Amid the conflict in Ukraine, many organizations within and outside of Ukraine are providing critical aid to Ukrainians in the form of evacuation assistance, medical care, food, shelter and more. However, one particular organization has adopted a different approach to aid efforts with a unique program that distinctly stands out. During a recent trip to Ukraine, marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the President of The Borgen Project, Clint Borgen, met with ENGin.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Katerina Manoff, CEO and founder of ENGin, offers insight into the organization’s unique efforts to support Ukrainians by helping them improve their spoken English and intercultural skills. Ukraine’s connections with its allies abroad will allow for essential aid to help Ukraine withstand the impacts of the war and rebuild afterward. And, widespread English fluency is the key to these connections — for diplomats sharing Ukraine’s story and asking for support, for businessmen working to rebuild the economy, for the nonprofit sector marshaling donors toward the highest needs, for doctors collaborating with foreign colleagues and teachers seeking best practices from abroad. After the war, international trade, a robust tourism industry and scientific/research collaboration will all be key to Ukraine’s development into a flourishing nation. Considering the country’s fragility, for Ukraine, English fluency is a matter of survival.
When was the organization founded and what does it aim to achieve?
Founded in March 2020, ENGin is a global nonprofit organization that aims to connect Ukraine to the world in order to propel its postwar reconstruction and longer-term economic & social development. We’re doing this by pairing Ukrainian youth with English-speaking volunteers worldwide for English conversation practice and intercultural exchange.
The connections we build are equal, mutually beneficial relationships between buddies. We are both opening Ukraine to the world and opening the world to Ukraine. We are achieving nationwide change through a fully individualized approach deployed at an unprecedented scale: 100,000+ one-on-one connections. We aim to create an entire generation of English-fluent, culturally competent Ukrainians ready to rebuild their nation. ENGin is registered in both the U.S. and Ukraine. We are a people-powered organization, funded primarily by individual donations.
What programs did ENGin primarily focus on at the onset of the war?
Before the onset of the war, we were working with high school and college students in Ukraine, with a focus on the long-term importance of English fluency and intercultural competency for their future career paths. When the war hit, we expanded our work significantly to work with young people up to age 35, including those in Ukraine and those forced to leave due to the war. We made this pivot very quickly, within a month of the full-scale war breaking out.
The biggest change, besides adapting our materials and processes to accommodate older students and volunteers, was the heightened urgency of the need to learn English. Some Ukrainians had moved to a country where they had to use English to communicate and quite literally survive. Other Ukrainians lost their jobs and, with the Ukrainian economy decimated by war, all the openings they saw required English skills. These students proved to be very motivated and we have done our best to adapt our program to help them reach their goals.
How have the needs changed one year on, and what resources are needed in order to continue your work?
A year on, the demand for our program continues to grow. More Ukrainians have settled into a new normal and are planning for the future. Hundreds of students are signing up for ENGin every week, so we are always, always looking for more volunteers. Any fluent English speaker with an internet connection and one hour per week to spare can volunteer with ENGin. No prior tutoring experience or knowledge of Ukrainian is necessary. We accept volunteers aged 14 and older, but the greatest need is for volunteers who are at least 18 years old. Everyone, including college students, professionals, parents and retirees is welcome.
Because our program is free for students, we depend on donations and grants to continue our work. Our per-participant cost is very low — just about $20 for the duration of the participant’s program. But, we do struggle to secure institutional funding. What we are doing is so different from typical nonprofit projects, which are smaller, time-constrained and targeted to specific audiences. We have thrown many of the rules out the window — we’ve done away with deadlines and limits and have helped anyone who needs us seven days a week, 365 days a year, for more than three years now. While we do not provide urgent humanitarian aid, we complement short-term needs by ensuring that Ukrainians and Ukraine as a whole can look toward a bright future. We’re always looking for donors who see the value in this one-of-a-kind program.
What is the best example you’ve seen of your organization’s work making a difference?
When volunteers tell me that their students have become like sons and daughters to them. When volunteers travel halfway around the world to meet their students in person. When students write in telling us about their new jobs, where they’re using the English skills they learn at ENGin. The best thing about working with thousands of people is hearing thousands of unique stories of impact.
What message would you like to send to advocates in the U.S. and U.K. who are passionate about supporting work like yours?
In Ukraine, we have a saying, “I am a drop in the ocean.” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alone, we may feel powerless to help, like tiny drops of water. But, when we come together, we can do anything. ENGin is proof of that. I am a regular person, with no special connections or skills. I started this organization when I was eight months pregnant, in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, without funding or experience. Today, ENGin is a movement that has already touched nearly 30,000 lives. Come join us and let’s help rebuild Ukraine together!
– Saiesha Singh