UMaine SPIA students, alum help Ukranians hold on to English skills amidst the war
When war seems a world away, it can be challenging to figure out ways to help those in need. But if you keep an open mind and have a community of like-minded connections, like at the University of Maine’s School of Policy and International Affairs (SPIA), the right opportunity can find you.
Since summer, SPIA second years Ryan Kirkpatrick and Quil Kibak and recent graduate Janina Deisenrieder have been teaching Ukranians English through online video chat. Their lessons are helping Ukranians maintain their vital English speaking skills and providing an escape during the war.
It all started when Gregory Holt bumped into SPIA graduate Ryan Warner while trying to join the Foreign Legion. Holt was born in the United States, but spent the past decade or so living in Ukraine after falling in love with the country during a vacation from the U.S. Army.
Warner invited Holt to a SPIA alumni conference call — which takes place once or twice a semester with dozens of SPIA alumni, hosted by Jim Settele, executive director of SPIA — to speak about the situation in Ukraine.
Holt’s bid to join the Foreign Legion was unsuccessful — “they decided I was too old, and they were right,” he said — but he had another idea to help Ukranians: free online English classes for Ukranians.
English is an essential skill for Ukranians who want to communicate internationally, no matter what field of work they are in.
“When the war started, the vast majority of native English speakers left the country understandably,” Holt says. “Communication skills are as important to a nation’s economy as steel and capital, and right now, they’re rapidly falling off.”
Holt had already been teaching English “on and off for eight years” in Ukraine, and his long-term dream is to open an immersive English café and school in Ukraine. The pandemic and the war put the project on pause, but with the rise of video chat technologies, he saw an opportunity to help Ukrainians maintain their English skills even in wartime.
He named the project Mosquito Language Lounge, a cheeky reference to the fact that one of Holt’s first projects during the war was to provide Ukrainian soldiers with repellant to ward off the exceptionally aggressive bloodsuckers in the country.
The obvious next step was to recruit volunteer teachers, and the SPIA students that Holt met on the alumni call seemed like the ideal candidates for the job. Aside from their global mindsets and professionalism, the academic background of SPIA students would come in handy if students want to discuss current events in class.
“I could tell it’s a high academic level with rigorous standards, so you know they’re going to be professional, intelligent and have the ability to take it up a notch as opposed to being just a person to talk to,” Holt says.
Early this past summer, Holt reached out to Settele and asked if SPIA students would be interested in volunteering as English teachers. Settele agreed that the opportunity would resonate with his students.
“The SPIA degree is a public service degree,” Settele says. “These are all graduate students who are trying to make the world a better place. It’s kind of an old cliché, but it’s a true cliché with these students.”
Settele sent an email out to his students to see if anyone wanted to volunteer. Deisenrieder, Kibak and Kirkpatrick all stepped up to the plate — and they say it was an easy decision to do so.
“We had obviously been following the developments in Ukraine and discussing them in classes,” Kibak says. “When I saw this opportunity, I thought , ‘This will be the greatest chance I have to influence what’s going on over there, so I might as well take advantage of it.”
The three new teachers were thrown right into the classroom. Deisenrieder and Kirkpatrick have been teaching assistants at UMaine, but the experience of teaching English to Ukranians online was completely different than any other teaching experience. For example, Deisenrieder says there was no set syllabus for the class like in the university setting, so they had to prepare on the fly and be ready to adapt.
Building rapport with students in the online classes was also challenging given the context.
“There’s a language and cultural barrier, so it takes a while to get acquainted with each other,” Kirkpatrick says. “Depending on how the situation is in Ukraine at the moment, it affects class. The past few weeks, there have been so many missile strikes, the mood has decreased a little bit and attendance has gone down for my section. I have one student who’s only missed one single class and it’s because she simply did not have power to tune in. It’s pretty heartbreaking as an instructor.”
Still, the SPIA-ers rose to the challenge. They say the students in each class have a range of English speaking skills because the classes are based on schedules rather than level. The topics discussed in class vary depending on the day, and the instructors all have different approaches to instruction. While Kibak and Kirkpatrick prefer to let the conversation evolve organically, Deisenrieder, who is native to Germany, says she usually determines what their students will discuss the week before so she can prepare vocabulary sheets for them in case they want to review outside of class.
“I try to reflect my own experiences as a learner. For me it’s important to have structure and to know the ‘why’ of what we’re doing,” Deisenrieder says. “It’s important to ask the students what they want to get out of the class because it’s their learning experience.”
Kirkpatrick and Kibak continued teaching the program into their busy fall semester. Deisenrieder continues to teach her class even though she has since graduated and now has a full-time job at AARP.
“I’d like to keep going on as long as students are showing up,” Kirkpatrick says. “You actually cultivate deep relationships with the students, and I would hate to see that go.”
Holt says the students have given “very positive feedback” about their SPIA teachers and their creative and productive lesson plans. There is a less tangible benefit to the program, too.
“Imagine being either internally displaced or a refugee or at home in Ukraine and your whole life has been disrupted and you can’t go to school or work,” Holt says. “The program is a place where people can come together. It’s something to do that’s productive and interesting when tempted to fall into loneliness and despair. The SPIA students have done so well, I’d be happy if every additional teacher was from the University of Maine.”
For more information about volunteer teaching, Holt says he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on WhatsApp at +380634303721 or on the program’s Instagram page (which, he notes, he also is looking for volunteers to help manage, as “the number 1 business tool is instagram in Ukraine”) at @mosquito_language_lounge.
Contact: Sam Schipani, email@example.com