Ukrainians educated abroad can find homecomings rough

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April 15, 2010, 10:28 p.m. | Op-ed — by Olesia Oleshko

After getting her master’s degree in journalism from America’s Indiana University, Olesia Oleshko was enthusiastic about returning to her native Ukraine, but major disappointments followed. (Courtesy)

I think everybody has unforgettable moments of sheer happiness. I remember one of mine. It came on a sunny April day in 2007. I got to my job in Kyiv, made my morning coffee and started checking my e-mail. There it was – an acceptance letter from Indiana University, followed by an e-mail from Inna Barysh, Fulbright Ukraine student coordinator, saying that my studies in the United States will be supported by a generous stipend. It was the time of my life. I couldn’t get my work done that day. In my mind, I was already packing suitcases and picturing my life in the U.S. My experience in America was even better than I expected. I earned my master’s degree in journalism, made a lot of good friends and even got a great job offer in Washington, D.C. But I had to turn down the offer because my Fulbright scholarship contract and J-1 visa required me to return to my home country for at least two years.

That provision makes perfect sense for many reasons: First, the American government provides scholarships for people willing to make a change in their own countries, and they want this change to happen. Second, it’s always good to think twice before making such a crucial decision – to settle in another country and start everything from scratch.

So, I packed my suitcases, bought a Barack Obama T-shirt, grabbed my favorite Starbucks latte and headed to the airport. Apart from the contractual obligations to return to Kyiv, I had a bunch of personal reasons to return to Ukraine: I couldn’t wait to apply my improved writing skills, share newly gained investigation and reporting techniques and, in brief, show Western standards of journalism in action. Dreaming about my rocketing career, I happily fell asleep in a Boeing seat somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean. I was going home to start a new page in my life.

At first, the new page contained nothing but reflections on a strong reverse culture shock that was striking me at every corner, be it people spitting on the ground or cashiers at the nearby grocery lacking such words as “hello” and “thank you.”

I figured that the best way to keep my sanity would be to start a new job as soon as possible and to get into the swing of things, which I did. The foreign affairs desk at one of the biggest Ukrainian magazines sounded promising – lots of international travel, interviews with interesting people and a pretty comfortable salary by Ukrainian standards.

The first days at work revealed some unexpected underwater rocks, such as the chief editor ordering a reporter to interview a person (usually a politician or a businessman) for money. This “offer” just infuriated me – at the very beginning I stated that I would never ever do this kind of an interview. This position provoked serious tensions with the chief editor, but eventually she figured that fighting with me was useless and she started assigning other reporters for these kinds of tasks.

Apart from the violation of journalism standards (no respectable news organization accepts money for interviews), I faced a very severe violation of professional ethics – open sexual harassment from an editor. He sincerely did not understand why I was so outraged by his “compliments” and “offers” and why I kept complaining to the senior management about this situation. Luckily that didn’t last too long. He got another job and quit.

By this point, I really wished I were back in America. Such things happen there, too, but at least you can seek protection from a court or a relevant supervisory board. The transition from America to Ukraine turned out to be harder than I expected. So I chose an easy way: I changed my job.

I found a perfect balance. I work in Ukraine, but with a great international team. I keep my American and Ukrainian networks, celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving with my American friends who live in Kyiv and, when I am in a nostalgic mood, I watch “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” At the same time, I keep in touch with other exchange students who are staying in the states for another year. Some young Ukrainian women even got married in order to secure their return to the states after the required two-year stay at home. I don’t know if there are statistical data showing the number of successful marriages and failures, but as far as I can see, not many couples managed to resist the challenges of time and distance.

Those women who worked it out seem to lead happy lives with their American husbands, while those whose international marriages fell apart are either trying to re-establish their careers in the states or are just giving up and coming back to their home countries, where they have safety networks of friends and families.

I can’t say for sure what’s better – to return to your home country for good or to do everything possible to return to the country that gave you a great education, new friends and an unforgettable life experience. Personally, I like living in different countries and I hope to do it again. It’s useful to break out of your comfort zone and then proudly say: “If I made it here, I can make it anywhere.”

So I don’t rule out the possibility of going abroad again to gain some new professional or academic experience. But it is a mistake to think that everything will automatically be better abroad. Any undertaking of this kind requires self-discipline, strong motivation and clear goals. You have to know what you want to achieve, how you are going to do that and, another key point: whether your host country will benefit from having you there.

Kyiv Post staff writer Olesia Oleshko can be reached at
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