A former foreign exchange student in Chanute has returned to the town in a different capacity.
Lidia Kumenko, an associate legal officer for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the Ukraine, got her first taste of international work as a foreign exchange student at Neosho County Community College in 2001. She has returned to Chanute for the first time since her program ended in 2002 to be reunited with her host parents, Cindy and Mark Crowl, as well as former International Student Services Director for NCCC, Ann Neff.
Neff explained that Kumenko was a part of a now-discontinued program, the Freedom Support Act. Students that were a part of the program came from 21 countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Neff suspected that the completely-US-Government sponsored program was a sort of propaganda technique to expose what were billed as the brightest students from the former Soviet Union students to democracy and capitalism.
“I think they banked on the fact that these would be the leaders of those countries,” Neff said. “The students were very motivated students and it was a part of their contract that they had to stay home for two years after they stayed here.”
Kumenko applied for the program after being encouraged by a friend who had spent a year in the US as a high school foreign exchange student and really enjoyed the experience.
“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure that it would work,” Kumenko said. “But if it didn’t work, at least I would know the selection process – and it just clicked.”
She had already spent a year at university in Kiev, Ukraine, studying law when she was accepted to the international program. But the program encouraged students to study something completely different in the US. She ended up studying small business management at NCCC, but the first step was into the great unknown.
“When I boarded the plane in Kiev, it was like jumping into a black hole,” Kumenko said. “I couldn’t imagine how it was going to be.”
She wasn’t confident with her English skills, either, particularly regarding speaking. She recalled during her orientation for the program at American University that the cafeteria workers made her speak rather than point at her selections. Coming to Kansas was also anxiety-inducing, as she wanted to make the best impression that she could, despite not knowing what people were expecting. Growing up in a city of more than 800,000 people and coming from a university with more than 500 people in her department alone, Kumenko said that NCCC looked quite small. She had underestimated her speaking abilities, but using the telephone was a daunting process.
“The scariest thing was calling on the phone,” she said. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t catch what was being said.”
Her first English telephone call, she recalled, was to her host father Mark Crowl for a ride. Cindy Crowl said that they originally signed up as a host family on a temporary basis, but Kumenko ended up staying for the entire school year, and a couple of years later they hosted another student from South Korea.
“It was such a good experience hosting,” Cindy said. “I would love to host again, if I had a spare bed.”
Having a host family rather than staying in the dorms was an invaluable part of the experience for Kumenko. She was able to be active in the community with the Crowls in church, as well as getting to travel around the area for a variety of cultural experiences that she would have otherwise missed.
“They were such great hosts,” Kumenko said. “They never closed the door. We had other international students coming over all the time for assignments, international dinners and the greatest birthday party I have ever had.”
Neff said that it was a requirement for students from the program to have host families rather than be in the dorms, as it exposes both the students and the hosts to new ways of doing things and a different culture.
After 10 months in Chanute, it was a shock to return to the Ukraine. Kumenko said she wished they had an orientation for those returning home as well. She explained that Ukrainian culture is far less open than in America, with smiling in public less common and apologies to strangers rare.
“There, at first I felt stupid smiling at everyone on the train,” she said. “It has changed as Kiev has hosted big international events, but in 2002 it was really strong.”
Going back to the much more formal education system in her own country was also frustrating. Upon returning, her attempts to help others with English were thwarted by a teacher who believed that American English was different than what they taught at university. The dean of her college wouldn’t allow any of her credits to transfer either, despite maintaining a 4.0 in the honors curriculum at NCCC.
“I was at the point of crying,” she said.
She went on to complete her Master’s degree in international law, in addition to a PHD in international law, focusing on human rights. She has been through numerous international training programs and has worked in two different international organizations in the United Nations system, travelling all over the European continent and Pakistan.
Currently, she serves as a lawyer for displaced Ukrainians stemming from the conflict in the Crimean area of Eastern Ukraine. An estimated 1.5 million people have been displaced because of the violence. Kumenko said that her experience here in the US has been helpful to her career as she straddles the relationship between countries and the international community.
“I don’t work for the government; I work for an international organization,” she said. “I work with the government to insure up to international standards of good governance, democracy and the rule of law.”
Despite a demanding career and having three children, Kumenko has always kept up with Chanute and the people here. The advent of social media has made it even easier to keep in contact, but actually coming back had been a long-term goal. She made the most of her weekend, visiting everyone she knows and going back to all of the places she used to go. Not much has changed, she said, but notably the addition of the fountain at the college was one of the biggest changes.
“I was so happy here, and comfortable,” she said. “There were times that I dreamed of riding my bike and I could clearly know all of the street names. It was a really good place for me to be.”