Evacuated Peace Corps volunteers continue learning through online foreign language program

By

Emily Balli

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to unfold, people’s lives were deeply impacted on many levels, and they continue to be. This includes Peace Corps volunteers serving in countries around the world who had to evacuate in March.

After learning about the circumstances many Peace Corps volunteers were facing due to the pandemic, Arizona State University’s Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies worked to find a way to help. The center’s advisory board and leadership team quickly connected with country directors where five languages — Albanian, Macedonian, Armenian, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian and Ukrainian — were being studied, and offered volunteers the opportunity to enhance their language proficiency through the Critical Language Institute’s summer language programs.

The center received an overwhelming response and with support from the advisory board and a number of private donors, they were able to offer nine scholarships to Peace Corps volunteers who were serving or were waiting to begin their service. Volunteers enrolled in the Critical Languages Institute are now participating in seven-week long introductory courses in Albanian, Macedonian and Ukrainian.

All 12 of the language programs offered, which are normally in person at ASU or in countries around the world, have shifted to an online format, with many native-speaking instructors providing synchronous instruction based around U.S. time zones from their home institutions.

“At ASU, we hope to support those who have been evacuated from the Peace Corps, including our alumni, in whatever next steps make the most sense for them,” said Julia Tebben, assistant director of service delivery and strategic initiatives at ASU. “The work of Peace Corps volunteers and their host communities is so important, and we hope that those who feel equipped and ready to go back to service reapply. For others, the next step may be graduate school or furthering their career. Regardless of where evacuated volunteers are at, we have a variety of graduate programs and Coverdell Fellowships available.”

Building on Macedonian language skills to better connect with community

Bre Lombard, a Peace Corps volunteer who was serving in North Macedonia, was eager to take her Macedonian language skills to the next level. Lombard graduated from Kansas State University in 2017, earning a degree in marketing with a minor in nonprofit leadership and a certificate in international business. Before being evacuated in March, she had volunteered in North Macedonia for six months at a high school alongside English teachers.

She said things had just started falling into place for her; students were starting to open up to her, she was making connections with teachers and she started an English club. Just as she was beginning to prepare for summer, she received the news that she had to evacuate and return home to Iowa.

“It was definitely hard. Not being able to say goodbye to really anyone that I've made connections with was very difficult,” Lombard said. “I've stayed in touch with them, but it was just a really hard adjustment from hearing everything, seeing everything and finally being able to set up a community and then having to pack up and leave.”

Although she had completed three months of language training during her Peace Corps training, Lombard said she hadn’t perfected the language, and jumped on the opportunity to apply for the Critical Language Institute’s Macedonian summer language program.

“If it weren’t for the scholarship, I probably would have passed on it just because I couldn't really afford it,” she said. “The scholarship is a huge benefit because it's giving me an opportunity that I really didn't have. It's going to benefit my community because I can connect with them more by knowing this language better. I'm so grateful for it and so glad that I've been given this opportunity.”

So far, Lombard said she has enjoyed delving into Macedonian history as well as becoming more well-versed in Macedonian grammar and writing. She said she looks forward to returning to North Macedonia and resuming her volunteer work with her improved language skills.

Improving Albanian language proficiency to prepare for the future

Hillary Holman earned her undergraduate degrees in communication and comparative history of ideas from the University of Washington and her master’s degree in international community development from Northwest University. She is a second-time Peace Corps volunteer, previously serving in the community development sector in Moldova from 2017 to 2019. She signed on to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania for two years, and had been training for several weeks to work in the organizational development sector when she was evacuated. 

After taking three flights over the span of three days to return home to Washington state, Holman said she was looking for something productive to do with her time when she was sent the application for the Albanian summer language program.

“Although this pandemic has disrupted the typical functioning of so many things, I do appreciate that the Critical Language Institute courses are being offered online this year for the first time in the program's history,” Holman said. “This has enabled my classmates and me to participate from all over the country in different time zones. Linda Mëniku is an excellent teacher and makes our class interesting by giving us relevant ways to apply the new skills we are learning.”

Holman said she has enjoyed learning a variety of Albanian language structures and concepts, and appreciates the ability to practice speaking the language with other students. She has also participated in virtual cultural presentations shared by other language classes.

Although she is unsure if she will be able to return to Albania to resume her volunteer work, she plans on pursuing a career in public service and hopes to continue to volunteer her time to make a positive difference in the world through cross-cultural communication.

“This scholarship is incredibly meaningful to me in allowing me to study a language that is valuable both personally and professionally. Although my Peace Corps service in Albania was abruptly cut short, I am grateful to have the opportunity to study Albanian language through the Critical Languages Institute this summer, to develop my skills and prepare for the next step in my career.”

Learning Ukranian grammar and finding new connections

MiKayla Wolf graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in 2017 with degrees in political science and psychology. In the Peace Corps, she served as a youth development volunteer, working with children with disabilities in Ukraine for over a year. She had just signed on to serve for one more year as a Peace Corps volunteer when she found out she would have to evacuate and return home to Oklahoma.

Wolf said she had a basic understanding of the Ukranian language to get by, but had never learned how to speak the language grammatically. 

“Having a good understanding of the language is really important because you don't always have a translator or internet access,” Wolf said. “I had the basics of the language down; I can get on a train or buy food. But to be able to speak in a way that is grammatically correct will be great and beneficial for when I can return. I give trainings around Ukraine and now I will be able to do that alone without a translator and I will be able to communicate with people better. ”

Through this experience she said she has also had the opportunity to connect with fellow Peace Corps volunteers who were serving in Ukraine that she hadn’t met before and who she looks forward to meeting in person someday.

“The languages the Critical Languages Institute teaches are important languages. These are not languages that are commonly taught. But they're so important to us and they're important to our community,” Wolf said. “Every Peace Corps volunteer goes into their community wanting to better them. So by being able to learn their language, we're going to gain their respect. Even if we don't go back, we're going to be able to talk to them and they're really going to appreciate it.”