A few times a week, songs from Ukraine can be heard coming from a classroom in Goldwin Smith Hall, as Cornell’s Ukrainian program brings the country’s culture to campus through language learning, folk tradition and history.
The effort is led by Krystyna Golovakova, visiting lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature in the College of Arts and Sciences, a native of Ukraine and a recent refugee from the war-torn nation.
This summer, Golovakova and Serge Petchenyi, multimedia creative lead in the Center for Teaching Innovation, worked with members of the Ukrainian community in Binghamton, New York, to record 12 folk and popular songs for classroom use in the language classes. Many Ukrainian songs are actually stories, scenes or even dialogues and lend themselves well to language study, Golovakova said.
To engage with these songs, students use Web Audio Lab, a platform developed by Slava Paperno, senior lecturer of Russian language (A&S). The platform allows them to play audio files of songs, read the accompanying lyrics and translations, and record themselves singing the songs to check their pronunciation.
“With the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been an increased interest in Ukrainian culture and language. Many people want to learn more about Ukraine, its history and its people,” Golovakova said. “But Ukraine is not only a country at war, but a country with rich traditions and a beautiful language. This is a language of self-determination, of independence, of courage and struggle.”
Cornell began offering courses in Ukrainian language and culture in 2022, shortly after the war began. This fall, students interested in learning Ukrainian language have met in Goldwin Smith Hall four times a week. They have in-person help from undergraduates who are from Ukraine, as well as Golovakova, who is also a native speaker. Other students, who want to focus on understanding the war and the historical underpinnings of Ukrainian, meet once a week for a one-credit Introduction to Ukraine class.
Paul Kolenda ’25, whose mother is from Ukraine, said he is taking the language class to connect with a family heritage. “I do have family in Ukraine and I would like to be able to visit them again and be able to better speak with them,” he said.
Colin Rodriguez ’24 said he’s long been interested in Ukrainian culture and politics. He volunteers with a program that matches Ukrainian students with English speakers to help with language skills. As a student in the ILR School, he believes it’s important to study Ukraine because of the country’s economic importance and industrial history.
“I wanted to help out, but I also see a lot of potential in the future,” he said. “I’m looking at the consulting space and it may be very beneficial for me to have a strong understanding of Ukrainian culture and language.”
Students started the semester by learning the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet, new vocabulary and grammar, and are now working on more complex language structures. Some of the letters used in Ukrainian are “false friends;” Golovakova said, that look like one letter but actually sound like another. And there are some sounds in Ukrainian that simply don’t exist in English.
Golovakova said students are surprised to find out that Ukrainian is one of the most widely spoken languages around the globe.
Veronika Makoviak '25, a transfer student from Ukraine, takes initiative to help other students in the class.
“I want to make sure that our students have a safe space for practicing the language,” she said. “I constantly remind them that making mistakes is an inextricable part of learning any language, and that they don’t have to feel pressure to succeed from scratch. Nevertheless, I genuinely admire our students. They grasp new concepts very fast and with such passion. Being their teaching assistant is an honor for me.”
A government major, Makoviak said she wants to help Golovakova grow Cornell’s Ukraine program, with the goal of eventually establishing a Ukrainian minor. Golovakova will teach four courses next semester: a new language course for heritage speakers and another new class on contemporary Ukraine. The other language classes, Elementary Ukrainian II and the one-credit Introduction to Ukraine, will continue. Students interested in the language can also take part in conversation hours at the Language Resource Center on Mondays.
Many of the students in the one-credit class have family ties to Ukraine, but others simply wanted a better understanding of the country, its culture and the region.
“Taking this course challenged me to break down everything I thought I knew about Ukraine and put the war in context,” said Myka Melville ’25. “In the past nine weeks, I’ve learned how important the language is in the culture and how Russia tried to keep the Ukrainian language from being spoken. I’ve learned more about the ongoing struggle for Ukrainian independence.”
Along with the classes, Cornell’s Ukrainian Cultural Club for students is active in creating and promoting events. This semester, they worked to bring the documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” to Cornell Cinema and hosted lectures and cultural activities. Students have also been busy contacting members of the U.S. Senate to thank them for their support of Ukraine during the war and urge them to continue that support.
Sofiia Kozak ‘25 is another student who transferred to Cornell after studying for two years at a university in Ukraine.
“Having a Ukrainian community on campus is incredibly important,” she said. “I was glad to know there were people like Krystyna promoting Ukraine here and students interested in learning more about the country, beyond what is happening in the war.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer in the College of Arts and Sciences.