From left: Professor Natalia Khanenko-Friesen and students Matthew Selinger, Oksana Dubasov, Alicja Rutkowski, Jamie LaFleur, Tiana Kirstein, Kaitlyn Bletsky, and administrator Iryna Kozina in the St. Thomas More College atrium. (Photo: James Shewaga)

Trip to Ukraine a journey of self-discovery for U of S student

Ninety-five years after his great-grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to Canada, University of Saskatchewan student Matthew Selinger will have a chance to follow his family tree back to where they came from.

Selinger is one of six U of S students preparing to head overseas in May to take part in the Spring Session in Ukraine, a six-week intensive language and cultural program offered through St. Thomas More College (STM) in partnership with Ukraine’s Ternopil National Pedagogical University. For Selinger, what began as a chance to immerse himself in the language has evolved into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to trace his ancestry.

“Initially with this trip, I wasn’t looking at the research aspect of it, but the more I thought about being able to go to the homeland of my ancestors, it became more important,” said Selinger, a fourth-year modern languages student in the College of Arts and Science. “In fact, the town that my ancestors were from, called Lanivtsi, is an hour away from Ternopil where I will be studying. So, it’s a great opportunity for me to travel there and walk the streets of my ancestors. That will be pretty special.”

Selinger will be taking part in the 15th year of the STM Spring Session in Ukraine, following a five-year renewal of the agreement signed on Jan. 23 by U of S provost Tony Vannelli, STM dean Arul Kumaran and Ternopil University representatives. Students take language classes offered by Ternopil instructors, as well as a cultural course—Anthropological Perspectives on Contemporary Ukraine—taught by STM professor Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, who travels overseas with the students.

“Everyone lives with a host family and is immersed in the language and culture, so it’s a very popular program,” said Khanenko-Friesen, who first came to Canada from Ukraine in 1992 for graduate studies prior to being hired as a U of S professor in 2001 when she helped start the Ukrainian study abroad program. “Ukrainian-Canadians take great pride in their heritage and this idea of going home has become a really instrumental aspect of modern identity, a rite of passage if you will, to go back to where our roots come from. So anthropologically speaking, it’s a very important element of personal identity and cultural identity.”

The study abroad session has enhanced Ukrainian programming offered on campus and is strongly supported by STM, which is home to the Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage, established in 1998. The centre leads research into everything from the history of Ukrainian immigration in the west, the First World War internment of Ukrainian-Canadians from 1914-1920, the Holodomor genocide that killed five million Ukrainians from 1932-33, the devastation of the Second World War, Ukrainian independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014.

“This cohort of students will be studying what matters to modern Ukrainians,” said Khanenko-Friesen. “When it comes to our student participants, they come from a variety of disciplines and they are motivated by different interests. Some are interested in the Eastern Europe experience and in pursuing the language. And others, like Matthew, are also interested in exploring their heritage.”

For Selinger, learning about his Ukrainian and Jewish heritage has long been a personal passion. He has written university papers on Ukrainian victims of the Holocaust, as well as the 125th anniversary of the first Ukrainians in Saskatchewan. His family history includes a Ukrainian great-grandfather who could read, write and speak 11 languages, serving as an interpreter in the First World War overseas and in the Second World War for Canada.

“I looked at the document when my mother’s grandparents immigrated to Canada and this year is 95 years since they left Ukraine and now I’ll be going there,” said Selinger. “To be able to study in Ukraine and immerse myself in the language and culture and learn about the post-World (War) II history and all the things that happened, all of that is significant to me.”

Like his great-grandfather, Selinger would also like to serve his country. Proficient in French, and with some understanding of German and Russian—his father’s heritage—Selinger hopes improving his Ukrainian language skills will also help him serve in Canadian military intelligence, foreign affairs or international relations.

“I am very interested in history and politics and I want to pursue public service, whether it is in the military or government,” said Selinger, who plans to pursue a political studies degree next year at the U of S, after he completes his bachelor’s in modern languages. “So, this trip will be a great opportunity and I’m excited about it.”
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