Ukrainian student organization connects students with historical roots
Picking Ukraine out on a map might seem like a daunting task for somebody who’s not a geography major or a history buff, but this is not so for Oleh Matviyishyn and other members of the Rutgers Ukrainian Students Club (RUSC).
The RUSC endeavors to teach Rutgers students about Ukraine while also offering fun and informative activities for students to attend.
Matviyishyn, vice president of the club and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said Rutgers students formed the RUSC in the 1970s to educate the community about Ukraine’s unique cultural history.
More than 40 years have passed since the club’s inception, but he said its central objective has not changed.
“We still want to promote Ukrainian culture, history and traditions throughout Rutgers and the community,” Matviyishyn said. “We want to make sure we keep all of that stuff alive.”
Matviyishyn, whose family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States when he was 6 years old, said he is often surprised by how many Rutgers students have Ukrainian heritage.
“I’ll say that I’m from Ukraine and somebody else will say, ‘Oh, my grandma is from Ukraine.’ And it’ll be someone I never would have guessed. It’s really pretty interesting," he said.
Roman Duchnycz, president of the RUSC and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said he thought most people tend to underestimate how many Rutgers students actually have ties to Ukraine.
“There’s definitely a lot more Ukrainian students at Rutgers than you’d think,” he said. “There are probably at least one or two hundred students who have some sort of family connections to Ukraine.”
In addition to preserving valued traditions and informing students about Ukraine, Duchnycz said club members pride themselves on getting involved in several other types of activities.
“In the past, we’ve done different types of fundraisers,” he said. “One involved raising money for families that were living in Ukraine and in need of help. Also, we occasionally go as a group to help out with different events going on in New York City.”
Kristine Babyak, secretary of the RUSC and a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior, said she thought the trips to New York were a good way to let club members see the presence of Ukrainian communities within the city.
Babyak said she found one trip to New York particularly moving took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A service of remembrance was held for millions of Ukrainian citizens who died as a result of the Holodomor, a period of mass starvation lasting from 1932 to 1933.
“Just going to the city and seeing a giant Ukrainian community gathered together at the cathedral was very special,” she said. “Plus, everybody was very friendly so you really got a chance to meet a lot of people from different age groups and different areas … We saw people all around wearing the traditional Ukrainian clothing, and it really just felt like we were all one.”
Babyak, whose immediate family left Ukraine for the United States in 1996, said the RUSC encourages people who are not of Ukrainian descent to join.
“You don’t have to know anything about Ukraine,” she said. “You could have taken a class about Ukraine, or you could have a Ukrainian friend, or your great-great-grandmother could have been from Ukraine … As long as you have an interest and you want to get connected, you can join.”
Babyak said one of the club’s best aspects was how topics discussed during group meetings tended to be informative for newcomers and Ukrainian students alike.
“I grew up living in a Ukrainian household, speaking the language and learning about the culture early in my life. I’m still learning new things about Ukraine by attending club meetings though,” she said. “It’s pretty cool because I’m on the same level as somebody who isn’t Ukrainian.”
Much like the students who began the club in the 1970s, Babyak said she believed the club’s purpose was to promote Ukraine’s rich history and help students gain greater perspective, no matter how large or small.
“When most people think about pierogies they generally think about Russia or Poland, but people never think about Ukraine,” she said. “It’s little stuff like that. People have heard about these things, but they don’t really know their origins. So it’s pretty cool sometimes to tell people, ‘Yeah, that actually came from Ukraine.’”
Nicholas Simon is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.