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Highland woman loves Ukraine

‘No Wal-Marts, no movie theaters … no restaurants’: Highland woman loves Ukraine.

Ashley Greve is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine.

“I live in a small town called Kvasyliv, which is approximately the size of my hometown, Highland,” wrote Ashley, 23, in response to emailed questions. “We have no Wal-Marts, no movie theaters and no restaurants. It’s a very simple place with a school, a post office, a handful of cafes and some small locally-owned shops.

“I love Kvasyliv. It’s small enough that everyone knows me and looks out for me, and still I’m only a 20-minute bus ride from the regional center, which is considerably bigger and has lifesaving foreign products like Oreos and Haribo gummy bears.”

Ashley, a 2006 Highland High School grad, became interested in the Peace Corps during her junior year at Washington University in St. Louis.

But the seed of helping others abroad was likely planted much earlier.

“I don’t know if Ashley would admit it,” said her mom, Elizabeth Schwarz, “but part of the reason she went into the field is I was a flight attendant when Ashley was growing up. She got to see and learn about other countries from very little on.”

A junior high assignment required Ashley to research a foreign country. Elizabeth took her daughter on a three-day trip to Barcelona, exchanged money, picked up newspapers and bought souvenirs.

“Of course,” said her mom, “she got an A on the report.”

Ashley accepted her 27-month Peace Corps assignment in 2010 after earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature with a minor in Japanese languages and culture.

Eastern Europe wasn’t her first choice.

“Looking back,” wrote Ashley, “it seems that phone conversation in which I had to confirm my commitment to the cause and not the location — to the Peace Corps and not some other program — was a defining moment in my life.”

Ashley is the daughter of Jon Greve, and has a sister, Shandy Greve Penrod, who lives in Collinsville.

Ashley is due back later this year.

“My dream is to attend the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver to get my M.A. in Human Rights,” she wrote.

We asked her about life in the Peace Corps.

What do you do in an average day? “I wake up at 7. I teach three to six 45-minute English lessons per day, and then I go home for a late lunch around 2 or 3.

“In the evenings, I plan lessons or other community projects or call friends and family on Skype (I do have Internet, just fast enough to use Skype if I don’t utilize the video option and if it isn’t raining). This is sometimes tricky because the time difference is eight hours.

“Other times, I hang out with nearby American friends, or with my Ukrainian friends and colleagues, many of whom have accepted me into their homes and families. When I spend time with my Ukrainian friends, we usually go for walks around town. That way you can be together, get some fresh air and exercise, and you don’t spend any money.”

What kind of food do you eat? “Dinner I make from scratch, so I’ve learned how to make everything from Chinese fried rice to cinnamon rolls. I also eat Ukrainian foods. … Last night I had kotletta, which is chicken cutlet dipped in egg and fried, with mashed potatoes and a grated beet salad.”

What reaction do you get when people learn you’re in the Peace Corps? “A wide variety of reactions. Some think it’s wonderful. Many feel proud to have an American in their community. A few have disliked me from the moment they heard English coming from my mouth, but most just want to know why I’m here. …”

Biggest challenges? “Struggling to learn the language is a big one, as is accepting the fact that I can’t always express myself the way I would like to. I’ve also had to develop a sense of humor about my life. If the bus you’re on stalls every quarter-mile and the driver just keeps restarting the engine to go another quarter-mile, you have to laugh about it.

What do you tell others interested in the Peace Corps? “The challenges will be many, but so will the rewards. I can almost guarantee that you will reach new emotional lows when you’re homesick and everything is going wrong and you don’t understand why or have the language to ask.

“On the other hand, I can definitely guarantee that you will learn new things and gain a completely new way of looking at the world. Sure, I’ve had some rough days, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

What’s the most fulfilling project you’ve been part of? “A series of day camps focusing on gender issues such as healthy relationships, self-esteem and body image, human trafficking and more. These topics are very important to me, and I am honored to be in charge of this project.”

What do you miss? “I miss the way people shake your hand when they meet you for the first time. I miss hot sauce. I miss having a car and roads without potholes. I miss being surrounded by people who believe in their own political efficacy — no matter your political stance.

“I miss my friends and family. Care packages really help with this; when my family sends me a new jar of peanut butter or a bottle of my favorite shampoo, I get really excited.

“(But) the longer I’m here, the less I miss home. A big part of my life is here now. I have my favorite cafes, students that I love, meaningful projects, and friends that will be with me in one way or another for the rest of my life.

“I didn’t choose Ukraine, and my time here hasn’t always been easy, but Ukraine is a part of me now, and I like to think that in some small way, I am also a part of Ukraine.”