Luibov Mykolaivna Volochay was my Ukrainian counterpart, on the right. She was a fellow English teacher, and a true mentor. Together, we wrote a grant for our school's first technology center. Here, we are celebrating Teacher's Day in this photo. I am on the left.

Name: Courtney Skiles
U-M Affiliation: Alumni

Where do you work?

I just finished with a publishing company in New York to go to Law School at University of Washington in Seattle.

When did you serve in the Peace Corps?


Where did you serve (which country/countries)?

Bashtanka, Ukraine

What were your main responsibilities as a volunteer?

My primary project was to teach English as a Foreign Language in a southern Ukrainian school, in a village of 14,000. I also helped develop the International Outreach Camp, bringing high school and university students from different countries and regions in Ukraine together to build projects on civic responsibility and discuss/debate world affairs. Students discussed issues of human trafficking and nuclear non-proliferation in their second language. I was an organizer and teacher, and came up with the curriculum and strategy for teaching civic leadership, project development, and grant-writing. I also developed a technology center for my school through a grant project, so teachers and students could use the internet.

Is there a specific person (or persons) who made a strong impression on you during that time?

Not one, but so many individuals that together made up the country I was trying to understand every day. I first met my "coordinator" Luibov at midnight in October, as I hopped off of a train (there was no platform). She was walking down the tracks in heels, and I knew right away she was a woman to respect. She became a dear friend, my greatest advocate, and helped me negotiate the nuances of my new town. We worked together on a technology center for the school, and she helped me train lots of teachers in internet usage for lesson preparation. She was incredibly interested in learning as much as she possibly could about her subject, and was very well-respected by her other teachers. I definitely followed her lead. Also, my host family, with whom I stayed for my first three months in Bashtanka, went out of their way to care for me and keep me safe in this new place. They invited me to all of their family events, showed me how to cook traditional borscht among other things, and were unbelievably patient with my language-learning. I have never known such hospitality, and it shaped my experience for the better. And lastly, my students. All of them. The ones who asked questions and the ones who texted on their cell phones in the back of the classroom- they all had strengths and ideas and voices. Just being around them for two years helped me truly understand that young people- and I mean even the ten- year-olds - have something to say. I will never question that.

What was one of the most memorable moments you had as a volunteer?

The Ukrainian Orthodox Easter was such a beautiful tradition. At 2am on a Sunday, after dinner with both Peace Corps and Ukrainian friends, we bundled up and walked a mile in the spring night cold to my village’s church. Before I could actually see anything, I could see the glow from the candlelight, and could hear silvery voices singing Easter hymns permeating through the air from inside the church. As we approached, we took our places among the people outside the church. They all held candles and lined the streets as far down as I could see with their Easter baskets of eggs and bread placed in front of them, awaiting the blessing. My students were there with their families, as were most of the teachers that I worked with. We had an hour to soak in the murmurs and glow of each person in the town before the priest came around to 'smoke' us with incense and literally bathe us with water. Everyone was together, in a different context that night. No one was a seller of fruit, or a butcher, or a teacher or a student or the local bus driver, nor were they Ukrainian or American, even. We were all just people sharing in an experience. I put on a party with my students for Halloween (after teaching them what it was in the first place). I had had so many flies in my apartment the previous summer, that they proved inspiration for a costume. The black outfit was easy, but I had to find chicken wire in order to configure wings, so I went to the local bazaar. Explaining to him what a fly was without knowing the word in Russian proved difficult enough, let alone trying to explain to him why I was dressing up in the first place. I became to acting out what I had to- and spent five minutes giving him the entire story. The man would not accept money for the chicken wire, but told me he had a coin collection, so to bring him some U.S. coins if I could. The kids loved my costume, and that January, I made good on my deal, and brought him the Kennedy half dollar coin. His smile was fantastic.

In what ways did your Peace Corps experience affect your life and/or career decisions?

I am currently working on a law degree so I can work on voter protection rights, which stems from an interest in working with young people. Peace Corps greatly shaped my interest in working with other cultures professionally, facilitating understanding, and and in giving my students (and young people) a voice. I taught a class on voting rights and civic responsibility during the International Outreach Camp program. Given some agency, my students had some powerful ideas about how to improve their communities. It was clear that civic leadership and participation are the most immediate and effective ways they could make a difference. I want to aid in that process.

In what ways did your U-M education, both inside and outside the classroom, prepare you for your Peace Corps experience?

I was on the UM campus and was an MSA Student Representative during the 2003 affirmative action cases. As a member/leader of a coalition of progressive student organizations, we organized around the idea of acceptance, while having to practice this as well, since everyone had their own ideas about how to approach the issue. UM offered me classes like Get on the Bus, which introduced a history of the Civil Rights Movement and facilitated a Spring Break trip to six southern cities where we visited leaders of the 1960's movement. This was a lesson in learning what I don't know. Professor Matt Lassiter's History of American Suburbia brought history to the present, and asked me to be aware of how I was shaping this history. The New England Literature Program asked me to examine and bear witness to my experiences. More traditional political science classes, along with pertinent classes such as The Transatlantic Relationship helped me understand the bigger relationship Eastern Europe has with the world. UM prepared me for the handling of cross-cultural experiences in which I was asked to be flexible, open-minded, self-aware, and knowledgeable. Whether I was all of these things all the time is a different story. Mostly, I'm thankful for the skill of developing and pursuing curiosities that UM gave me. Peace Corps is an entirely different kind of education unto itself. One only knows if one has worked in another country in a foreign aid capacity. But knowing to ask the right questions- including "Am I needed here?" is of utmost importance. UM helped me with this.

What advice would you give to others who are contemplating going into the Peace Corps?

Make sure you want it. The language, the two years abroad, the differences in culture; you have to want all of it. Engage, learn the pace of the culture, and operate with the tools you have. Be patient, but know when being patient is cowardly, and then act. Mostly, remember you are a guest in a country, and learn everything you can. Being a part of the Peace Corps is not nearly as sexy as it sounds, but it is more rewarding than you could ever imagine.

What is the value gained from the Peace Corps experience?

The value gained from the Peace Corps is the sharing that takes place. With my students and host family and neighbors, I shared food traditions, holidays, stories, and eventually jokes and hardships and deep friendships-- with time, we all eventually become people, and not only agents of our respective nationalities. Did I make a huge impact? I don't know. I was a teacher who cared about her students, and made them think in ways they had not previously. I asked them to consider something different. Ukraine, my colleagues, my students, and even the people I encountered on those long overnight train rides asked me to consider something different, as well. And I believe this was inherently valuable.

What lessons did you learn in the Peace Corps that you carry with you today?

I learned when and how to listen, how to be heard even when I didn't know the language, and how to make do with what I had. Also, I learned the art of entertaining one's self, setting and meeting goals, and cooking a satisfying meal on little money and fewer options. I learned how to slow down. I learned how to speak with children—with respect. I learned how to negotiate with the best of them, which certainly paid off when I moved to New York City. And I learned how to care—really care—and how to do something about it.

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