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Because Hamiltonians Support Ukraine: Wyn Pennybacker ’19

As the week’s virtual English-Speaking Club meeting gets under way, facilitator Wyn Pennybacker ’19 shares a slide with a question for participants: “How are you?” 

This check-in is important since she isn’t able to meet in person with club members, many of whom are her students. Classes are canceled because of the Russia-Ukraine crisis at Kamianets-Podilskyi National Ivan Ohiienko University in Kamianets-Podilskyi (KP), Ukraine, where Pennybacker has been a Fulbright English teaching assistant since October. Most recently, she’s hosted club meetings virtually from Warsaw, Poland, where she was evacuated to by the Fulbright program in January. KP has not seen any military action so far, and her students are in suburbs near the university.

Pennybacker spends a few minutes touching base with the group before moving on to the meeting agenda. She notes that as the weeks go by, her students seem more quiet and worried. That’s even more of a reason to continue with these meetings, which she hopes are a respite for her students who yearn to continue learning and do something that feels more normal.

“We chose topics for each meeting during our first meeting of the semester, and we continue to move through them one by one,” she explains. “Today we talked about friends and family. My students love telling stories about all the things they do together with the people they care about. Last week we talked about celebrities. I teach students who are beginning to learn conversational and practical English and others who are more advanced, so I differentiate the content as much as I can to keep everyone engaged.”

I weigh whether I think being in Warsaw is conducive to genuinely helping the situation or if my being here is a net drain on resources. I defer to my community here – the Fulbright community – who best understand the local situation and circumstances.

When she’s not hosting club meetings or interacting with students on Instagram and Telegram, Pennybacker joins other Fulbright participants and friends in Warsaw and volunteers to help Ukranian refugees who have arrived in Poland. Some days she sorts donated clothes, and other days she greets those arriving by train, serves them food, and gets them the resources they need. Simultaneously, she crowdfunds through Instagram almost daily so she can buy critically needed items like first-aid supplies, baby formula, diapers, and feminine products. She then donates them to refugees or sends them back to Ukraine. She’s determined to do everything she can to help as long as she’s there. 

“If I am here, then I’m occupying a space that could be occupied by a refugee, which is something to consider,” says Pennybacker, who has been on a temporary EU tourist visa since being evacuated to Poland; classes resumed at KPNU in mid-March, so she is assisting five classes remotely before her Fulbright program concludes in June. “I weigh whether I think being in Warsaw is conducive to genuinely helping the situation or if my being here is a net drain on resources. I defer to my community here – the Fulbright community – who best understand the local situation and circumstances.”

Pennybacker double-majored in history and Russian studies at Hamilton, where she uncovered an intense curiosity in Russia and Ukraine and was empowered to pursue a Fulbright. Her College classmates and friends have donated to her crowdfunding efforts, and her professors and advisors have remained in touch.

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“They’ve been checking in to see how I’m doing,” she says. “I’m thankful for them keeping me in mind.”

Pennybacker’s plans following this experience are in progress — “everything changes because of geo-political conflict,” she notes — but for now, she’ll continue with her master’s degree programs in Eastern European studies and public affairs at Indiana University-Bloomington. She’s interested in completing research specifically about Ukraine, a place and people who have left an indelible mark on her.

“Ukraine is a great place, and the people are so welcoming and kind,” she says. “During all of this, one thing that has really struck me is their unshakeable spirit and determination. They are forward-thinking, hopeful, and have a true sense of pride in Ukraine and their communities. I’m lucky to have spent time there and to know the people I know in Ukraine.”

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