RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/CNS) – At first glance, the posse of young adults seemed to be tourists, but these visitors were not here just to sightsee. They approached the Virginia State Capitol building, chatting in a language that was hard to place. One member of the group was Iryna Degtyarova.
“We were looking around and didn’t believe that we were in America,” she said, trailing off in laughter.
Degtyarova and her colleagues from Ukraine had traveled about 5,000 miles to visit Richmond and learn about government and education in America. The five visitors were educators and emerging political leaders who were selected to participate in Open World, a foreign exchange program funded by the U.S. Congress.
The Ukrainian delegates spent a few days in Washington, D.C., and then a week in Richmond earlier this month, meeting with state and local officials, touring the Virginia Capitol, visiting schools and witnessing the presidential primary elections on Super Tuesday.
The Ukrainians were hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University and community volunteers. This was the fifth year that VCU has hosted an Open World delegation, and the second year the delegates have been from Ukraine.
The goal of the program is to bring young leaders from post-Soviet countries to the United States to expose them to American governance, democracy and free enterprise, according to FHI 360, a nonprofit group that helps administer Open World on behalf of the Library of Congress.
During their weeklong stay, the Ukrainians participated in a whirlwind of activities. They:
- Discussed primary, secondary and higher education issues with Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education
- Met with numerous legislators, including Sens. Bill Stanley and Bryce Reeves, who recognized the group during a session of the Senate
- Toured the Virginia Capitol, the Library of Virginia and the Governor’s Mansion, where they met with first lady Dorothy McAuliffe
- Visited the newsroom of CBS 6 (WTVR) to see how reporters covered the presidential primary elections on Super Tuesday
- Discussed transparency in government with officials at the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council and the Virginia Public Access Project
- Visited Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies and Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond
Three units at VCU collaborated in hosting the group: the Global Education Office, the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
Jeff South, the Robertson School’s director of undergraduate studies, said that while the Ukrainians experienced American culture, the Americans learned about Ukrainian culture.
“I’d say it benefits VCU as much as it benefits – probably more than it benefits – the visiting delegates from other countries,” he said.
Before coming to Richmond, the Ukrainians had an orientation in Washington, D.C. Degtyarova, a postdoctoral researcher for the Department of Law and European Integration in the National Academy of Public Administration in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, said she felt overjoyed to arrive in the United States for the first time.
Degtyarova joined the program because she wanted to learn about American governance and higher education. She said Ukrainians and Americans have a positive relationship.
“The United States are the great supporter in the way of reforming our lives, in every sphere,” Degtyarova said.
Another delegate was Yuliia Epifanova, an assistant professor of civil law at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. Epifanova said her goal for the week was to learn more about America’s education system and compare it with Ukraine’s.
“If I learn more for Ukraine, it will be great,” she said.
The delegates spent their nights with host families, who were mostly VCU faculty – or retired faculty in the case of Steve Saltzberg. Saltzberg, the former director of the VCU Computer Center, and his wife Sheila Chandler, hosted two of the delegates: Epifanova and Nataliia Lukova-Chuiko, an associate professor of cybersecurity at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University.
Saltzberg and Chandler have been a host family for Open World for years. Saltzberg said he appreciated that this year’s delegates were fluent in English.
“We’ve hosted Russian, which was our biggest challenge,” Saltzberg said. “Google Translate does wonders.”
Staying with a host family gives delegates a window into American culture, and vice versa.
“It gives us a different view about what the planet we live on is like,” Saltzberg said. “Seeing our city, our Richmond, through their eyes gives us a different perspective about what our city is like.”
The other Ukrainian delegates were Oksana Kozak, the press secretary to a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, and Yurii Khalavka, an assistant professor at Yurii Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. The group was accompanied from Ukraine by a facilitator, Vyacheslav Zub.
The delegation returned to Ukraine with new knowledge of the United States and experience with its people.
The day before they left, the Ukrainians showed their appreciation to the Richmond community by preparing borscht – a thick soup made with beets – and other dishes from their homeland. At the cooking demonstration at a residence hall at VCU, Epifanova said her stay in the United States was a great experience.
“We’ve learned, and it is something to improve Ukraine,” she said.
Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.
For more Virginia General Assembly coverage, visit the In the Rotunda section.