Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This month, Samantha Steiner, a 2017 ETA in Argentina, and Lisa Gagnon, a 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia, talked with Andre Woloshuk, a 2017-2018 ETA in Poland.
1. Why Poland?
Professionally, I was eager to come to Poland because ETAs teach university students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Not only did this match my background and teaching experience, but it’s also a great way for me to improve my teaching skills, which will be invaluable in my future career. Personally, I was drawn to Poland for a few reasons, one of which was my ancestral heritage. Before I came, I was not sure exactly what that connection would entail, but recently it has become much more concrete. I met someone whose great grandfather came from a small mountain village less than 30 km from where my ancestors lived. Hearing about the stories, traditions, and books that have been passed down in their family made me feel very connected to Poland, the region, and my family.
In addition to teaching a class on culture of the English-speaking world, Andre has joined research projects related to his previous experience with computer vision and machine learning.
2. How is Poland different from the U.S.?
Had it not been for the transatlantic flight, I honestly would not have been able to tell much of a difference between Warsaw and the U.S. On the surface, there were quite a few similarities, from the names of businesses on the skyscrapers to the way people congregate around their favorite street food vendor in the evenings. As I settled into daily life in Gliwice, I did notice a few differences from what I was used to in the Midwest. First of all, smiling at strangers or people on the bus is a dead giveaway that I’m American. A second difference is the handshake. In the U.S., I usually give someone a handshake in a job interview, and that’s about it. In Poland, a handshake is used to say hello, goodbye, congratulations, and is given to each coworker at the beginning and end of every day in the office. At first I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but now it’s a great way to check in with my coworkers at least twice a day.
3. Could you describe your experience navigating issues of race, gender, or sexuality in Poland?
This is one of the harder questions to answer, and I want to frame it by saying that for a long time, Poland has been a VERY homogenous society, especially outside the larger cities. To give you an idea, 97% of residents claim Polish nationality and about 90% are Catholic. A large part of this is due to the systematic extermination of people with a different faith, appearance, or ideology during the Holocaust or the “reign of terror” under the Soviet Union during World War II. It’s just not as common for people in Poland to encounter someone with vastly different beliefs, looks, or way of life as it is in other places. On top of that, I find it unbecoming as a foreigner to try to change people’s views. Understanding these two points as a foreigner has allowed me to talk and learn about topics that are normally taboo.
As you can imagine, many people hold a very conservative point of view regarding gender roles and sexuality in society. I was pleasantly surprised that at my university there are a number of women successfully balancing raising a family and taking leadership positions in the department. A few of the students have expressed their respect for these faculty members and see them as role models. However, I also hear that sexism simply doesn’t exist in Poland, and that the women don’t join politics or rise up in the business world simply because they are uninterested.
In my experience, Poles are quite proud of their heritage and culture. Understandably, this could be attributed to the survival of many traditions that were close to being wiped out in past centuries. However, patriotism and nationalism can teeter on the edge of xenophobia. I often hear that Poland does not need to accept refugees because they are simply coming for economic gain, or that Ukrainian immigrants should fulfill any requirement set by the EU.
I will try not to generalize, as my experience is only representative of my own time over the course of a few months. Additionally, with brown hair, blue eyes, and pale complexion, I do not stand out in a crowd here, which means I have not been subjected to the curious stares or hushed comments that others may experience. That being said, there are new things to become acclimated to everywhere. The people I have met are kind, open, and interested in learning about both American culture and me.
Andre’s host institution: Politechnika Śląska
4. What does a typical weekday look like for you?
My role at my host institution, Politechnika Śląska, may be a little unique among ETAs is Poland. This semester, I am teaching a class on culture of the English-speaking world and impromptu speaking for 2 hours per week. The discussion topics for my doctoral students range from American holidays and politics to the newest discoveries in machine learning and everything in between. My previous experiences in computer vision and machine learning have allowed me to join ongoing research projects and contribute my own work as well. My research usually takes up most of my time in the office. When I’m not lecturing or researching, I spend time proofreading and providing feedback on journal articles written by faculty members. After work, I usually stop by the climbing gym and grab dinner with friends.
During “Night of the Scientists,” over 400 kids came to Andre’s host university to learn about technology, engineering and science.
5. How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?
Starting with International Education Week in November, I was connected with a local high school to give a presentation about American higher education. I’ve been able to go back at least once per month to hold classes about U.S. schools, language, geography, and holidays. I hope to continue this engagement and expand to another high school in the coming months.
Outside the classroom, I’ve met many interesting and like-minded individuals through a local climbing and high mountain club. Their bouldering room is situated on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking the “rynek,” or main square. It’s the perfect place to relax, chat with nature lovers, and practice some new climbing moves. There is also a weekly English couch meeting at a bar in town, where people looking to practice their speaking skills can meet and learn more about U.S. culture.
Andre talks with high school students at International Education Week in Gliwice in November.
6. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an ETA?
One of the hardest challenges has been balancing my expectations and abilities. I came to Poland with just a few basic phrases, but anticipated making quick headway on the language barrier. While I’ve made progress, it is harder to make a lasting impact in the community or to quickly develop friendships.
Another challenge has been my age. I am easily 5 years younger than most of my students, and often much younger than the faculty at my university. They also have years of dedicated research in their area of expertise. I’m often asked my age, which is usually followed by some surprised expression. It has required me to find a balance between teachable moments and moments where I need to do my own homework. It was initially a huge setback in my confidence in the classroom, but the phrase “fake it till you make it” has once again proved to be great advice.
7. What are some of the highlights?
The biggest highlight has definitely been my friends and coworkers. The goofy, fun loving atmosphere in our office makes it amazing place to work, and my friends are always doing something new and exciting. One of my favorite experiences so far has been hiking in the Tatra mountains in southern Poland. I spent quality time with friends while taking in some absolutely gorgeous views. In the classroom, it’s been very rewarding to see how the students’ projects progress from a manuscript in Polish to a well-written journal article in English.
8. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Poland?
The charming pastel buildings and the warm-hearted people make Poland a wonderful place to learn more about a country steeped with religious and political history. Almost a third of all Poles live outside of Poland, and after your grant period you gain access to that huge network of people all around the world.
Also, if you thought pierogies were the best Polish food, you’re in for a wonderful awakening. Soups are basically their own food group, and cheap cafeterias called “milk bars” let you try a different classic Polish cuisine every day. Vodka also originated in Poland, which needs no further explanation.
Andre has seen the negative effects of Poland’s coal mining industry on both the landscape and people’s health.
9. How have your experiences in Poland changed you?
Being in Poland for almost 6 months has brought three things to my attention. The first concerns learning foreign languages. With only minimal Spanish and Polish skills, I definitely feel motivated to learn more languages after seeing so many people that can easily switch between 2, 3, or even 4 languages.
I also really enjoy hiking, camping, and being outdoors, but prior to coming to Poland I had a very abstract idea of what protecting the environment meant. After living in an area whose economy was, and still is, fuelled by the mining industry, I saw some of the deleterious effects upon people’s health and the landscape. As a result, I feel more responsible for understanding the people involved in that industry and what steps have been taken to mitigate the risk to people and the environment.
Finally, Poland has a tumultuous and interesting history. I’d never been too interested in the facts I learned in history class, especially because I felt that I was never connected to it. Here in Poland, I’ve met people whose parents or themselves lived through the events I read about in high school social studies. That personal connection has motivated me to educate myself and understand how the country’s history is still affecting decisions made today.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
One of my favorite memories from the past few months is learning to ski. Growing up in Indiana, I never really had access to big mountains or much interest in learning. Now that I live about an hour away from a few different skiing sites, I knew it was time to learn. My friends here didn’t believe I’d never skied before until they saw me on the bunny hill. Despite falling (a lot) and being passed by small children, I have thoroughly enjoyed my first Polish winter. There’s nothing better than settling down after a day in the mountains that a nice bowl of warm soup.
Andre Woloshuk is from West Lafayette, Indiana. He graduated Purdue University in 2017 with a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering. After his Fulbright grant, he will be attending Indiana University School of Medicine. You can find his photography on Instagram.