Like many Americans, SUNY Cortland senior Peter Rakowsky wants to know what’s behind the recent political turmoil and violence in Ukraine.
What’s different is that Rakowsky, who graduates on Saturday with dual degrees in international studies and political science, will pack his bags and board a plane to explore in the coming year whether Ukrainians’ destiny lies with the European Union (EU) or Russia.
Recently, Rakowsky was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Student Study/Research Grant that will pay for his trip to Ukraine, his travel inside the country, and his living expenses and research costs while he is being hosted by Ukrainian Catholic University for the 2014-15 academic year.
There the Clifton Park, N.Y., resident — who learned fluent Ukrainian from his parents — will interview about 60 relatives as well as economists and politicians in Ukraine and with the EU. He’ll pore over others’ research at universities and chat with ordinary people on the street.
“It’s like a dream come true, actually,” said Rakowsky, who aspires to a career in international politics serving the United States. “Ever since I could speak I’ve wanted to go back, and my parents have videos of me saying I wanted to be president of Ukraine.”
Sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, this particular Fulbright supports study or research in both academic and arts fields in approximately 140 countries. As a recipient, Rakowsky has designed his own project, titled “A Quest to the West, European Neighborhood Policy and Ukrainian Integration,” and will work with advisers at foreign universities and in government.
Rakowsky plans to interview professors from his host academy as well as Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kharkhiv National University, Donetsk National University, Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University, Odessa I.I. Mechnikov National University and the Uzhhorod National University. He also hopes to speak with Ukrainian politicians and EU officials in Brussells and Kyiv. Public libraries will provide him with data from a Ukrainian perspective and will include media sources such as news broadcasts and newspapers. He’ll supplement this information by interviewing the country’s journalists.
Ukraine, which is 233,062 square miles in size and has 45.4 million people, primarily of Ukrainian ethnicity, is the largest country entirely within Europe. The country borders Russia to the east and northeast, Belarus to the northwest, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, Romania and Moldova to the southwest, and the Black Sea and Sea of Azov to the south and southeast, respectively.
Ukraine first signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU in 1998 and in Fall 2013, when Rakowsky applied to Fulbright, and the country appeared to be on the cusp of signing a new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with its Northern European neighbors.
“I first decided that I wanted to do a Fulbright when I was having dinner with my (Ukrainian) uncle,” in 2012, he said. “My uncle just broke down crying, that’s how excited he was about the agreement with the EU.”
Rakowsky, then studying for a semester at Ukrainian Catholic University, also felt inspired upon meeting a Fulbright scholar. Deeply moved at the time about the political aspirations expressed by Ukrainians he met, Rakowsky finds even more commitment to his goal in light of recent developments.
Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s Russia-friendly president declined to form a pact with the EU and was toppled in February and replaced by a pro-west president. Violence has arisen in Ukraine as Russia subsequently annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and appears ready to claim two restive eastern regions containing majority ethnic Russian populations.
“With the crisis I’m now a couch warrior, reading every article that comes my way,” Rakowsky said. “I just hope to gain a deeper understanding of Ukrainian people as a whole. They are the borderlands people, living in the country sandwiched between the European Union and the Russians. I want to find out how the Russians have influenced the people.
“Everyone has a certain bias but hearing stories that are first-hand accounts from friends and family are a lot better than hearing stories on Fox and CNN,” he said.
His research results will form the basis of a master’s degree or even a future doctorate, which Rakowsky plans to pursue in Germany or the Netherlands. Upon learning about his post-undergraduate Fulbright award, Rakowsky deferred the start of his graduate studies at a German university where he already was accepted, Jacobs University in Bremen.
“The Fulbright Award is one of the top academic awards available in the United States,” noted Jerome O’Callaghan, SUNY Cortland’s associate dean of arts and sciences and an associate professor of political science. “The level of competition is very high and the quality of the student submissions is first-class.”
Rakowsky is perhaps the first SUNY Cortland student to capture the prestigious grant in more than 20 years, O’Callaghan noted.
“A student who wins a Fulbright is tapping into the power of international educational exchange to transform lives,” O’Callaghan said. “The award is designed to help current and future leaders in developing their research. It’s about sharing knowledge on a global scale, and making a commitment to international engagement.”
Presently Ukraine would not be considered one of the safer choices for foreign travel.
“I’m not at all afraid of being in a hostile environment,” Rakowsky said. “I’m one of those young people who just think I’m not going to die. And I don’t necessarily need to go to major hotspots, although I do need to go to major universities near the hotspots.”
As a Shenendehowa High School graduate, Rakowsky considered attending nearby University at Albany before choosing SUNY Cortland for its international studies and political science programs.
“I absolutely love all the people who I came across in those two departments,” he said. “It’s such a well-kept secret how wonderful both of those programs are.”
This semester, Rakowsky completes an internship at the New York State Assembly in Albany, N.Y. At SUNY Cortland, he participated in the Political Science Association, the Model European Union and the International Awareness Club. A President’s List and Dean’s List honoree, he was inducted into two honor societies, Phi Beta Delta for international scholarship and Pi Sigma Alpha for American political science.
“Peter has a passion that lies at the intersection of international studies and political science,” said Alexandru Balas, coordinator of international studies and director of the Clark Center for International Education.
“He wants to solve some of the world’s problems, and he’ll get the chance to have a front row seat and analyze the global conflict in Ukraine, while being in Ukraine for a year of research. I cannot think of a more worthy recipient of the U.S Fulbright Student Award for Ukraine.”