When Mark Strychar-Bodnar enrolled in his first Ukrainian language and literature class in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, he thought it was going to be easy.
The University of Toronto alumnus and member of New College, who completed an undergraduate degree in political science and history with a minor in Ukrainian language and literature, and a master’s degree in European, Russian and Eurasian studies, had been speaking Ukrainian his entire life.
“I foolishly thought I could walk into these classes with the subject matter already mastered,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “How wrong I was.”
He soon realized that his classes were going to be as challenging as they were rewarding.
“I was forced to re-learn what I thought I already knew, and ended up gaining far more knowledge than I had,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “I also learned that there’s no such thing as an easy ‘A’, much to my disappointment.”
Now an associate at Henein Hutchison LLP — the Toronto-based law firm of famed Canadian criminal defence attorney Marie Henein — Strychar-Bodnar says his undergraduate education helped set him up for success as he started to move through his career.
I cannot emphasize how essential the study of humanities and social sciences were for my personal development. And in turn how they contributed to my professional and academic accomplishments.
“I cannot emphasize how essential the study of humanities and social sciences were for my personal development,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “And in turn how they contributed to my professional and academic accomplishments.”
Before his career in law — including the year he spent clerking for Justice Rosalie Abella in the Supreme Court of Canada, something Strychar-Bodnar called “incredible and deeply humbling” — he spent time as a junior policy officer for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and worked for a number of members of the Ontario legislature.
But it was his time with NATO that most drew upon his Ukrainian studies.
“The study of Ukrainian language and literature enriched my life,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “It helped me when traveling and studying in Eastern Europe. I also believe it was a contributor to getting a position with NATO and excelling at that position, when I worked in a department focused on managing NATO’s relations with Russia and Ukraine before the invasion of Crimea in 2014.”
While Strychar-Bodnar acknowledges that Ukrainian might seem like a niche area of study, he says that studying languages and literature is of great benefit for any student — including those in business and the physical sciences.
“It exposes you to an area of significant human thought and expression that you would likely not experience — it’s akin to travelling to a new part of the world,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “This in turn influences and enriches the manner in which you approach other areas of study and practice.”
Strychar-Bodnar says the value of studying philosophy, art, literature, history and other humanities courses shouldn’t be underestimated.
“My studies taught me to be critical, methodological and not afraid to ask questions. They also helped me learn how to understand others better, and thus, how to relate better to others,” says Strychar-Bodnar. “Perhaps most importantly, these studies informed, challenged and confirmed the value system I subscribe to.
“Students, regardless of their area of study, should challenge themselves by embracing humanities courses,” he says. “To ignore these areas of human knowledge is a detriment to both individuals and to our greater society.”