Robbinsville has become a national hotbed for Little League softball in recent years, but the town could just as easily be known for its academic success.
Robbinsville is fast becoming a strong breeding ground for the Fulbright Scholar Program.
Alana Jaskir and Taylor Johnson had a few classes together at Robbinsville High School before they went off to separate colleges and separate academic pursuits. Amazingly, their paths have converged when both were awarded Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship scholarships to teach English for nine months in Ukraine starting in September.
“It’s a complete coincidence,” said Johnson, who graduated from the University of Richmond with degrees in history and Russian. “Neither one of us knew the other was applying.”
Johnson was awarded a Fulbright in May after Jaskir had announced on a Facebook post that she, too, had won a Fulbright. They have exchanged messages since then.
“It’s really insane,” said Jaskir, who graduated from Princeton University with a degree in computer science. “It’s a reminder of how small the world is sometimes.”
Sean Pethybridge, a Robbinsville High School graduate who graduated from Gettysburg College in 2015, was also awarded a Fulbright. He will teach English in Brazil. Another RHS graduate, Morgan Goldstein, taught English on a Fulbright Scholarship in La Rioja, Spain after graduating from Elon University in 2016 with degrees in elementary education and special education.
She told Elon’s online news site: “My experience with Fulbright will open the door to new pedagogical strategies and help me become a globally engaged and culturally aware teacher.”
Prior to her Fulbright experience, Goldstein planned to return to the U.S. to attend graduate school and earn special education and English as a Second Language certifications. Her Fulbright teaching tenure ended in June.
Approximately 1,900 U.S. students receive Fulbright scholarships each year. The Fulbright is a scholarship program of competitive, merit-based grants for international educational exchange for students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists. It was founded by J. William Fulbright, a U.S. Senator for 30 years, to foster mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of foreign countries.
Applying for a Fulbright scholarship is a long process. The Ukrainian scholars had on-campus interviews, Skype interviews with Ukrainians who run the program abroad and had to submit two essays along with their resume.
Jaskir and Johnson will be living and teaching relatively close to each other in Ukraine, but how they got there is quite different. Both have deep Ukrainian roots, and Jaskir grew up surrounded by the culture while Johnson discovered a passion for it in college. Both hope to one day teach in college.
“There’s a pretty expansive Ukrainian community even within Central Jersey,” Jaskir said. “My whole family is from Ukraine, so I thought I knew all the Ukrainians. We ended up finding each other. It’s nice to know a friendly Robbinsville face is going to be in the same country, especially given the nature of the politics there. My mother is much relieved that I’ll have a friend in the country.”
‘I think it’s going to be politically relevant, culturally relevant and I think it’s going to be a great experience.’
Both sets of Jaskir’s grandparents came over from Ukraine right after World War II. They spoke Ukrainian, but Jaskir was not taught to speak the language.
“I can understand a decent amount of what is said, enough to know when my family is talking about me,” Jaskir said. “I grew up with the culture, especially around Easter and Christmas time because Western Ukraine is much more Byzantine Catholic, so we’d do traditional dishes and stuff. I grew up culturally with a lot. My parents speak it. I know some words to yell at the dog. I’ll be teaching myself some of it this summer, and hopefully I’ll find someone to speak with me once I’m there to practice my Ukrainian.”
Jaskir will be teaching English at the National University of Water and Environmental Engineering in Rivne, in the Rivne Oblast region.
“I did some outreach at college,” Jaskir said. “I’m hoping to see given the resources there, if I can do kind of any type of ‘Girls that Code’ or programs like that that try to do empowerment through computer science for younger grades. I’ve taught a lot and mentored younger kids. It’s going to be interesting teaching at a university level.”
Jaskir has traveled internationally before. She spent a month in an immersion program in France, had a two-month internship in Tanzania, and studied for six months of a semester at University College London, where she took a good Ukrainian culture course and ended up bringing home a friend’s Ukrainian textbook.
“This will be slightly different from my other visits,” Jaskir said. “I grew up with some of the culture, and it’s kind of old. I think it’ll be strange but familiar at the same time. I’m excited to see how I respond in that type of environment. It’s nine months too, so it’s going to be a very intensive immersion which I’ve never had before.
“But my previous experiences have prepared me. I’m excited for all it. I’ll meet new people, and I have a few cousins there so I’m figuring out who I know there and how I can travel around to different parts of the country and try to avoid the East so I don’t run into chaos. I think it’s going to be politically relevant, culturally relevant and I think it’s going to be a great experience.”
Meanwhile, Johnson left Robbinsville for Richmond University to swim and follow in her father’s footsteps. She swam on the Richmond team and did well in the pool in her first two years before a broken ankle that went undiagnosed forced her to stop for her final two years of college. Her academic path grew clearer over that time.
“In high school, I always liked studying the Cold War,” Johnson said. “I didn’t pick up on the fact that that was the stuff I wanted to study forever. I went into college thinking I was going to be a lawyer like my dad, then I took a couple classes related to law and hated them. They were so dry. I knew that wasn’t for me.”
In the spring of her freshman year, she needed to take a literature course, and only one fit with her practice schedule: 19th Century Russian Literature. She went into it thinking she would be bored, but soon found she had the opposite reaction.
“It was my favorite,” she said. “It was amazing.”
After that class, Johnson started taking more Russian-based classes.
“I had an amazing professor who ended up being my advisor, Professor (David) Brandenberger,” she said. “He is the one that encouraged me to start learning the languages. I wouldn’t be at this point if he hadn’t encouraged me to do that. I credit him with any and all success I had in college.”
Johnson didn’t start working on the language side of her majors until after her sophomore year when she took a summer course in Middlebury College. Students were only allowed to speak Russian for the eight weeks. She went in knowing zero Russian, but came out feeling confident enough in her ability that she knew she wanted to continue.
She kept up her Russian when she was paired with a language partner at Richmond. The two now date, and he is Ukrainian. He has helped her learn Russian and helped guide her on three trips to Ukraine, including in August for Ukrainian Independence Day and later for spring break.
“We ended up talking every day,” Johnson said. “He’s a big reason my Russian is at the level it’s at. He helped me a lot.”
Her studies have helped her connect with her family roots. Her ancestors are from Ukraine. Though her great-grandparents didn’t pass the language down, she has grown increasingly interested in her background.
“I had my sights set on Fulbright since I was a sophomore since I decided this is what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I took a class with Brandenberg called ‘Stalin’s Terror.’ We focused for a couple weeks on this massive genocide in Ukraine that I had never heard of before. It’s called the Holodomor. For me, that was what sparked my interest more in Ukrainian studies besides Soviet studies in general. That made me focus more. I had no idea. My family is from there. That’s what got me really, really interested in Ukraine.”
Johnson will teach English at Ternopil Volodymyr Hnatyuk National Pedagogical University in Ternopil. She is looking forward to exploring her genealogy closer as well as her family’s native land.
“They have such a rich culture,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to be in a region that’s not a big region. I feel like I’ll get a traditional Ukrainian experience. I love all the traditions that I’ve read about. I’m excited to be able to experience that. And Ukrainians are some of the warmest people I’ve met. You meet a Ukrainian, and they’ll invite you over for dinner almost immediately. They have very good hospitality. They’re so, so nice.”
In addition to teaching, both Jaskir and Johnson each have a requirement for a supplemental project while they are teaching.
“I’ve been contacting NGOs who work on computer science outreach in terms of software development and how people integrate with new technology,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping to do something more (computer science) related, or at least teaching more in a STEM field. That’s also an area of my expertise. It depends on the resources they have.”
Said Johnson: “Mine is on youth and how they identify patriotism, how they define nationality and how language plays a role in that because Ukrainian is such a bilingual country. It’s divided east and west. Most of the West uses Ukrainian. The capital uses both. The farther east, the more Russian is spoken. I’m going to try to find out if there’s a link between language and patriotism.”
Both Jaskir and Johnson prepared this summer for the start of their Fulbright experiences. Jaskir had an internship at a government research facility in Boston, and planned on practicing her language skills daily. Johnson took an intensive Ukrainian class at Indiana University, in an attempt to improve her Ukrainian to get it closer to her Russian competency.
“Hopefully, I’ll get my Ukrainian to a level I can communicate with it instead of relying on my Russian too much while I’m there,” Johnson said. “It’s actually really different. I’ll be in Western Ukraine which is mostly Ukrainian speaking. I feel better knowing I have enough of a Russian background that people will understand if I’m trying to talk to them in Russian. It’s more respectful to the culture and the people I’ll be working with if I make an effort to learn Ukrainian.”
Jaskir and Johnson came out of Robbinsville together, but never could have predicted that they would be doing something so similar four years later.
“No, not even a little bit,” Johnson said. “I was so sure when I graduated that I was going to be a lawyer, I wasn’t even entertaining other ideas. If I hadn’t had to take that 19th Century Russian Literature course, I’m not sure I would have found my way to this path. I’m really glad I did.”
Now the two look forward to the new experience abroad in Ukraine. They are just the latest to represent Robbinsville internationally as part of the prestigious Fulbright Scholars Program.
“It’s great considering how new the school district is,” Jaskir said. “It’s neat to see where people are in the world.”