As I walk into the classroom, the children’s eyes light up. The room fills with every English greeting word they knew: “hello, good morning, how are you, hello teacher!” All of us Peace Corps trainees are overwhelmed. The kids in Chernigov, Ukraine are so excited to meet us!

We are teaching English in the local school systems. My class consists of sixteen 12- and 13-year-olds. They are all very attentive and respectful. As I walk through the hallways, kids stare at me and recite any English words they know. A local teacher recently told me that one of the students said her dream has always been to meet a real American and hear how we speak. It is comments like this that get me excited about the work we are doing here.

My Ukranian host mom and me.
My Ukranian host mom and me.

Howdy! My name is Jeramie Heflin. I am a 2010 management major from Mission, Texas, and I am currently serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. There are 80 volunteers in my group. Ukraine currently has the greatest amount of Peace Corps volunteers in one country, with over 300 Americans serving.

These first three months in Ukraine I am in training—Russian language training, technical training on teaching, and cross-cultural training—all in the city of Chernigov.

The city has a population of 350,000, so there is good transportation, an Internet café, a university, nice parks, and as my host family likes to tell me almost daily, McDonalds!

My host family consists of a woman named Sveta and her 16-year-old daughter, Nadia. When I first met them, I was greeted with a warm, Ukrainian welcome, including a large meal: salad, fresh cut vegetables, meat and noodles. Then the main course: Ukrainian borsch—beets, onions, tomatoes and carrots, fresh from the family’s summerhouse. It was delicious.

It is common for families here in Ukraine to have a small summerhouse outside of the city where they grow their own produce. Sveta and Nadia have been so nice to me these first few weeks. I am amazed by their hospitality and their patience as they help me to learn Russian.

Every day I ride the bus to my language teacher’s house for a four- to five-hour Russian lesson. Learning Russian is very difficult; every noun is either feminine or masculine, so every other word in the sentence must change to match the gender of the noun. This is a hard concept for me to wrap my mind around, but I am determined to learn the language so that I can be effective in my service.

It is a Ukrainian welcoming tradition to break off a piece of this special bread and dip it in salt. The Peace Corps did this with us when we arrived.
It is a Ukrainian welcoming tradition to break off a piece of this special bread and dip it in salt. The Peace Corps did this with us when we arrived.

I have always been told that you can learn a lot about yourself through the eyes of others. Even though it is only my fourth week here, I am amazed at the reputation we as Americans have here in Ukraine. We volunteers feel the weight of this reputation. Many of us are the first Americans the citizens have ever met. To these people, we are America. Every action, every word is automatically associated with the United States.

My host mom talks on the phone about me daily—in Russian, so I can’t understand all of what she says, but I hear my name. She discusses everything—what I ate, what I am doing, how I have a hard time pronouncing certain Russian words. I experienced some of this American novelty while I was on a study abroad trip in Denmark, but not to the extent that I am experiencing here in Ukraine. It is a huge deal to these people that we are Americans living in their country; I just hope we can live up to the reputation our great country has set before us.

In December I will swear in to service for a two-year commitment to teach English in a Ukrainian school. Every day I am reminded of how blessed I am to have been born and raised in The United States. I am looking forward to giving back to my country by serving in Ukraine. In the end, I expect that I will learn more from the people here than I could ever teach.