Q&A with a Purdue Ukrainian scholar, one semester in
Tanya Gordiienko found refuge at Purdue to work on her PhD, while keeping an eye on the war back home and working to help media where they’re needed – on front lines and in their own communities
As the semester wound down, her first in West Lafayette under Purdue’s Ukrainian Scholars Initiative, Tanya Gordiienko was putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of photos from the war back home, ready to present early next semester.
With photos from the front lines and from cities once occupied since the Russian invasion started in February, the collection includes images taken by her husband, Vitaliy Nosach, a photo journalist chronicling the war in Ukraine.
“People should see,” Gordiienko said. “We want to share, so that they can see.”
Gordiienko is among 30 PhD students and faculty members accepted into the Ukrainian Scholars Initiative, a program Purdue launched in March and that extends offers to continue research and studies on campus until it’s safe to return home. As of October, nine Ukrainian scholars and their families were in West Lafayette, with more on the way.
For Gordiienko, a former journalist working toward her PhD while with the Brian Lamb School of Communication, the time on campus has been spent working to help media in Ukraine not only deal with covering the fighting but also preparing reporters to cover their communities after the war.
Question: Let’s start here: How did you find your way to Purdue? How did you connect with the Ukrainian Scholars program?
Tanya Gordiienko: I learned about the Ukrainian Scholars Initiative by Purdue from the head of my PhD program at School of Journalism at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Then a full-scale attack by Russian troops on Ukraine was on the peak. All classes and activities at my doctoral school were put on hold. I began to consider the possibility of continuing my research work somewhere outside of Ukraine, in Europe.
"It's not exactly what you're looking for, because it's in the U.S.," the head of my PhD program told me at the time. However, she recommended that I apply and spoke highly about Purdue.
I remember discussing with my family and friends whether I should apply. Because if something unforeseen happens at home, I won't be able to react quickly and return to Ukraine rather fast. This is quite a long distance.
Eventually, things began to come together into a more coherent picture, I received a positive response from Purdue in May, and the long process of preparing a visa application began.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine currently operates in a limited capacity and does not process visa applications. So I had to apply in Germany and spent a month-and-a-half there waiting for my visa interview. Also, I had no experience with getting a U.S. visa, so I did some things by trial and error.
In general, the whole process resembled trying to put together a puzzle under a hurricane wind. While you manage to put one part together, the other just falls apart.
Finally, I arrived in the States at the end of July.
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Question: Tell me a bit about what you were doing at home, with your studies and your work, before the invasion.
Tanya Gordiienko: Before the invasion, I worked in the research department of an NGO, Media Development Foundation (MDF). However, I continue to participate remotely in some of the organization's projects as much as possible given the time difference.
The organization is engaged in the development and support of independent and professional media in Ukraine. Though there were several projects aimed at the region of Eastern Europe.
MDF bases all its programs on media market research. First, we study the needs of media organizations, their most pressing issues and challenges. And this is the part of the process that the research department is engaged in. And only then, based on these insights, in cooperation with a number of donor organizations, MDF develops and implements projects to address these issues. Be it working with financial and operational planning for media, adjusting content plans, setting up content distribution systems, SEO audit, etc.
However, this work has now been largely reshaped to help the media survive in wartime. Many of them lost their advertising income, which was the main source of funding for most Ukrainian media.
Many newsrooms need not only financial assistance, but also safety equipment – bulletproof vests and helmets, first-aid kits for reporters who work close to the front lines – assistance with the relocation of teams to safer places in the west of Ukraine, psychological support, since many journalists have to work with very traumatic content while covering recent events.
Many media organizations have problems with human resources, operational planning, content planning. This is a rather complex and multidimensional situation that needs to be soberly and meticulously evaluated, and the case of each newsroom can be quite unique. The structure of the audience and its requests are also changing. There is a very large number of internally displaced persons within the country. And they have their own needs for information – how to get help from the state, how to get access to health care services in a new place, etc. This causes the media to audit all their available resources, as well as audience needs and come up with a plan on how to properly inform this new, sometimes very diverse community.
And this is not an exhaustive list of what one has to work with, helping Ukrainian media to survive during the war.
Local media are an important source of news for their communities. That is why it is so crucial to preserve them now. In times of war, access to reliable and verified information can sometimes be a matter of life and death. In addition, these smaller communities can be scattered not only within the borders of Ukraine, but also within the borders of Europe. But they continue to be interested in news from home, from their native region. And it is very important that they can receive it.
At the start of a full-scale invasion, our research unit did an analysis of what exactly was happening with the media and what needed to be done to support it.
I am also a second year PhD student at the School of Journalism at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
It was quite a natural decision for me, because I was more and more engaged in research work within MDF. And in order to do it properly, I needed to improve my skills as a researcher. In addition, what is happening with the consumption of news by the Ukrainian audience against the background of such a shock and crisis situation as the war, provides a lot of material for reflection and research. Actually, this is what I try to focus on during my stay at Purdue, although I continue to be involved in several projects based in Ukraine and within MDF’s research unit.
Question: Has the program, and the academic and social environment, been what you’d hoped they would be in West Lafayette?
Tanya Gordiienko: Perhaps, here it is necessary to understand the context of all events a little more. The Russian invasion was quite a shocking event for me, as for most Ukrainians. Therefore, at a certain stage, you think little about the expectations of the academic community or how you will be accepted by society. You think more about such basic needs as a sense of safety.
Looking back now, I understand that the first few months in the States were just for me to start feeling this sense of safety. And slightly reduce the general level of anxiety.
Question: What has been the toughest part of acclimating to Indiana?
Tanya Gordiienko: The sense of scale in the States is different than in Europe. It's a big country, and it seemed to me that most people here are also used to things being big: big distances, big cities, big cars, big houses ...
I think that's the first thing I had to adapt to when I arrived here. And it is worth mentioning that this is my first time in the States. So, all my experiences here form a kind of baseline against which I assess all the new places I visit in the States.
Question: And what are your impressions of people here and at Purdue?
Tanya Gordiienko: Before I came here, I was given the full set of stereotypes that there are lots of cornfields in Indiana, the people are very nice and kind, and generally nothing happens in the Midwest.
From my observations, there are really a lot of cornfields and the locals are the first to joke about it. People are really friendly and kind, at least that's my experience so far. And nothing happens only if you, yourself, choose that nothing happens to you.
In general, it seems to me that the local community shows quite a lot of interest in the situation in Ukraine, and is looking for ways to support Ukrainians. I know there is a local group Stand with Ukraine Lafayette, and some of the researchers who came to Purdue as part of the Ukrainian Scholars Initiative program joined it.
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Question: Are you able to concentrate on your academic work, given what’s happening at home?
Tanya Gordiienko: There is a seven-hour time difference between Kyiv and West Lafayette. My morning starts with me checking the news, what happened during this time at home, when I just woke up here in the U.S.
And every day is different. Of course, when there are mass missile attacks at home, it upsets me, and I need some time to first of all check if my family and friends are OK, and secondly, to somehow process these events myself.
I am aware that I am not as efficient as I usually am in my work. On the other hand, I understand that it would be naive to think that everything will be the same as before Russia's invasion. It's kind of a constant search for a balance between being involved in what's happening at home, but at the same time not letting doom scrolling of newsfeeds consume me completely.
Another massive challenge I see among my colleagues is difficulties with planning. I can plan something within the next six to seven months, and even then I have to consider certain risks in view of how the situation in Ukraine will develop. What will happen next is completely unpredictable. To some extent, it is frightening.
For colleagues in Ukraine, everything is even more difficult. Russia is now targeting infrastructure facilities in Ukraine. Blackouts and power outages are becoming a massive and unpredictable phenomenon. A plan for three days in advance is already very ambitious, under such circumstances.
Question: You’re working with an NGO to help media continue their work in Ukraine. What exactly does the organization do for the press there?
Tanya Gordiienko: The line of activities that the organization implements is quite wide. From the distribution of security gear, to help with attracting funding, psychological support, auditing at various levels, etc.
Currently, the MDF works with 56 media organizations at the local level. And it must be said that we helped them survive the first critical period.
Many organizations had a big shock at the beginning of the invasion. They did not know how they would pay salaries to employees. The volume of work increased many times, because the level of anxiety was extremely high, the audience consumed news non-stop, which meant that the newsrooms had to work non-stop as well. This was compounded by the challenge of human resources. Someone lost effectiveness due to significant psychological pressure, someone had to take care of the relocation of the family to a safer place. There is a cohort of media professionals who decided that they would do more good if they acted as volunteers supporting the army or joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
And high-quality journalism requires a certain training, so filling these vacancies with just mediocre staff is an inadequate approach.
So it was another dimension of struggle to keep every professional who can do good journalistic work in place. Convey that the work in the information field is no less important than the work done by volunteers or members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Question: How about the long-term work the organization is doing for the media there? And what do you see as the role of media once reporters, photographers and others are able to go back to their communities?
Tanya Gordiienko: Looking at the longer term, Ukraine is in for a very long recovery period. And the media will be the watchdogs that will hold the government, including at the local level, accountable. So that all these restoration and reconstruction processes are carried out really for the benefit of the communities and taking into account their interests.
We also see media becoming centers of attraction for their local communities. This is what helps them unite around common values. This is what will help reinvent them after the war. A large number of Ukrainians left for Europe, seeking protection. A large number became internally displaced persons. And reinventing local communities will be one of those processes that will inevitably happen.
That is why it is so important to preserve the institution of local media now. Because building them almost from scratch will then be many times more difficult.
Question: And what is the role of the media now in Ukraine, as the war continues? Are we seeing anything close to a complete picture of what’s happening to Ukrainian cities and communities, through frontline reporting?
Tanya Gordiienko: First of all, it is about informing the audience. As I already mentioned, sometimes getting a portion of accurate and up-to-date information can be a matter of life and death. It is also part of an effort to counter disinformation and propaganda.
It is also necessary to understand that that we have very little access to what is happening in the occupied territories. So, no one has a complete picture of what is happening. In my view, it's not because the reporters aren't doing a good enough job.
We see post-facto what happened to the civilian population in the recently de-occupied territories. Mass burials and torture chambers are found in every liberated city. It scares me to imagine what the world will see in Mariupol when journalists will be able to get there.
Question: You’re helping to line up an exhibit of photos on campus and around Greater Lafayette, correct? What will that be?
Tanya Gordiienko: My husband is a Kyiv-based photojournalist for the Ukrainian media outlet RBC-Ukraine, and he covered the invasion from its beginning. In fact, from the very first hours of the invasion.
His photographs will form the basis of a pop-up exhibit that will be shown at various locations on the Purdue campus and then at another location in Lafayette. The photographs focus on various aspects of Russia's military invasion of Ukraine – from images of the actual confrontation at the front to what Ukrainian civilians are experiencing. Some images are very graphic, so be prepared for that. In total, the group of organizers selected 12 pictures for the exhibition.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Purdue University College of Liberal Arts. The photographs were chosen by a team of Purdue faculty and staff: Sorin Adam Matei, Erika Kvam, Melinda Zook, Zane Reif and Eli Craven.
Question: How can people see that exhibit?
Tanya Gordiienko: It will be free for visitors, just stay tuned for updates on the locations where it will be situated. The list of locations where the exhibition will be shown includes Purdue Memorial Union, Beering Hall, Krach Leadership Center and MatchBOX Coworking Studio.