Interview with Valentyna Ushchyna

Ukrainian philologist who found a host university while in a 10-hour queue at the border talks about a life upended

June 9, 2022
Source: University of Pittsburgh

Valentyna Ushchyna is a professor of English philology at Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University in Lutsk, Ukraine. She studies the links between language, discourse and society, with a focus on the communication of risk. She is now a guest lecturer at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1966 in the small town of Shumsk in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine, into a family of the “Soviet intelligentsia”: my father was an abdominal surgeon, and my mother was a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature in a local secondary school.

How has this shaped who you are?
Both my parents were eager readers; I have always seen them with books, be it in the evening in front of the silent TV, at the seaside or in bed. My family was always Ukrainian speaking. My mother sang her lullabies to me in Ukrainian, and my father told his nightly fairy tales in Ukrainian.

How did the invasion of Ukraine affect you?
Since 24 February, my life and the lives of many Ukrainians changed drastically. Thankfully, my elder daughter and her family managed to flee from Kyiv. But even in Lutsk we had several air raid alerts a day, and several more at night. To do at least something we went to a little basement in the garden for storing potatoes. After several weeks of fear and sleepless nights another missile attack struck the airport near my house. My husband and I made the spontaneous decision that I should take my children away. It was a very tough decision, as I also had my elderly mother living with us and nothing was planned.

You found a place to stay while in a 10-hour queue at the border. How did that happen?
In early March I found myself in a car on the border with Poland. My mind was deafeningly silent, my emotions were shushed, I was calm and focused. There were three children and one granddaughter with me in the car. I had to take them somewhere safe. There was a long wait at the border because there were people with no documents at all. They were fleeing from the east where Russian troops entered, and people were running literally in their T-shirts with no passports or money. I was checking my email on my phone and found a letter from some international rescue organisation offering help to Ukrainian scholars at risk. They asked where we were going and whether we had a place to stay. I received a response almost immediately from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. So, still being in Ukraine, I already knew where we were going. I can’t thank enough all the people I met in Kraków, Poland, and all the Poles.

Has the invasion of Ukraine changed the way you talk about risk?
Yes and no. When I talk about risk academically, I use my usual paradigm. But when I start talking about current risks my country and my people are facing every moment of our lives lately, I can’t but see that we moved down from the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Just a few months ago I was discussing with my husband the risks of drinking too much coffee in the morning. Now we are discussing the risks of losing our lives or our country.

Is the language we use to talk about war important?
Certainly! On the one hand, people manipulate information about war, finding pretexts for aggression. Speaking of the current war, launched by Russia on sovereign Ukraine, we can see that different, often contradistinctive narratives are created. To me the situation is as clear as black and white. When the neighbour breaks into your home, you need to protect it – your household, your children, your future.

What were your first impressions of the US?
The University of Mississippi in Oxford was as beautiful as any other place on Earth, with all its magnolias, sorority girls and [William] Faulkner’s mansion. Never before had I had a plastic bank card, an email account, driven a car or seen so many people of different races. My trip to Pittsburgh was much less culturally challenging than Oxford, even though it was during the pandemic. Not because the former was in Mississippi and the latter was in Pennsylvania, but rather because Ukraine caught up with the US in many senses in those 20 years. I might even say that there were spheres where I felt Ukraine surpassed America.

What is your favourite book?
Before the war started I read several books simultaneously. One was in my bag just in case I had to wait somewhere. This was often popular non-fiction that did not require lots of attention. One was in my study. This used to be some academic monograph for my current research. The third could be found at my bedside table. This could be anything, but most likely John Grisham, Ken Follett, Max Kidruk or Charles Dickens. I have not read a single piece of fiction during the last three months. I read articles under review, I read books when I’m getting prepared for my lectures, but I can’t read anything for pleasure. Every single story, every single plot and conflict seems so miserably unimportant when children are dying from dehydration in the basements of Ukrainian cities occupied by Russia.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for being a good person, a good mother and a good lecturer. I would also be happy to be remembered as a person one wants to spend time with, as a woman of good humour and good style.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

CV

1988 diploma of Lesya Ukrainka Lutsk State Pedagogical Institute

1999-2000 Fulbright Junior Faculty Development Program, University of Mississippi

2003 candidate of philology, Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University

2016  doctor of philology, Kyiv National Linguistic University

2018 head of the department of English philology, Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University

2019-20 Fulbright Scholar Program, University of Pittsburgh


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