Nothing is More Stable Than Something Temporary

Monday November 30, 2020

Zhanna Hrytsenko’s Journey at Peace Corps Ukraine

By Michael Andrews, RPCV Response Ukraine



There is twist of irony in one of Zhanna Hrytsenko’s favorite memories. Zhanna was teaching high school English and German in Cherkasy when she learned that Peace Corps was recruiting Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs). She asked her boss for time off to attend the interview. “Even if I get the job,” Zhanna explained to her boss, “it will just be temporary.”

What happened next defined 24 years of Zhanna’s life. “I still remember what she said like it was yesterday, Zhanna recounts with her signature demure laugh. “Nothing is more stable than something that is temporary, my boss said. If you go to the interview, they will take you.”

The boss’ prophesy came true. In 1996, Zhanna left her teaching job to become a temporary LCF for Peace Corps Ukraine. She has had a permanent job ever since, today leading Peace Corps Ukraine’s Response Program and Monitoring and Evaluation.

As Zhanna attests and every Peace Corps volunteer knows, there are profound possibilities in temporary assignments. Peace Corps host country staff and volunteers know well the challenges of learning new skills, constantly working with new people and adapting to unfamiliar situations. These are hallmarks of Peace Corps service and the continuous revelations of Zhanna’s career.

Listening to Zhanna describe her life’s journey is witnessing a tableau of volunteers’ many loves about Ukraine. Her demeanor is an alloy of village-forged sensibilities, academic acumen and strident determination propelled by joy. She was born in Glodosy, a village in Kirovohradska Oblast five hours south of Kyiv on highway E95. Along with being a beautiful village with a library that houses an impressive collection of historical artifacts, Glodosy is famous for a trove of seventh century gold and silver buried with an ancient chieftain. The “Glodosy Hoard,” as it is called, was discovered in 1961 by Vladimir Chukhriy while he was helping dig in his mother’s beet field. The government paid Vladimir’s father 200 rubles for the priceless find, which he used to buy a radio for Vladimir. Today the treasure is displayed in a Kyiv jewelry museum.

Traditions buried in the black soil of Ukraine’s landscape also live in the hearts of Ukrainian people. Zhanna attributes her deep cultural roots to her babusya, who at 92 still lives in Glodosy.

“Everything I know about Ukrainian heritage and our culture I learned from her,” Zhanna says. “She taught me folk songs. She knows more than 100. She has a talent to write poems and I gained that from her. I have some poetry in my bag. She taught me embroidery and to how to weave. In winter during school holidays, we always did that together. I can do that so I can always survive.”

Survival is inextricably woven into the Ukrainian experience. Zhanna’s family was not immune from struggles. Her grandfather fought in World War II and lost an eye to a grenade explosion when he was 19. He carried shrapnel wounds his entire life. He died at 72. During the war, Zhanna’s granny narrowly escaped  “Ostrabeiter,” forced labor relocation to Germany when a sympathetic village leader deliberately lowered her birthdate on official documents. Zhanna’s sister Angela, who has a Ph.D. in history, has written a book documenting the family lore.

But hardship seldom pre-empts joy. “They had a really difficult life,” Zhanna says, “but my granny was a multi-talented person. She played the balalaika and guitar. Grandpa played the accordion and flute. Our family was always, singing, playing and dancing.”

Such resiliency and flexibility is reflected in Zhanna’s ascent to leadership at Peace Corps Ukraine. She meets challenges with curiosity and determination to learn. She has worked for six country directors. Zhanna’s winding professional path led from those first days of temporary employment, to LCF Coordinator, Community Development Coordinator, Regional Manager, TEFL Coordinator, finally landing as the leader of Peace Corps Response.  Response came to Ukraine in 2011, added to the country’s portfolio in strategic planning by Tom Ross, then Director of Programming and Training and Country Director, Doug Teschner. Zhanna tackled the Monitoring and Evaluation effort at the same time. It was another temporary assignment that has lasted nine years.

Leading M&E has been one of the biggest hurdles in Zhanna’s career. “To be honest, I hate mathematics, I am not about counting. But I have learned a lot about statistics and data collection,” she says. Her commitment to M&E has shown her new horizons of success and also brought her amplified appreciation for Peace Corps’ role in today’s chaotic world. This year, she was selected to be one of only 10 Peace Corps M&E specialists to become certified in their discipline by the United Nation’s International Labour Organization. Because of the pandemic, she attended distance-learning sessions with 80 M&E professionals from other countries led by the ILO’s training center in Turin, Italy.

“Peace Corps brought the human touch to the sessions,” Zhanna said. “When we spoke about the things volunteers do it was eye-opening for them. Volunteers have huge motivation, experience and commitment – willingness to share and learn. It is such a noble thing they do. People from other countries said how can they do so much with so little?”

Zhanna has been intimately immersed in volunteer commitment for more than two decades. Her first significant exposure to Americans beyond seeing tourists on the streets in Kyiv was teaching Group Seven. She laughs that her biggest challenge in those early years was trying to understand American accents. “I was a teacher and I was not afraid,” she says. But I was honest with the class and we had many laughs about it. I told them I had no idea what they were saying. I had never heard native speakers. I learned British English at university.”

“I was pleasantly surprised that Americans were so open, so direct, so ready to learn – and they are still like this. When the Revolution of Dignity started that was such a difficult time for us. But all the volunteers were so united. They supported us so much, as well as now. People are still united. Even former volunteers keep in touch with their sites. They keep in touch with their tutors. They keep in touch with their counterparts. “

Keeping those connections has been daunting while wrestling the Covid pandemic. Peace Corps staff is still working from home. Zhanna credits foresight by Country Director, Michael Ketover, for making the transition to remote work more tolerable.

“Staff and me personally are extremely thankful to Michael for introduction of telework far before Covid, so when we had to be on telework it was not that stressful. The only thing we had to learn was how to combine work with family life.” And for Zhanna, Peace Corps is a family affair. Her husband, Anatoly, has been a staff driver since 2011.

Peace Corps Ukraine is unusual in that all three Americans on staff, Michael Ketover, Pilar Robledo, Director of Programming and Training and Amy McGoldrick, Director of Management and Operations, remained in country after the global evacuation. “It means a lot to us. We all have work to do. There are very many different activities. Everybody is involved with different trainings, especially with counterparts.”

So what’s next? “No one can tell for sure,” Zhanna says. “People have to remain enthusiastic. With the help of our senior staff we have emotional intelligence sessions, it helps us cope with stressful situations. I am trying to look at it from the positive angle. We all can do a lot of on line trainings for personal and professional growth. We can learn something new. We can apply that knowledge when volunteers are back.”

“It’s a different world. It’s a different Peace Corps as well. It’s not different goal-wise or mission-wise at all. Even people who say nothing has changed that ‘s not true because the world has changed around them. We will need to adjust to a new world, to new opportunities.”

If past is prologue, the temporary impacts of Covid will fade away. There will be lasting lessons that transform Peace Corps Ukraine. Zhanna has participated in many such evolutions. No doubt she will have a role shaping whatever stability there is to come.

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