrainian language, but also exploring Ukrainian history and culture. While she is disappointed that HUSI is online this year, she is glad that this new format will allow even more people to participate from their home states and countries.

Ryan Wolfe

Ryan WolfeRyan Wolfe is a recent University of Virginia graduate hailing from Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from the university in 2019, Ryan moved to Lviv, Ukraine as a member of the 2019-2020 Fulbright Research Fellows Program. During his time in Lviv, Ryan researched the impact of the Revolution of Dignity and Ukraine's war with Russia on memory politics in the city. He studying the Ukrainian language this summer.

With his Fulbright fellowship ending earlier than expected due to the pandemic, he decided to enroll in HUSI to continue improving his Ukrainian language skills outside of Lviv. Not only will these studies fill the void left by the end of his Fulbright term, he hopes the course will aid his future research. "Academically, I am mainly interested in the intersection of memory, nationalism, and politics in Ukraine, and I see this course as a necessary supplement to these interests, as one cannot really understand them without understanding the language that surrounds and produces them," he said. As far as the digital format, he echoes his classmates' insights that the challenges are balanced by a rare opportunity to bring people together who may not have been able to participate under normal circumstances.

Andrii Smytsniuk

Andrii SmytsniukTaking both the history course and the literature course, Andrii Smytsniuk is a Language Teaching Officer at the University of Cambridge, UK. He teaches Ukrainian and Russian, and organizes different cultural events, such as the Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film. He is originally from Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.

"I have chosen HUSI to develop a more diverse academic understanding of Ukrainian history, culture, literature, and their intersection, particularly from a Western perspective," he said. "I would prefer an in-person teaching format. However, as someone who had to teach a lot of classes online this year, I admire HUSI's efforts to put courses online. I think they've done a great job!"

Iryna Zolotar

Iryna Zolotar Iryna Zolotar was born and Raised in Vinnitsa, Ukraine until she was 11 years old. After immigrating to the US, she moved around until finally settling in the place she calls home, Austin, Texas. She studied International Relations with a focus on Global Security and received her BA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. She pursued a minor in Russian studies and language at UT-Austin; only recently did the university create a Ukrainian department.

For Iryna, the opportunity to take a course in Ukrainian language, history, and culture at UT-Austin was useful both to educate herself and feel closer to home. "The course has helped me a lot to get back to reading and thinking in Ukrainian as I have a more dominant Russian presence," she said. "The Ukrainian course helped me to be more prepared for the Tradition and Modernity in Ukraine: 19th and 20th Centuries course and even helped me find out about the HUSI program at Harvard. I hope my HUSI course will help me be more educated and have a greater understanding Ukrainian history, politics, culture, and overall life that I never got to experience and have heard from my parents and grandparents." She ultimately aspires to go to Law School and handle International Business with Russia and Ukraine.

Betsy Fawcett

Betsy FawcettOriginally from Wisconsin, Betsy Fawcett is a graduate of Luther College in Devorah, Iowa. An Adult Education English as a Second Language Instructor at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, DC, she is taking Prof. Bilenky's Tradition and Modernity in Ukraine course at HUSI. It was during her service as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Kropyvyntski, Ukraine, that she discovered her love of education. She returned to the US a year ago to expand her educational experience, with the hope of returning to Ukraine in the near future to continue teaching and engaging learners in Ukraine. 

Betsy's interest in Ukraine also stems from her Fulbright experience as well as her work as an English language teacher in Kyiv. "I fell in love with the country, the people, the culture, and the history but I didn't have any formal education in Ukrainian studies, so I am excited for Dr. Bilenky's class to give me that background," she explained. "I am fascinated in particular by education in Ukraine and how the education system can be modernized to include more 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and media and technology literacy." She hopes to attend graduate school in the coming years to better understand education policy and more specifically education policy in Ukraine.

For Betsy, the online nature of HUSI this year has been a valuable opportunity; she has wanted to join the HUSI for about three years now, but because of circumstances, hadn't had the chance to physically move to Cambridge for the summer school. "When I found out HUSI was moving online I realized that I could finally join! I quickly grabbed the opportunity and I am really loving it," she said. "While I see that there would be benefits to being on campus, I cannot ignore that the only reason I am actually able to participate in this program is because of the virtual format."

See also: HUSI