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Iowa State University

Students discover stories worth telling in western Ukraine

Emily Urban and Madelyn Ostendorf initially decided to participate in the new Storytelling in Western Ukraine study abroad course because of the intensive, hands-on experiences. However, the culture and people of Lviv, Ukraine, are why they will make a return trip.

“The people there are so sweet and they will help you with anything,” said Urban (’21 journalism and mass communication). “The country is amazing.”

Ostendorf (’20 journalism and mass communication) said she chose to study in Ukraine because it seemed, “so unique and off the beaten path.”

Storytelling in Western Ukraine is organized by Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Study Abroad program.

Deni Chamberlin, associate professor in the Greenlee School, traveled alongside and advised the students for three weeks during the summer.

Why western Ukraine?

A world traveler at heart, Chamberlin lived and worked abroad as a journalist for most of their career before coming to Iowa State University in 2005. Their international travels inspired the formation of this course.

Chamberlin said they love exposing students to new areas of the world. Since 2009, they have taken a group of students to Urbino, Italy, to study photography.

“I wanted to offer students additional travel opportunities, beyond the Italy trip,” Chamberlin said.

Student sits on a bench on a mountain in Lviv
Students who studied abroad in western Ukraine experienced breathtaking scenery.
(Submitted photo)

During an exciting year as a Fulbright scholar in Lviv, Ukraine, Chamberlin laid the groundwork for a new study-abroad opportunity for Iowa State students. Those experiences in Lviv inspired Chamberlin to create and organize this one-of-a-kind adventure.

“Lviv is a very welcoming melting pot,” Chamberlin said. “These people hold onto their traditions and this creates a great experience while providing students with unique content for their projects.”

The largest city in western Ukraine—Lviv is home to 720,000 people.

Because Lviv remained largely unaffected throughout World War II, the rustic buildings and architecture remain preserved and still showcase beautiful, old-world designs from the past. Lviv officially became part of Ukraine in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“Lviv is a café culture,” Chamberlin said. “The history is so rich and interesting.”

Hands-on experience

Partnering with key contacts from the School of Journalism at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Chamberlin worked out the logistics for Storytelling in Western Ukraine.

Based on Chamberlin's previous travels to Lviv, they knew that the rich culture and language barrier would create a distinctive and compelling overseas experience for students.

Those instincts were correct.

“Sleeping in a monk’s house and climbing a mountain with him at four in the morning are unforgettable memories that I most likely would not have had somewhere else.”

During the trip, Iowa State students collaborated with Ukrainian graduate students to produce short documentaries in the remote mountain villages. The students worked in groups of four and each was tasked with bringing a story to life.

The groups had access to only the limited equipment that Iowa State students brought from home.

Educators from the Ukrainian Catholic University had existing contacts in the Carpathian Mountains. These key connections provided each group with fresh story ideas and helpful advice about locating story sources. Students were responsible for scheduling interviews and creating original stories with their limited cache of equipment. Joining forces with translators and team members, the groups produced captivating pieces.

Uncommon challenges

While immersed in this foreign and unfamiliar culture, the students quickly adapted to the environment. These adventurous storytellers spent four days traveling in the mountains, soaking in their surroundings and producing their original works.

Beautiful mountains are shrouded in mist in Western Ukraine
Looking down on rustic homes nestled inside a picturesque backdrop in Lviv.
(Submitted photo)

“Coordinating the production of the project was difficult,” Ostendorf said. “I worked with two Ukrainian students who were each working on projects for their own classes. Additionally, all interview subjects spoke Ukrainian, so I couldn’t do a whole lot until everything was translated into English.”

Once the videos were shot and the photographs captured, the students went to work translating and crafting their stories.

Students then spent five days at the university, where they logged video, edited the visuals and wrote their texts.

“The students worked very hard,” Chamberlin said. “They were responsible for one hundred percent of the project, including the layout on the website. Faculty gave advice, but the students didn’t always listen to us.”

Chamberlin said it was important for course instructors to let students take the lead and drive the direction of their projects.

Urban enjoyed managing her project and noted that its most challenging aspect was meeting tight deadlines while juggling multiple tasks.

“We all know procrastination is real, but when you are on a deadline of leaving a country, you can’t lose time,” Urban said.

The peak of perfection

“My story was focused on a monk in the Carpathian Mountains,” Ostendorf said. “In order to document his daily life, our team awoke at 4:30 a.m. and climbed a mountain in the dark while it was raining. We did this all while we were filming and carrying tripods, while trying not to trip over each other and ruin the shot.”

Ostendorf described being at the top of the mountain as a “surreal and breathtaking experience.”

“The climb up the mountain was completely worth it. We stayed at the top for about an hour in the rain while the monk did his morning prayers, and then we went back to his home,” she said. “That was the best thing that happened. It was an incredible hour.”

A monk prays intently in western Ukraine
Iowa State students brought to life the story of a Ukrainian monk who lived in the Carpathian Mountains.
(Submitted photo)

Urban enjoyed the mountains as well.

“My favorite memories from the trip were spent in the Carpathian Mountains,” Urban said. “Our group decided to get some nature shots, so we woke up earlier, caught the sunrise and climbed the nearest mountain until we reached the top.”

Urban noted that there was a large treehouse atop the mountain where the group organized a makeshift camp. The students watched a gorgeous sunrise from inside the treehouse, where they talked, reflected and made lasting memories surrounded by mist-shrouded mountaintops and soaring trees.

Lessons learned

Ostendorf hopes other students consider adding this fascinating and one-of-a-kind study abroad experience to their Iowa State bucket list.

“This program offers students many unique experiences that are not found in many study abroad programs,” she said. “Sleeping in the monk’s house and climbing a mountain with him are unforgettable memories that made this trip unique and special.”

Urban recommends Storytelling in Western Ukraine because the short trip features a great deal of photojournalism within a tight timeframe. She also points out that it is crucial to be flexible when studying abroad; and to expect the unexpected.

Students stand near a rustic treehouse on a mountaintop in Lviv.
A mountaintop treehouse provided students with a unique venue for watching the sunrise and reflecting on their journey in Lviv.
(Submitted photo)

“There are situations that happen when you study abroad that you will never see coming,” she said. “Panicking is the last thing you should do.”

Chamberlin understands that some students may be hesitant to study abroad in a place where not everyone speaks English. However, they want students to understand that the rewards far outweigh these fears.

“Are students going to make mistakes? Yes,” Chamberlin said. “Are they going to make friends? Yes.”

Expectations surpassed

The four Iowa State students worked hard on their multimedia articles. They were aiming for their stories to be published on Reporters.Media, Ukraine’s primary news media website, which is an ambitious goal.

Reporters.Media is the equivalent of American students being published by,” said Chamberlin. “That’s like a Ukrainian student's dream.”

“Lviv is a very welcoming melting pot. “These people hold onto their traditions and this creates a great experience while providing students with unique content for their projects.”

Taras Prokopyshyn, publisher of Reporters.Media, was impressed with their final projects. Believing that the final results were professional and produced well, he published the student pieces. They remain on this high-profile webite.

This exposure serves as a testament to the students’ hard work and also their ability to produce high-quality, compelling productions that brought to life the stories of Lviv.

To view the students’ stories in English:

  1. Music traditions:
  2. Blanket making:
  3. Agriculture traditions:
  4. Buddhist monk:

To view the students’ stories in Ukrainian:

  1. music:
  2. lyzhnyk:
  3. hata:
  4. Buddhist:

The next cohort to western Ukraine is scheduled to depart in 2021. Contact Deni Chamberlin if you have any questions about the program.