York College grad joins Peace Corps and spends two years in Ukraine
While Mike Lynch’s major at York College of Pennsylvania put him on the road to service in the Peace Corps, it is his minor course of study that helps him prepare young people in Ukraine for a successful future.
The 2016 graduate from Belleville, New Jersey, earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. But his apparent career path took a turn when he conducted an interview for a class on white-collar crime.
“I was speaking with a lawyer, and the last question I asked was, ‘Do you have advice for a young person?’ He said to explore new cultures, get out of your comfort zone,” Mike says.
The lawyer said that, given the opportunity, he would have joined the Peace Corps. Mike sought out Peace Corps volunteers returning from their assignments, and their impressions helped seal his decision to join.
Then, another class pointed his compass toward Eastern Europe.
“I had ‘Intro to Russian Studies,’” he says, about a year after Russian’s 2014 military incursion into eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists. “We touched on that, and I took notes. The next semester I did some research and chose Ukraine.”
A two-year mission begins
Mike left for the former Soviet bloc country in March 2017. After three months of training, he began two years of working as a volunteer.
He serves in a town about 600 miles west of the Russian border, and while the tense situation there rarely makes the news anymore, he says the world must pay attention.
“There is still a conflict, and Americans should realize something’s going on,” he stresses.
The Peace Corps, which has fought disease and hunger, introduced technology, and fostered education in 140 countries for five decades, has about 350 volunteers in Ukraine. Mike is on a team of four in the Ternopil Oblast region.
His York College minor in Youth Development focused on helping young people acquire career and life skills. It provided the foundation for his work at a school of 500 students.
“I played baseball with the kids. I’ve been working on a career fair for the local community, so they can gain insight into what they want to do when they graduate,” he says. “I have an English club with another volunteer in town.”
The Youth Development studies helped him to “open up.”
“I took art therapy class, recreation classes,” he says. “Now I can think things up on the spur of the moment: ‘We can play this game, we can do this activity.’”
A focus on education
Mike’s schedule varies, but usually, he visits the school daily to assist teachers.
“After school, I spend time with students in different clubs,” he says. One was a cooking group. “It was actually the first time I made apple pie by myself.”
He’s always ready to jump in.
In the Peace Corps, “You’re a volunteer for 24/7,” he says. “They all know me as the American, so it’s good to represent America no matter what.”
Mike lives on his own in an apartment. He learned enough Ukrainian to get by during immersive language training early on.
“I can go buy coffee, buy a train ticket, barter with the grandmas at the bazaar,” he says.
Being located in the foothills of the Kremenets Mountains affords him the chance to hike in his free time. The instructor also has become a student.
“I picked up a guitar and taught myself to play,” he says.
Equipped for the future
Mike looks forward to another volunteering adventure, perhaps to experience life in another under-developed country.
But first, he wants to return to America. He has applied to graduate school to earn a master’s degree in counseling, so he can become a school counselor.
Mike found York College through a fellow wrestler in high school who was attending York. Mike liked the small-school atmosphere. He wrestled at York for a year and a half.
“I made great friends, lifelong friends there,” he says. “I had great connections with the faculty. I thought they really helped me out, really helped me out for after school.”
During college, he served as an assistant counselor with Alternative Rehabilitation Communities in York and as a paraprofessional at a school for special-needs students in New Jersey.
He credits York College’s emphasis on learning by doing with helping him get where he is today.
“One of the things I appreciated about York is that they pushed us to get more working experience,” he says, “and it helped me stand out among the volunteers in the Peace Corps.”