The thought of having frequent conversations with non-native English speakers initially was daunting for Olivia Peterson.

A self-described fast talker, she said speaking slowly was not in her wheelhouse.

But after some coaching, Peterson, a Virginia Tech junior, mastered the art of conversational English well enough to guide a Zoom breakout room of eager participants, all from Ukraine.

Twice a week and more than 5,000 miles and an ocean away, Peterson and other Virginia Tech students are hosting hour-long conversations in English with Ukrainian natives who fled the country after the Russian invasion.

These Hokies, who are either enrolled in a service-learning course or a senior capstone class in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, are practicing conversational English with a group of 12 Ukrainians who now live in Poland and want to improve their language skills.

Many of the refugees are women who left the country with their children while their husbands stayed behind to maintain essential services or to serve with the Ukrainian military forces. As they adjust to a new life, they are realizing that their English skills could use some help. Many of them want to be able to consider employment options in the tourism or internet technology industries across Europe. English also can help them carry on daily conversations with their children’s teachers in Poland.

“Our goals are to help our Ukrainian participants build confidence in their ability to listen and speak in English and to show support and solidarity in this time of crisis,"  said Matthew Komelseki, an advanced instructor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech. "At the same time, we are providing Virginia Tech students with learning opportunities that develop professional communication and leadership skills. Our students are not teachers. They are conversation partners.”

For a capstone project, the students also plan, organize, and evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

Komelski launched the program, called Speak Up for Ukraine, last fall after visiting Poland for professional development work at the American School of Warsaw, a nonprofit English language international school. Alongside the school is a relief center that has been working with displaced Ukrainians and other refugees.

In Komelski’s service-learning class, Virginia Tech students can choose to work with a variety of community organizations. Komelski decided to explore the possibility of students helping Ukrainian refugees while he volunteered in American School’s relief center last summer. There he worked alongside displaced mothers who requested conversational English support.

“Our students are quite removed from what is going on [in Ukraine], and I know some of them do want to help,” Komelski said. “I feel like we should do what we can to support Ukrainians. What they are going through and the fight they are fighting, it’s a fight for the future of the free world.”

Matthew Komelski is shown posing for a photo with Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Matthew Komelski (second from left) with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. They are participating in a Speak Up class with Komelski's Virginia Tech students to practice English conversation. Photo courtesy of Matthew Komelski.

With help from Virginia Tech’s Language and Culture Institute and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, Komelski organized training for his students on conversational English and best practices for working with refugees. The program also received assistance with recruiting Ukrainians from volunteers at American School Warsaw and Ukrainian mothers involved in the program. Speak Up for Ukraine has continued this spring semester.

Lucia Kryger, a teacher with American School and a volunteer with the refugee center, helped Komelski find Ukrainians who were interested in the program. She helps them log onto Zoom, and she joins all of the classes.

Before each Zoom session, the participants receive the topics for discussion, ranging from manners in various cultures to the differences between a salad bowl and a melting pot. The session opens with everyone together, then divides into breakout groups.

Typically, two students are paired with a Ukrainian participant while volunteers who know both English and Ukrainian or Russian are on-call in the session to provide additional support where needed. The students have learned a range of strategies for communicating with second-language speakers, such as typing phrases into the Zoom chat so that the Ukrainians can see the words on the screen while hearing them, too.

It’s clear that the Ukrainians’ command of speaking English has improved since the classes started, said Kryger.

“The main goal was for them to feel comfortable to express themselves,” she said, adding that discussions about different cultures has been among their favorite topics.

“The Ukrainian moms talk about where they liked to travel in Ukraine and their traditions, and the students were also talking about their lives in America,” Kryger said. “The moms loved listening and hearing what it was like to live in America.”

Sofia Piazza, a Virginia Tech junior who is half Ukrainian and who speaks the country’s language, has been volunteering with the Speak Up program. Her language skills have come in handy as she joins various breakout rooms during the class.

“It’s just me wanting to help and give back to the community that I am a part of,” said Piazza, who grew up attending a Ukrainian school once a week in Washington, D.C.

One challenge, she said, is translating Ukrainian words into English, such as those for certain foods that don’t exist in the United States.

Peterson, a junior majoring in human development who participated in Komelski’s course last fall, said the conversations opened her eyes to Ukrainian culture.

“The biggest thing for me was hearing their stories,” she said. “They would also bring what little pictures they had. A lot of their stuff was left in Ukraine. Getting to see a little bit of their life through pictures, that was really neat.”

VT Engage is planning a service-learning trip to Poland this summer that some of Komelski’s students will take, including Piazza. They hope to meet some of the women who have been participating in the program.

Overall, understanding and appreciating diversity is one of the main points that Komelski tries to drive home with his students as part of his courses. He said the Speak Up program will continue as long as the war in Ukraine continues.

Also, he is considering ways to transition the program to help other displaced communities.

“Every program that I try to build is about helping the students grow and learn to work with people who are really different from themselves,” he said.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone