Reminiscences of the First Months of a Fulbright Grant – Sofika Zielyk – Ukraine 2014

“Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” I have heard this quote by Sen. William Fulbright many times in my life but only after I had spent the first part of my Fulbright grant in Ukraine did I fully understand the importance of these words. 

My first 4 months in the capital city of Kyiv, were spent in a whirlwind: researching my topic “Folk art as inspiration and muse for early 20th century artists of Ukraine,”  traveling to different cities and lecturing on “Pysankarstvo” – the tradition of Ukrainian Easter eggs. I not only met art historians, academics and museum curators but I interacted with students, workers and taxi drivers. I immersed myself in the culture of my temporary home. I was no longer a tourist in the ancestral home of my parents, as I had been many times before. Most people could not quite figure me out. I stood shoulder to shoulder with residents in grocery stores and bank lines, seemingly a regular Kyiv citizen yet when I spoke in my fluent Ukrainian, my diaspora accent gave me away as a foreigner. I peeked their curiosity. How was it that an American spoke their language fluently; AND more importantly, why? The beginnings of our conversations revolved around the mundane such as the price of bread, store hours or directions but quickly progressed to inquiries about my purpose in their country and details about my Fulbright research topic. Not only did they learn from me but slowly I also realized that I had preconceived notions based on my own prejudices and family history that were being challenged with each and every encounter.

Throughout Ukraine’s history, and especially in the last 100 years, Ukrainian folk art has suffered greatly and has been marginalized. The average Ukrainian citizen at worst, knows nothing of it and, at best, considers it peasant art not worthy of celebration. The mere thought that I travelled to their country to further study this art and that people all over the world find it unique and beautiful gave my new acquaintances and friends incredulous pause. And perhaps their “AHA moments” will spark future introspection and conversation within their community. There is much wisdom in Sen. Fulbright’s words. To truly understand a culture one has to live in its midst. Only through educational exchange can we fully understand each other and realize that we are not that much different. 

Sofika Zielyk – Fulbright to Ukraine 2014

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