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Stay or go? COVID-19 leaves Fulbrighters in Ukraine with tough choice

On March 17, the U.S. Department of State issued a global level 4 travel warning over the growing COVID-19 pandemic, subsequently ending the Fulbright Program worldwide and forcing most Fulbrighters to make the difficult decision to return home. 

Fulbright is an educational program funded by the U.S. government that aims to promote democracy, cultural exchange and education through academic grants. It is offered in more than 140 countries. 

“We normally have Fulbright scholars, Fulbright researchers, Fulbright English-language teaching assistants, Fulbright specialists,” said Marta Kolomayets, director of the Fulbright program in Ukraine. “We have over 30 Americans coming to Ukraine every year.”

When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, Fulbright recipients in Ukraine were given a choice: stay or leave.  

Here are the stories of three members of the Fulbright Ukraine 2019-2020 cohort. 

Ryan Wolfe graduated from the University of Virginia in 2019 and went straight to Ukraine in September on one of the Fulbright research grants. 

His research, based out of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, focused on how historical memory in the city was connected to public spaces. 

He returned to the U.S. on March 25 on one of the last flights.

When first given the news that the program was ending, Wolfe initially thought of staying because he feared contracting the virus during travel and bringing it to his family. 

However, once the State Department issued a level 4 travel advisory, he decided it was best to fly home.

“Part of me wishes they [the Fulbright office] were a little more forceful because the first message was ‘you can kind of go if you want,’ and I think it was perceived as this choice,” said Wolfe. “At the end of the day, they still did a good job, but I think part of me kind of wishes the hints were a little stronger at first.”

He started his interviews in February, just a month before he had to go back home. 

Despite being able to use virtual platforms to continue his project, Wolfe said that he decided not to continue given the global situation and his personal predicament.

A major part of Wolfe’s research was a series of presentations about the topic. “I was going to give a presentation for Fulbright in Ukraine, also give a presentation for my host (institution) in Lviv, and I was hoping to give presentations to a couple of conferences in Germany,” he said. “The fact that I wasn’t really able to do those things kind of eliminated the incentive for me to continue working on it.”

Although his research is done for now, he mentioned his plans to get a Master’s degree in Slavic studies and possibly a PhD later on. He sees that as an opportunity to “expand the scope” of the work he started in Lviv.  

“It’s definitely depressing to leave so early. I think all the other Ukrainian Fulbrighters think so too,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity.”

However, for Wolfe, this trip had added sentimentality. “For me, leaving (home) in September, this was the second time going abroad,” he explained. “It was a major thing for me to be living in a whole other country, and it was a big thing for my family too, and the fact that we had to leave so early definitely hurt.”

“I’m glad that I was still able to do a lot that I wanted to do,” said Wolfe.  

Markian Kuzmowycz was on the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship. Part of his experience was working for the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine in Kyiv and the other was completing independent research on the decentralization process across Ukraine. 

Kuzmowycz is still in Kyiv, one of three Fulbrighters still in Ukraine as of early July. 

“I think I had a different experience than some other people in that I started in November,” he explained. “When March came around and they pulled the plug on the program, I felt like I was just getting integrated the way I wanted to in what I was doing. At the time, there were only a handful of cases in Ukraine, and it felt overwhelmingly safer to stay here.”

Kuzmowycz cited the fact that hospitals were near capacity back home, in the northeast of the U.S., as a factor in his decision to stay in Ukraine.

However, as a result of the program being terminated, Fulbright health insurance benefits were also cut off. Kuzmowycz needed to buy private insurance in Ukraine. He added that getting health insurance in the U.S. was far less accessible at this time, and more expensive. 

When the global crisis first erupted, Kuzmowycz said that Fulbrighters around the world were receiving mixed messages about what to do. For him, as for Ryan, this proved difficult and confusing.

“The D.C. (office), back in March, made the decision to reclassify us as alumni effective immediately. [They made it clear to say that] we have no further obligations at that point…, but they also made it clear that they have no further obligations to us. If we reach out, we’re essentially reaching out as any other alums of the program,” he explained.

“I will say the distinction though is that Fulbright Ukraine has been super super amazing and helpful,” he said. 

Although not all locations have an equivalent office serving Fulbrighters in their respective countries, he said that the Ukrainian office, which is located in Kyiv, was able to give clear information about what the options were. 

“I was able to make the decision to stay here with full support of the Fulbright office,” he said.

Kuzmowycz noted that he wanted to wait until travel started up again to try to continue research, as his project was based off of doing interviews around Ukraine. However, when travel around the country was allowed again, he said he never got to the point of being comfortable enough to go. 

“I’ve shifted my focus to the ‘what’s after Fulbright’ question,” he said. “Nothing back home is moving particularly quickly, so I have time to regroup out here.”

Kuzmowycz noted how emotionally taxing this experience was coupled with everything going on back home. 

“To move out here and do the Fulbright, it requires giving up a lot back home, apartments, jobs, whatever it may be,” he said. 

Having graduated from college into the 2008 recession, and now facing some of the worst unemployment rates back home, just adds to his frustration with the experience. 

However, he made sure to emphasize the value of the Fulbright program, calling it “one of the greatest assets of America.”

He also praised the Kyiv staff, saying that “the Ukrainian Fulbright office, they’re really amazing people, and every Fulbrighter comes away with positive impressions.”

Maria Willhoit went to Mariupol’s Pryazovskyi State Technical University on the English Teaching Assistantship. 

Living a 15-hour train ride away from Kyiv and Boryspil International Airport, Willhoit was forced to make a decision and fly back within the span of a day due to news of sudden border closures.

Hence, she only had one day to say goodbye to her students and colleagues. They saw her off at the train station.

“At first, I felt really guilty that I was leaving them,” she reflected. “I felt like I was disappointing them or letting them down.”

“I was finally getting into my routine, I was finally figuring out how I should do classes,” she said. “So when COVID came, I was in the middle… that’s what was so hard. I felt like I was yanked away.”

Kolomayets encourages people to continue to apply to the program in confidence. “I think we, and the embassy, and universities can learn to deal with this,” she said. “It’s just such a fantastic program that I would hate to see anything happen to it.”

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