The Charger Blog

Political Science Professor Says Working with Highly Motivated Young People is Best Part of Her Job

Get to know Olena Lennon, Ph.D., an adjunct faculty of political science whose research focuses on the fight for freedom and democracy in her home country of Ukraine. One of her most rewarding teaching experiences was taking her students to eastern Europe to give them a firsthand account of the impact of conflict.

September 19, 2019

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of Olena Lennon and her students
While visiting Ukraine, Olena Lennon (center, in blue) and her students met Ihor Hordiychuk, head of Kyiv Military Lyceum, who is known as a hero in the country.

The lifeblood of the University of New Haven are the faculty and staff members who dedicate their lives to helping our students reach their goals. Periodically, we’ll introduce you to a member of the faculty so you can learn more about his or her important work.

Next up is Dr. Olena Lennon, an adjunct faculty of political science and social sciences tutor in the Center for Learning Resources, who recently received the University’s Excellence in Teaching, Part-Time Faculty Member Award.

Renee Chmiel: What research are you currently working on?
Olena Lennon: I am working on a qualitative study that examines the relationship between Ukraine’s advocacy groups in the U.S. and American policymakers. The study explores the two-fold nature of this relationship. On one hand, Ukraine’s advocates are trying to inform and influence U.S. foreign policy in pursuit of specific goals related to the Ukraine-U.S. relationship. On the other hand, U.S. representatives are mobilizing the support of ethnic communities as a voting constituency to garner support for a particular policy they favor.

I am also continually exploring issues of conflict management, reconciliation, and transitional justice, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. I serve as a co-editor of a scholarly blog at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) on conflict resolution and reconciliation in Ukraine.

In addition, I have been involved with various civil society organizations – both in the U.S. and Ukraine – dedicated to assisting Ukraine in its fight for freedom, democracy, and rule of law.

One of my favorite projects that I had the honor to assist with is Jenn Blatty’s documentary/ photography/oral history/portraiture project called "Front Line, Peace Life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War." I am working on bringing Jenn’s exhibit to the University of New Haven later this fall.

"I trusted them to have an open mind and heart and to understand that while our cultures may be different, our humanity unites us."Olena Lennon, Ph.D.

RC: What initiative are you most proud of? Why?
OL: The highlight of my teaching career was co-leading a study abroad trip to Italy, Ukraine, and France in the summer of 2017. I co-taught two courses on terrorism, homeland security, and war. Visiting the sites of the world’s most devastating wars and having intimate conversations about human violence was a transformative experience for everyone involved.

The highlight of the trip was bringing my students to my home country of Ukraine. Our stay in Ukraine was very emotional. We visited "live" museums of an ongoing war and met with disabled veterans, refugees, war correspondents, and average people touched by war. It was a lot to take in.

As I invited students into my home, I trusted them to have an open mind and heart and to understand that while our cultures may be different, our humanity unites us. I know they appreciated the opportunity to see a side of their professor they would have never been able to see in a regular classroom.

The students also developed a deeper understanding of the war in Ukraine and the role that all of us – near and far – play in helping to alleviate suffering in other parts of the world. Sharing those experiences alongside my students was the most meaningful and gratifying experience of my teaching career.

Image of Olena Lennon and her students meeting cadets
Olena Lennon (right, in brown jacket) and her students met cadets at Kyiv Military Lyceum, a prestigious school in Ukraine.

RC: How did growing up in Ukraine shape your academic and research interests?
OL: Born and raised in Ukraine, I first came to the U.S. in 2004 as a Fulbright scholar. When I completed my Ph.D., I moved back to Ukraine to fulfill my Fulbright obligations. I returned to the U.S. shortly before the onset of the Maidan revolution in November 2013 and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine.

My family remained in the active war zone, and I have kept my finger on the pulse through direct communication with people on the ground, local media outlets, and frequent visits.

Ukraine is currently undergoing one of the most transformative experiences in its history as Ukrainians are fighting to shake off the legacy of the imperial past and allow a new generation of progressive reformers to shape its future. As a Ukrainian, I cannot stand idly by as my home country is fighting an insurmountable battle for its basic rights.

As a naturalized American citizen, I believe it is in the best interest of the United States to stay engaged with Ukraine, since Ukrainians have had to bear the brunt of the burden in fighting Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy and rule of law – not only in Ukraine, but around the world.

I hope my research can contribute to a better understanding of the complexities of personal and national identity formation, human propensity to violence, and the effect of propaganda as we strive to bring peace to the people of Ukraine and to protect democracy in the U.S.

"This environment allows me to be creative in engaging my students in meaningful activities in and outside of the classroom."Olena Lennon, Ph.D.

RC: How often do you return to Ukraine?
OL: I try to go back to Ukraine every year. However, this year I have gone back twice within four months to observe presidential elections in March and parliamentary elections in July.

RC: What is the best part about teaching at the University of New Haven?
OL: The best part is the supportive and stimulating environment that my colleagues and students cultivate on a daily basis. This environment allows me to be creative in engaging my students in meaningful activities in and outside of the classroom.

Working with highly-motivated, energetic young people is the most rewarding aspect of my job. It is a great honor to guide students in their learning process as they navigate not only the complexities of foreign policy and national security, but, most importantly, their own identities, beliefs, and values.

RC: What are some of your hobbies/interests outside of work?
OL: I like to read and spend time with my family. My two sons keep me busy and are an endless source of inspiration as they navigate their own interests and passions, be it soccer, reading comics, or playing the piano.