When I speak about ENGin, I often find myself playing defense - trying to convince my audience that English matters for Ukraine today. That, in fact, English matters more than ever in the midst of war, when russia's invasion has put Ukraine's very survival at stake.
Many in the Ukrainian diaspora doubt the necessity of our program, as do Americans. Even those who actively support Ukraine prefer to focus on military and humanitarian aid. They talk about drones, medicines, generators, food - investments where the payoff is immediate and easy to see.
So it was an immense pleasure for me to receive a recent invitation to speak to an audience who needed no convincing about ENGin's: a group of young Ukrainian entrepreneurs visiting Washington DC.
The group of 20- and 30-somethings from all around Ukraine had flown in for a multi-week exchange program hosted by the American Councils. They worked in a wide variety of industries - one sold furniture, another managed restaurants, another had her own brand of leather accessories. A young man in the front row proudly described his chain of mattress stores. A confident young woman explained that she ran extracurricular programs in Vinnytsia, teaching children soft skills.
All of these Ukrainian superstars spoke English, and most dreamed of entering the US market. Their English fluency had opened the door to the exchange program - an opportunity to meet business leaders and complete internships at US companies, helping them grow as leaders and expand their businesses, in turn supporting the Ukrainian economy.
"All of you probably studied English at school," I told them. "But never learned to actually speak, because your teachers focused on conjugations instead of conversations." Every head nodded.
The head of the soft skills program raised her hand and said, "I know your program. I recommend it to all of my students. This is exactly what we need - a chance to talk to real people in English."
For these young entrepreneurs and many tens of thousands like them, English fluency has created a path to individual opportunities, which then feed into nationwide economic growth. By pursuing their personal goals, these Ukrainians are advancing Ukraine's crucial national interests. This is why our work at ENGin is so extremely powerful, and so essential for Ukraine's future.
But, even as I felt inspired and energized by my new Ukrainian friends, I couldn't shake the humbling fact that they are the exceptions. That most young Ukrainians still do not have the opportunity to break the language barrier and learn to use English in the real world. There is so much still left to do. So I said my goodbyes, drove home, and got back to work.