When Jake McGrew first started considering Peace Corps service, he had never traveled outside of the US, but he was interested in Eastern Europe because of his family heritage. Meeting a Peace Corps recruiter at a campus event his junior year at the University of Oregon set him on a trajectory that not only changed his career goals, but also put him on the front lines of history. Since starting service in 2013, Jake has been witness to the most significant moments in Ukraine’s recent history. Ten years later, he joined us virtually from his home in Lutsk, Ukraine, for an interview.
Swearing In, the Revolution of Dignity, and War in the Donbas
Jake originally planned on a career in academia and economics, but when given the option to teach English in Eastern Europe, he took the chance to go to the region his Jewish great-grandparents had left generations before. Jake was sworn into service as a TEFL Volunteer in Ukraine in December 2013. Tensions were already rising in the capital as Ukrainians protested then-President Yanukovich’s sudden decision to pull Ukraine out of an agreement with the European Union.
Jake’s group had two swearing-in ceremonies, because Peace Corps wasn’t sure they could get to the Embassy. After holding a scaled-down ceremony at a hotel, they got to the US Embassy in Kyiv after all. Jake played the Ukrainian national anthem on saxophone, and recalls, “You could tell something was going on, because I was playing and all the Ukrainians started to sing the national anthem. Nowadays we take that for granted - of course everyone sings it - but a lot of Ukrainians told me that it was rarely sung out loud before.” The impact of what would come to be known as Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity could already be felt.
“You could tell something was going on, because I was playing and all the Ukrainians started to sing the national anthem. Nowadays we take that for granted - of course everyone sings it - but a lot of Ukrainians told me that it was rarely sung out loud before.”
Shortly after he began service in Volodymyr, Volyns'ka Oblast, Jake and his fellow Volunteers found themselves instructed to prepare for evacuation. “As soon as we arrived at our new sites, we would regularly be put into Standfast, but we did not leave our sites,” Jake recalls. In February 2014, Volunteers had to consolidate at a hotel in Lutsk, thinking it would just be a few days. “Someone in the room said, ‘Everybody check your phone!” and the message was: ‘You are being evacuated in two days.’”
Evacuated Volunteers were given the choice to apply to different Peace Corps posts, immediately close their service, or wait and see if they could return to Ukraine. Jake decided he would return. He hoped it would take just a few months, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea was followed by active hostilities in the Donbas region, and it took more than a year. Jake found odd jobs to hold himself over, and stayed in contact with his Ukrainian students and their teachers to hold online English language practice and teacher training sessions. Finally, in the spring of 2015, Jake and two other Volunteers were able to officially resume service in Ukraine.
Finding a Calling in Education
Jake didn’t originally plan to become an educator, but his time in Ukraine changed his trajectory. He credits Peace Corps Pre-Service Training for equipping him with the skills to start working in a classroom. Trainees had three hours of technical training each day, learned how to create lesson plans, and co-taught several times per week at a partnering Ukrainian school.
Jake with his host family from Pre-Service Training. They took this photo just before the first of Jake's two swearing-in ceremonies in 2013.
Jake went on to teach English at a gymnasium in Volodymyr, both before and after the evacuation. He had been preparing to help Ukrainian schools adopt modern approaches to education, but he was surprised by what he encountered: “My colleagues were some of the best teachers in Ukraine. I was told they’d be teaching old-school Soviet methods, but my counterpart was winning awards for teaching in Volyn Oblast. The teachers were already using newer methods I had just learned a few months earlier.” Being new to education himself, Jake had to discern how he could add value. “I found my role in making education more holistic. How can we help the students who feel they are sinking? There were many very successful students already, thanks to their teachers - but what do we do to make sure the struggling students can also succeed?”
“My colleagues were some of the best teachers in Ukraine. I was told they’d be teaching old-school Soviet methods, but my counterpart was winning awards for teaching in Volyn Oblast. The teachers were already using newer methods I had just learned a few months earlier[...] I found my role in making education more holistic. How can we help the students who feel they are sinking?”
Jake’s experience stuck with him, though he didn’t immediately decide to make teaching his career. After service, he earned his Master of Public Administration in Hungary and started working as a Performance Auditor at the Arizona Office of the Auditor General in Phoenix. However, he shares, “Even while working in my office, I kept thinking about teaching.”
Inspired by guidance from a former professor and several other educators, Jake joined Teach for America, with the goal of teaching internationally. Jake spent two years in the small California town of Lost Hills (population 2,000) teaching math, music, and computer science. He is proud to share that students there are now applying and getting accepted to good universities - a major change for a town that didn’t even have its own high school until recently. Jake was also able to quickly receive a teaching credential from California by providing evidence of teaching during his Peace Corps Service. After finishing Teach for America service and earning his credential, Jake took a job at an international school in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he taught economics and business for a year before his plans once again shifted toward Ukraine.
After finishing Peace Corps service, Jake earned his Master of Public Administration degree at Central European University in Budapest.
Returning to Ukraine
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the gears were turning to launch a new endeavor: American University Kyiv (AUK), a higher education institution led by Ukrainian-American founders in partnership with the Cintana Alliance and Arizona State University. Jake got in touch with the team in December 2021, and a job offer was in the works. Then, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion in February 2022. As Russian troops attempted to surround Kyiv and Jake wondered whether there would even be a university to go to, let alone a job, the Rector let him know that they would, indeed, still open AUK that year. Jake joined as Student Life Manager and an English language lecturer, and moved back to Lutsk in Volyn oblast to work remotely (the first year was online for safety.) Now, ten years after starting Peace Corps during the height of the Revolution of Dignity, he is back in Ukraine, trying to ensure Ukrainian students get a quality education during wartime.
In his role at AUK, Jake helps instill higher education practices that go beyond classroom instruction. “I like the mission - to bring an American style of education to Ukraine. Student-centeredness, career-centeredness, practical education, academic integrity - these are the things we focus on the most, because these are by far the biggest problems in Ukraine’s education system.” Education has long been perceived as one of the most corrupt sectors of Ukrainian society, and cheating is considered common. Students at AUK find themselves in an intentionally different environment where administrators and professors are expected to lead by example. When welcoming new students, the Rector even shares his personal story of teaching for 20+ years in the US and never being “asked for a favor.” “Our mission at the university isn’t just for our university - it’s also to improve the higher education system in general in Ukraine. Hopefully, it acts as a model for the future and shows that there can be an academic institution in Ukraine that really values academic integrity.”
“I like the mission - to bring an American style of education to Ukraine. Student-centeredness, career-centeredness, practical education, academic integrity - these are the things we focus on the most, because these are by far the biggest problems in Ukraine’s education system.”
Another distinctly American component of AUK is that students themselves get more leadership opportunities than what they might be offered elsewhere. As Student Life Manager, Jake mentors the Student Council and helps students form clubs and run events. He’s the only Student Life staff at AUK, while US universities often have whole teams devoted to it. However, he views his position as a start. “It’s a really hard thing to convince a lot of people, but I tell them ‘We’ve got to let the Ukrainian students have more responsibility, have more leadership opportunities.’”
War's Impact on Students
When asked about life during the war, Jake’s first impulse is to talk about the impact on students. The young people entering university now had their education interrupted first by the pandemic in 2020, and then by the military invasion in 2022. Many of the students Jake is working with at American University Kyiv are starting university having done almost all of high school remotely, under emergency conditions. “You can tell that students have not been in a physical classroom for almost four years… They haven’t physically been in front of a teacher in so long.”
Most of the students at AUK are currently local to Kyiv, but many moved there from areas now under Russian occupation: Mariupol, Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea. Jake notes that he and others in Ukraine have largely acclimated to the war, but adds: “Those air raids every day, you don’t think it gets to you, but then you go to another country and hear planes above you and have anxiety. It’s the same with my Ukrainian friends who have been able to go abroad. People hear loud sounds and freak out… It’s important to talk about it, but it’s hard to know when the right time is. It’s a lot of trauma that’s not being processed, and it’s literally right after covid. It’s just so much that will have to be worked with in the future.
At work with the students of American University Kyiv.
Jake sees two related and urgent needs, both at AUK and more broadly across Ukraine: restoring interrupted access to education, and normalizing psychological support.
“So many schools are being destroyed every day. Because of the destruction or because it’s not safe, a lot of schools are still online - but, like during covid, a lot of students don’t have computers. A lot of my former students from the gymnasium in Volodymyr have to have their lessons on their phones. Sometimes they can’t even join from their phones.”
Regarding mental health, AUK recently hired a psychologist from Kyiv who is trying to break down the significant stigma. Staff are welcome to be open with students in talking about mental health, and some even opt to share their own experiences of going to therapy. “Therapy is normal. It’s like going to the dentist. You go to the dentist regularly to make sure your teeth are healthy and clean. You go to a therapist regularly to make sure your brain is healthy and clean.”
For Jake, education is the future of Ukraine. “If we finish the war and students have lost four, five, six years of education because of covid and the war - that’s not how Ukraine is going to become a strong country.”
Thoughts on the Future
When it comes to Ukraine’s future, Jake hopes for a quick end to Russia’s military occupation and the ability to focus on economic recovery. His main concern is time. Many of the Ukrainians who fled abroad intend to come back, but returning becomes increasingly difficult the longer people are displaced. While a decisive victory is the first step in securing Ukraine’s future, “After the war, it is up to the Ukrainian government and the people to make sure this is the place you cannot miss out on… you have to make it a good place to live. And I think it is.”
Jake notes that a lot of people have chosen to stay in Ukraine, and some who left initially have returned. For those wondering how life is in Kyiv, Jake assures us that the metro is still as crowded as ever.
As we’re wrapping up our conversation, Jake’s phone goes off with an air raid alert. He signed up to get them for both Kyiv and Lutsk, since he spends time in both cities. “It’s an alert for Kyiv, but give it two minutes and it will be in Lutsk as well - that’s usually what happens.” Like many of our friends and colleagues, Jake has gotten used to living in a country under attack. Like many of our friends and colleagues, he believes Ukraine will prevail.