PC UA Post Staff Spotlight: Natasha Nikolayeva

Natasha, you've been with PC Ukraine for almost 25 years now, in many different positions, most recently as the Regional Manager for Chernivetska, Ivano-Frankivska and Zakarpattia oblasts. In other words, this is the first time you haven't been surrounded by PCVs in a long time. How have you been doing?

Thank you so much for this question! I would like to mention that it is a really very unusual situation and it feels empty without Volunteers in the field. But at the same time we all understand that the world had changed and it’s a different reality now. COVID has changed people’s lives.

We all, I mean staff, are teleworking and try to use this time productively . We conduct different training, webinars, workshops for our Counterparts together with our partners....[they keep] asking when the  Volunteers will come back. We all are interested in this! During the first evacuation that we had survived during the revolution of Dignity, we had the same question, and we knew that everything depended on the situation in our country, but this time it’s very different . But we all believe {volunteers will return} very soon. Many evacuated Volunteers keep in touch with their Counterparts, sites, and friends in Ukraine. It’s really nice!

 

What do you think is the biggest change in Peace Corps Ukraine over the past 25 years?

It’s really difficult to say since there is never any stagnation – something always changes!

I believe that the biggest change in Peace Corps Ukraine had happened when the training had changed the structure from Central-based to Community-based. That was very challenging, but extremely interesting and very different from what we all used to do. At that time I had also moved from Cherkasy to  Kyiv to work in the medical office.  It was another challenge for me, but I wanted to take it.

When I was a child, I used to go to gymnastics. My coach, as well as my father and mother, taught me to be strong and to take the challenges with dignity. So, that’s what I did! I accepted the biggest change in my life, the biggest change for my family and I have never regretted it.

 

Are any structural changes expected when Ukraine welcomes volunteers back? Will the regions and regional manager staff remain the same as before the evacuation?

I am not aware of any plans in this regard. What I know for sure is that we have a great staff and a great leadership, which helps a lot in these very uncertain times. We all support each other and keep in touch all the time. It’s great we have Zoom! I could hardly imagine this back in the nineties. I remember how challenging it was sometimes to reach volunteers, without a mobile connection. How did we manage to live and to do the job without it?! The most challenging thing and, probably, the biggest culture shock  for Volunteers was the lack of Internet. They had to spend hours at the Internet cafes and they had to learn to call the US from the central post office, which cost tons of money. So handwritten letters were the biggest treasure of those times. I still keep some letters from my Volunteers, who practiced writing to me in Russian/Ukrainian from their sites and then from the USA.

 

It seems like a rare occurrence for a Regional Manager to have experience as a Medical Assistant in the Peace Corps, have you come across any situations where you feel that experience has helped you?

As you know, I started my work at Peace Corps back in 1996 as a Language/Cross-Cultural Facilitator (LCF) and worked for Training in this capacity, as well as in the capacity of Language/Cross-Cultural assistant till 2001 before I became Medical Assistant and then Regional Manager. I believe that all the experience, knowledge  and skills that I gained at those positions help me a lot in the work of a Regional Manager. I love my job! The best part of it is working with people – both Americans and Ukrainians. I think that those of us who work with the Peace Corps for a long period of time are not typical Ukrainians anymore. We are influenced and we are moderators in the relations of our Volunteers and their Counterparts. That’s really a very different job from any other job that you could think of. It brings you a lot of knowledge and skills that you hardly could get at any educational establishment or at any other job.

 This job and the people we meet in Peace Corps changed my life.  I would like to share one story. Fifteen years ago in Ukraine there were a lot of orphanages and it was not popular to adopt kids… I worked with one really great person; the PCMO in our office and was inspired by her story. My husband and I decided to adopt a child and to make at least one kid happy and to give him family, love, and a home. It was a very important decision for us, a lot of people were surprised by our decision and didn’t understand us, but we were very persistent in our desire to get a son and to make him happy. This story probably wouldn’t happen if I would not join the Peace Corps. I am extremely thankful for everything that has happened to me while in the Peace Corps.

 The more I learn about Americans – the more I learn about us, Ukrainians. And I am really proud of the fact that I am part of global changes and relations between our countries. I am proud of those Ukrainians who are willing to make the change; I am proud of those Americans, who are willing to help and to serve.

 

What have you been up to since the volunteers were evacuated? Have you been keeping busy with Peace Corps work? Have you picked up any new hobbies?

As I had mentioned earlier, we do keep in touch with our Counterparts and partners through different online training, workshops, etc. But we also do a lot of professional development stuff. Last summer I had taken a lot of online courses on Learning Space. I had also participated in the Regional Coaching Training together with my fellow colleagues.

Speaking about hobbies, I would like to mention that it might seem strange, but there is no time for developing new hobbies. However, I had gained a lot of new knowledge and skills while studying to use the new applications for online work. I really enjoy working with Zoom and Moodle now and I'm applying my knowledge not only for work, but also while helping my daughter in her distance learning studies.

 

 In 25 years, you must have lots of Peace Corps stories that stick out in your mind. Are there any "culture shock" situations that you know are going to occur at least once with each group of new volunteers?

Probably the biggest culture shock I had was at the beginning of my career at Peace Corps. It was really an eye opening for me that it’s ok to say “I don’t know... but will check and will get back to you,” (especially in the front of a group).

The Volunteers always go through different culture shocks. I have very many stories in my head, but my favorite one is regarding lines. It is a huge stress for some Volunteers to get used to our lines at the stores, at the train station, etc. Ukrainians have a very different notion of “personal space” and they stay very close in the lines and on public transportation. People used to stand in line during Soviet times and while in line they lived a small life there, since it could take you hours and hours to stay in them. In lines you could discuss many different things with strangers: you could learn about the current news and situation in the world; you could get new recipes, etc.

 

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Douglas Gray, RPCV Ukraine, Crimea, 2003-2007. 

Pictured (L to R): Bethany Martinez, Natasha Nikolayeva, Eyerusalem Haile, Kelly Corrigan, Roman Oleksenko (photobomber!)