ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The Ukraine may be struggling economically and politically for its future, but when he taught there for five months as a Fulbright Scholar, Richard Kyle found at least one thing to be in abundance there: college students radically committed to learning.
“I was at one of their elite universities,” said Kyle, professor of history and religious studies at Tabor College, “but their students were far more motivated.
“In fact, it was a little embarrassing how motivated and rigorous they were,” he added. “Some of them did better in their fourth or fifth language than ours do in their native tongue.”
Getting into the university is difficult and students are determined to take advantage of the opportunity. Kyle said one student chided him when he finished a lecture with five minutes still remaining in the class period.
“I’ve never had that happen in 28 years at Tabor College, let’s put it that way,” Kyle said with a smile.
Kyle is the first Tabor professor to be selected to participate in the prestigious Fulbright Scholar program.
The program comes under the U.S. State Department. Its goal is to increase the mutual understanding of the United States and the people of other countries by exchanging educators and researchers.
Far more foreign educators come to the United States through the program than are sent from here to other countries, Kyle noted.
Since its beginning in 1946, some 230,000 educators have participated in the program-86,000 from this country, 144,000 from other countries. About 4,000 scholars participate each year.
“As far as promoting global harmony, our government does things you might disagree with, but this is one of the more rational, humane ways to do it because you certainly get a sense of another country,” Kyle said.
To be accepted, Kyle had to apply for a position. His choices were limited somewhat by the number of openings in his field of expertise-American history and culture-and the number of countries inviting educators in that particular field. He also needed a six-month assignment rather than a full year.
Also working against him was Tabor’s size.
“Usually the big boys from the bigger schools are the ones who get in,” he said.
In the end, Kyle was awarded a position in one of two elite universities in the Ukraine, called the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy.
He arrived in mid-January and returned home in mid-June.
In addition to his stay there, Kyle also found time to travel, not just in the Ukraine but in several surrounding countries. He also visited sites of some former Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine.
“I’ve traveled a lot, but it was my first time to live extensively in another country,” he said. “I learned to like another people and saw what it was like to live in another culture.
“It was a tremendous experience.”
Kyle said the future of the Ukraine, once part of the mighty Soviet Union, is uncertain.
“They are on the brink, so to speak,” he said. “The standard of living has dropped, there’s no question about that. And that’s the key. For democracy to work, people have to see tangible results.”
The other challenge the Ukraine faces is the severe bureaucracy and corruption that permeate the government and society in general.
“I don’t know how people motivate themselves (economically),” Kyle said. “It’s not hard work that gets you ahead, it is who you know-and corruption, at every level.”
He said a small minority of people are succeeding, either by their entrepreneurial efforts or by corruption-or a combination of both. The rest struggle to endure.
“As one person said to me, ‘We have our very rich, we have our poor, and we have our very poor,'” Kyle said. “Unless the wealth trickles down….”
For all their economic struggles, the Ukrainians are a proud people, Kyle said. One way they express that pride is by dressing well.
“They may have nothing to eat, but when they go out they are going to create a good impression,” he said.
Kyle called his time in the Ukraine “one of the top professional experiences of my life.”
At the same time, coming home was a good experience, too.
“I appreciated coming back to America, the amenities that we have, and the freedom we have,” he said.
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF