Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine

It’s finals week here at Georgetown.  Holed up in a Healy conference room, I’m happy to say I’ve finished my first paper.  Reflecting my interest in religion and politics, my chosen topic of “Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine” piqued my curiosity.  If you’re interested too, here’s a link to my paper.

It covers the role of religion in inspiring the ongoing Euromaidan protests and influencing Russia’s aggressive response.  I conclude with some policy recommendations for the U.S. and Europe.

When in Rome…see the Pope

“Pray for me.”

Those were the only three words I could understand, a short plea spoken from the lips of Pope Francis himself.

We knew he didn’t speak very much English, and for a few minutes we anxiously waited in the Vatican chambers, wondering when he would arrive and how he would address us.  Watched carefully by two Swiss guards in their circus-colored robes, we paced around the room – some posing by the papal seat for pictures, others gawking at the glorious frescoed ceiling, and everyone very much excited for our private audience with the renowned Church leader.

His words were simple, and his phrase was charged with humility.  Known for taking public transportation, refusing to live in the luxurious papal apartment, and infusing the Church with a call to simplicity and service, here is the holy father acknowledging his own weakness and asking for our support.  Here is a man so full of prayer and blessing and baby-kissing, and yet he is asking me to pray for him.  

How exactly did I get to this place?  Just last week, I was in Rome for the Berkley Center’s Christianity and Freedom Conference, a large gathering of researchers and academics at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.  It was a rather unexpected trip across the world.  A student assistant had dropped out at the last minute, and I was fortunate enough to take his spot just one week before departure.  Final exams could wait!

In addition to some logistical support, I was charged with bringing over the official Berkley Center camera, making me the unofficial cameraman for my unexpected Italian adventure.  And there I was, standing about an arms-length from the Pope, snapping photos and trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Some photos from the visit:

That's me in the back center in ready position!

That’s me in the back center in ready position!

with the papal seat

with the papal seat


with Dr. Farr, one of our project leaders from Georgetown

with Kevin and Kyle - two of the guys that put it all together!

with Kevin and Kyle – two of the guys that put it all together!

and some other photos from around the city…

IMG_2115IMG_0246IMG_0275 (2)

finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen!

finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen! thanks to Gianluca and Davide for showing us around

The “hard” part of studying abroad


As the temperature here in DC starts to dip below 40, I am starting to feel “cold” again for the first time since trekking through the dark, snowy streets of Copenhagen last winter.  As students begin to button up their jackets and complain about this week’s forecast, I’m thinking to myself, “You think this is cold?  You don’t know what cold is!”  This isn’t cold – this is like spring-time weather in Denmark!  It is absolutely stunning here in Georgetown, and I’ve taken good advantage of it too, spending long nights out on my back porch while working on my research paper in the dim light.  There are even a few small candles lit on the table.  Ahhh, the memories of hygge.

I know you’ve heard it a million times, but where has all the time gone?  As each month passes, I’m getting closer and closer to the one-year anniversary of my departure for Denmark.  Last week, we even had the closing panel discussion and ceremony for the Junior Year Abroad Program (JYAN), the group of student-bloggers writing for Georgetown’s Berkley Center.  We talked about lessons learned, challenges overcome, and surprising twists to our study-abroad narrative.  Most people had nothing but the fondest of memories.

That conversation really made me think about writing another post – a really honest post.  Because looking back on the previous semester, all I can remember is people saying how fun it was, how good of a time they had, how they traveled and met people and experienced those once-in-a-lifetime events.

For the most part, I think this blog has followed that trend.  When you see someone who was abroad that you haven’t seen in a while and ask them “how did it go?,” the answer is always the same.  “I had an amazing time with amazing people and saw some really amazing things.”  That’s the standard 30-second answer.  It is absolutely ridiculous, and it gets me frustrated.  “Fun.” “Amazing.” “Cool.”  Those words are so utterly inadequate to describe my whirlwind of a semester.

Fun?  Sure.  But no one ever talks about how hard it was.  How hard it was to meet new people, to adjust to the culture, to stay warm in the blizzard, to get used to paying $10 for a drink and commute 25 minutes to school every morning.  I was thrown a curveball, and I definitely swung and missed a few times.  I got lost in the city.  I fell asleep on the bus and missed my stop.  I was awful at Danish.  I was thrown into an environment so different than what I was accustomed to at home, and it was hard knowing that everything back in Georgetown was so easy and familiar.

But somehow I got through it all.  I stumbled through Danish classes, found more than a few welcoming churches to attend, got cozy with my dorm floor watching Game of Thrones, and managed to cook some delicious meals in the tiniest of kitchens.  I attended a Muslim prayer service, marched with the Danish socialists, walked around free-town Christiana, went couch-surfing in Berlin, met family members for the first time in Ukraine, and did some things I never imagined I would experience.

It wasn’t always comfortable, and it wasn’t always easy.  But it was in these very challenges that I learned the most – about myself, about Europe, about politics and religion and culture and whole bunch of other things.  Just remember that being abroad is not a one-dimensional reverie.  There’s so, so much more going on than you think – and if you want to enjoy it all, you’ve got to keep that perspective.

3 months later: my delayed culture shock


Lots of students claim to experience “culture shock” upon returning home from study abroad.  I have heard the same stories over and over – how the people are so much more pleasant in Denmark, how the food is so much tastier in Rome, or how Washington and New York are not as great as people make them out to be.  One of my friends from Copenhagen admitted he could barely leave his room during the first few days of summer.  Another vows to return to Europe as soon as he graduates next year.

Frankly, I thought they were being ridiculous.  Studying in Europe was a joy in so many ways, but I really looked forward to reconnecting with home after my crazy five-month adventure.  I missed staring at the glowing lights of Healy Hall every night.  I missed country music night at Tombs.  I missed seeing signs in English and the heat of D.C. summer.  But most of all, I missed something I liked to call the “edge” – that aggressive, go-getter mentality that I proudly considered a hallmark of American culture.

At least, that is what I thought I missed.  After moving back to D.C. and starting my ten-week internship at a defense consulting firm, I quickly realized that above everything else, the edge hurt.  I just wanted to slow down – slow down during my fifty-hour work weeks in my glass-plated office building; slow down during my morning bike rides over the Key Bridge; slow down all the applications and essays bouncing around in my head.  I wanted to take a break from my research and email-writing and unglue my eyes from the hazy glow of the computer screen.

Although the proverbial “culture shock” might have hit me a few months later than everyone else, I think it hit me hard.  I feel overly relaxed in tough situations.  I am less opinionated and go-getting than my coworkers and peers.  I am perfectly fine with sitting on my back porch on a Friday night, doing nothing in particular.

Yes, it appears that Copenhagen has mellowed the heck out of me.  It might have been the Danes’ quiet personalities or their obsession with the candle-light “hygge.”  It might have been the slow, casual way they walk on the street.  It might have been all the social energy and group cohesion that visitors always seem to notice.  I am starting to act like I am working and studying in Denmark for the rest the summer.  I am coming home earlier from work and spending more time with friends.  I am waking up early just so that I can sit outside on the porch in the precious, long hours of sunlight.  I am walking slower and breathing easier.

But somehow my newfound complacency feels out-of-place.  At Georgetown it sometimes seems like everyone is on a mission, breaking their backs at an unpaid internship or cranking out a new brilliant thesis in Lau.  Everyone has an opinion about charged topics, whether it is the handful of Supreme Court decisions this summer or ongoing debates about homosexuality and Catholicism on campus.  There are some very strong, outspoken personalities at Georgetown, and it can often get overwhelming.  Maybe it’s the natural product of a very educated, eloquent student body.  Maybe it’s one of the many consequences of living in D.C.

Whatever it is, I have grown tired of it all.  When I ask what you do, don’t tell me your office job at the investment bank or trendy nonprofit.  Let’s not talk about politics or work for once.  Things can get so serious and testy, even over a drink.  In most cases, an argument about the DOMA decision or Obama’s energy speech is not worth shouting over.

with friends at 4th of July brunchThis summer, I want to step back from that edge.  It is our final summer before graduation, for goodness sake.  It is our last time we can take a three month “break” in between semesters.  I do not think you have to go Copenhagen to realize the benefits of slowing down.  It reduces stress and recharges your batteries.  It checks conflict and fosters good relationships.

In one of my favorite commercials, Kingsford Charcoal urges us to “slow down and grill.”  As this summer winds down, let’s see if we can adopt that mentality.  Once school starts up again, we can crank it back into high gear.

Advice on housing

1) Commuting can be a big deal.  I lived in an “international kollegium” in Bronshoj – about a 25 minutes commute to downtown Copenhagen (see my location here).  At first, 25 minutes did not sound too bad – during my internship last summer, I commuted 1.5 hours each way to work :O).  I really tried to take advantage of my commute time by doing homework, reading books, and writing this blog.

But after a while, it starts to wear on you.  25 minutes sounds okay, but not on days that you want to travel into town more than once.  In addition, there are often parties, shows and get-togethers that you want to attend later at night, which sometimes require traveling on the unpredictable night-buses.  If commuting is not your thing, you should strongly consider living in a DRC (Residential Community) or a Living Learning Community.  I have friends in both of those, and many of them can hop out of bed and walk to school every morning.

2) International?  You should really seek “immersion” while abroad – you’ve lived with Americans your entire life, and being in Copenhagen gives you lots of opportunities to meet and socialize with locals.  Housing does impact this, but maybe not to the extent that you think.  I met some cool students from Italy, the UK, and Denmark in my kollegium, but DIS offers so many other opportunities to meet internationals – like visiting families and the buddy system.  If you have initiative, you’ll find lots of friends and friends-of-friends who are not American, regardless of where you live.

3) People make a difference.  At the end of the day, it’s not where you live, but whom you live with.  I could be living in the middle of the desert with my best friends and still end up having an amazing time.  Your room-mates and hall-mates can be a crap shoot, especially in a new country with new people.  Cross your fingers.

Home sweet home

It feels good to be back home.  For my first dinner, we had a delicious juicy steak, perfectly grilled by my master-chef father:

wow, thanks dad :D

I’ve caught up with my neighbors and home-town friends, went shopping for some snazzy summer work clothes, visited my grandparents’ house at least 3 times, and enjoyed the sunny, 80-degree weather.

To all of my readers – thanks for your friendship and support over the past 4 months.  I wrote this blog not just so that I could remember all of the things I did while on the other side of the world.  I wrote it so that I could share my reflections, pictures, stories, and special moments with the rest of the blogging universe.

I also know that some of you are prospective DIS students, so I think its good to offer some advice…

1) Please please email me if you have any questions! I had tons of them during my application process, and talking with DIS alums was super helpful…

2) Over the next few days, I’ll post advice about: housing, courses, things-to-do, tips, and unique opportunities.  I hope you continue reading! (Get ready for lots of lists :D)

Time for the “lasts”

thank you St. Peter's!

thank you St. Peter’s!

With my last paper handed in, it’s officially time to take in all of the “lasts” of the semester – the last Wednesday, the last potluck dinner, the last meeting with my visiting family, the last St. Peter’s cinnamon roll, the last coffee & croissant breakfast at Studenterhuset.  Has it all gone by too fast?  Is it weird that I’ll never see most of these people for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life?  Welcome to the reality of ending your study abroad.

last evening with the Larsen's (my visiting family)

last evening with the Larsen’s (my visiting family)


Honestly, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.  I think I’m ready to go back.  Unlike some of the more emotional types, I’m not really sad that it’s over – I’m happy because of all of my lessons and memories and experiences over the past four months.  I’m happy because I have so much to take back with me.  I’m happy because being abroad has reminded me that I have a wonderful home to go back to.

That being said, I still have one day left here.  That’s one more day to walk around the city and enjoy the sunlight (shining for over 16 hours now!).  One more chance to take an afternoon nap in the blossoming parks.  One more time to stop by my favorite jazz bar and listen to some music.

There’s been plenty of ups and downs along the way (I’ll talk about this some more in an upcoming post).  But in the end, I’m pretty confident that I saw and did enough this semester.  I’m not freaking out because I didn’t get to visit all the places that I wanted to see or do all the things that I wanted to do.  That’s the reality of time – 4 months feels very, very short.  But I know that I’ll probably be back here in the future.  Maybe not in the exact same place or with the same people.  But whether it’s through work, volunteering, vacationing, or more studying, my future “abroad” is full of possibilities.


Baba would be proud

I grew up watching my babas bake pierogies and roll holobsti on the kitchen table.  Even today they still do it – but I’m not always there to see them.  Being away at college means I miss out on all of these little things that I usually take for granted.  Part of it is those delicious home-cooked meals, my dad’s grilled steaks that we eat every Saturday, the Sunday night snacks and the deep velvet-colored borscht.  But there’s another part that you can’t eat or touch or see.  You can feel it, but not in a physical way.

Being abroad accentuates these emotions.  It’s not home-sickness – it’s just called “missing home.”  (see another blogger’s wise words of advice here.)  As I’m walking around Europe, I can’t help but compare everything I experience with the grand ‘ole USA.  What would I be doing at this exact moment if I were in D.C. or Rochester?  It feels so strange to see all of your friends’ pictures on Facebook, hosting parties and going crazy at basketball games.  It feels so strange to celebrate Easter in Vienna with a friend from Jersey, eating brunch at a cellar bar instead of sitting around the dining room table with my parents, grandparents, and cousins.  It feels so strange celebrating my 21st at an Alphabeats concert in Aarhus, instead of getting my forehead stamped at the Tombs.  There’s plenty of things to remind me of life across the pond – Facebook stalking, Skype conversations, my “I Bleed Hoya Blue” t-shirt that I wear to the gym, and my country music playlist on Spotify that gives me visions of burgers, Samuel Adams, and my giant gas-guzzling SUV in my Rochester garage.

Sometimes I wonder if being here for only one short semester makes it more difficult to attain full cultural immersion.  Even after living here for 4 months, I still feel more like a visitor than a Dane.  I have my peculiarities that set me apart from the Scandanavians – walking fast in between classes, my long black Nike socks, going to Church when I can, constantly overeating, often smiling and talking loudly on the bus.

At the same time, being “un-Danish” makes me cherish all the things that I have back home.  You only know what you got when it’s gone.  Truer words have never been spoken.  I have a lot of amazing things here in Europe that I will sorely miss – just flip through my pictures and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about.  But there’s also things that I don’t have here – my family, my Hoyas, and my country that I feel so lucky to return to in one week’s time.  It’s a marvelous life on both sides of the Atlantic.

Somehow I’ve got to tie this whole thing back to holobsti – after all, my babas will probably cry tears of joy to hear that their Ukrainian culinary skills are in my blood, too. (thanks to Olga from Moscow for sharing the recipe – don’t worry Baba, she’s half Ukrainian!)  I think those delicious little cabbage rolls symbolize the wonder of multiculturalism.  I’m from America, living in Denmark, and cooking Ukrainian.

with the finished product!

I’m hundreds of miles away, but I think I’ve taken a little bit of my family and friends here with me.  It’s not easy practicing Ukrainian, finding time to Skype, or blogging about my reflections and emotions with all of the commotion going on.  But whether it’s in the kitchen, in church, or riding on the bus to class, I miraculously found a way to tie it all together.

No, it doesn’t always come out Danish.  But with a few different competing identities, it’s all about compromise.

Course evaluations

It’s final exam time already!  In total, I’ve got 5 research papers and 1 sit-down test.  Sounds like a big deal, but I’m the type that rarely gets stressed out.  All you’ve got to do is show up to class, pay attention to the teacher, ask some good questions, and everything will turn out just fine.

Speaking of those classes, I think it’s a good time to do some end-of-semester evaluations.  To be honest, but I ultimately chose DIS because of the wealth of courses that are offered.  Although you’ll have dreams of traveling around Europe and visiting all the fun cities and tourist attractions, that tells less than half of the story.  Let’s get real – with the exception of a handful of travel breaks here and there (I had 3 weeks off and a couple long weekends), you’ll be spending lots of time in the classroom, listening to presentations, writing assignments, and studying for tests.  Plus, you can get to most of the popular European destinations from just about anywhere – it doesn’t matter if you’re studying in Copenhagen or London or Barcelona, you’ll always be within flying distance of France, Italy, Germany, and even Ukraine.

That’s why it’s so important to not overlook the “study” part of study abroad.  Choose a program   that sounds academically interesting, not a city that sounds like fun.  When push came to shove, it wasn’t Copenhagen or the winter weather or the “world’s happiest country” that made me come to Denmark.  It was my countless hours searching courses online, researching the faculty’s experience, reading student testimonials.  Indeed, registering was so difficult because everything sounded so interesting – like Nordic Mythology, Humanitarian Law, Kierkegaard’s Authorship, Muslims and the West, etc.  I scrapped other destinations because the course selection did not even come close.  Mohyla Academy in Kiev had just 5 or 6 classes to choose from, and most of them were not even in my major.  Maybe it works for a Graduate program, but for now it was inadequate.

Here’s a ranking of the courses I chose, from 1 (best) to 5 (disappointing):

1. Humanitarian Law & Armed Conflict (core course)

with my 2 professors - Nicolai and Ulrik

with my 2 professors – Nicolai and Ulrik

  • Topics: military law, noncombatants, genocide, terrorism, case studies on bin Laden and Palestine
  • Fun faculty fact: both Nicolai and Ulrik served in Danish military as legal advisers, stationed in Kosovo and Afghanistan
  • Pros: fascinating 5-day study tour to Bosnia, thought-provoking research papers, intelligent class discussions
  • Cons: dense readings, lots of theory at beginning of semester, toughest class
  • Overall: the Bosnian trip had a profound impact on me (I firmly believe that this core course trip is the best one in DIS, because we had so much personal interaction with locals and tons of critical analysis; politics+law+religion = perfect combination), and the course makes me more inclined to pursue a career in law. Professors became some of my closest mentors at DIS and incredibly easy to talk to. *If you have any interest in law/politics, please take this course!!*

2. Muslims in the West

  • Topics: cartoon crisis, hijab, women’s rights, democracy & Islam
  • Fun faculty fact: Jakob is young, energetic, and loves to play “devil’s advocate”
  • Pros: visits to Islamic center and talks with Danish Muslims (including Imam Pedersen), lots of classroom discussion (Jakob often stops his lectures so that we can debate and ask questions)
  • Cons: relativism and failure to make normative claims was frustrating
  • Overall: Islam is a hot issue in Denmark, especially with the growing immigrant community. The professor really made this class great, although I’m still not sure if any solid conclusions emerged from this class.  Is everyone right?

3. Russia Past and Present 

with Mette and Jon at the airport

with Mette and Jon at the airport

  • Topics: Russian history, religion, art, literature; week-long trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow in March
  • Fun faculty fact: Jon is the official Russian translator for the Queen of Denmark, owns his own travel agency, and is married to a Ukrainian (!)
  • Pros: Jon is a freaking genius about Russia.  Our study tour was out-of-this-world (many thanks to Mette, too!), I asked so many questions and Jon always had an answer.  Reading Crime and Punishment was a great social commentary, and in-class discussions are always provoking.
  • Cons: class only meets once per week, sometimes felt like the class could have been 1 instead of 3 credits
  • Overall: I have a new passion for Russia/East European politics (wrote 2 research papers about the Russian-Ukrainian relationship). Once again, the professor really made this course great.

4. Partners & Rivals: EU-US Relations

  • Topics: security, trade & monetary policy, environment, leadership
  • Fun faculty fact: Jacob is the former Transportation Minister for the Danish government, has worked in politics for some 20 years
  • Pros: case-study presentations forced class participation, interesting lecture topics, met with Jacob twice as class representative, visited U.S. Embassy
  • Cons: lots of questions unanswered, lectures sometimes repetitive, very unenthusiastic students inhibited class discussion, often pro-European mindset
  • Overall: this class had a lot of potential, but the lack of participation was disappointing

5. Danish Language & Culture

  • Topics: Danish history, language, cultural studies
  • Fun faculty fact: Charlotte understands that Danish is hard
  • Pros: Studying ‘Jante’s Law’ and Danish tribal identity hints at the philosophy behind the welfare system and social dynamics
  • Cons: one semester is far, far too short to make any significant progress on learning Danish, and I can learn most of the “culture” by just living here and walking around
  • Overall: not happy that Georgetown required me to take this; sacrificed awesome courses like Kierkegaard and Nordic Mythology because of this requirement

Oh, the perks!

I keep telling myself I don’t deserve it.  But time after time, DIS tells me that it’s no big deal…just eat the cake, take the tickets, drink the beer.  DIS has been so generous to me this past semester, and I still don’t know how they do it.

Why am I posting this now?  We just had a delicious group dinner for all DIS bloggers.  On the menu…

I didn’t understand half of the things he said, but it sure tasted good!  And for dessert, a marshmallow-rhubarb-yogurt-vanilla cupcake:


DIS has done a lot for me this semester, sometimes surprising but always exciting and wonderful: an in-depth beer tasting course with Soren, personal excursions through St. Petersburg, weekday tickets to the Royal Theatre, classes at the U.S. Embassy, and even a fancy little dinner during finals week.  Sure, being abroad is cool enough; but all the little details really do make a difference!

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