I first came to Poland two years ago on vacation, with a chance to finally see the places I had heard so much about. It was after that visit that I decided to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to Poland, which allowed me to experience a country that is by turns very familiar and very foreign.
Living abroad for a year has been a very enlightening experience and is completely different from the experience obtained through tourism.
While a brief visit is enlightening, in some ways it only gives a superficial impression of a place. The tourist largely sees what he wants to see, and finds it pleasing or, if it is a bad journey, he sees what he does not want to see and vows to never return. The resident, however, must contend with both the good and bad aspects of a foreign country every day, and develops an appreciation as to what those are.
Poland is a very interesting country to study as it is simultaneously old and young. While the history of Poland traditionally begins in 966 AD, this country has only been truly independent in 40 of the last 200 years. The fall of Communism in 1989 brought new hopes but also new challenges. How does a State, and how do a people, best remember a history that includes some of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated? Should people be concerned about crimes committed under a previous political system? How do you build a modern country from scratch? How involved should the State be in people’s everyday lives? How do you combat corruption without stifling creativity? While these are questions that the United States also faces, I would argue that we debate them in the context of default answers. Poland still seeks those defaults, and does so in the context of a political system that is still very fluid. Meanwhile, European Union funds are rapidly changing the face of the country. The fall of the Eastern Bloc has opened Poland to the world, with both positive and negative consequences. Foreign competition has hollowed out certain industries, and many Poles have moved abroad. However, Poland is also a destination for companies outsourcing from elsewhere. A new generation is coming of age that does not remember Communist Poland. Their perspectives, and priorities, are radically different from those of their parents. In short, Poland is fascinating because it is changing rapidly, and it is impossible to fully understand the scope of these changes without a lot of time spent in-country.
The Fulbright Program gives considerable freedom to pursue your own interests in Poland and forces you to self start.
The prestige of the program is also helpful in opening certain doors, but you must open those doors yourself. The stipend is very generous by Polish standards, making it financially possible to pursue your interests as well as travel. Krakow is a fantastic city as there is always something going on. Whether you like going to concerts, museums, plays or bars the question is not so much how as where. Mountains and other attractions are also nearby. Considering the city’s size, it is also on a human scale and it is possible to get from one extreme of town to the other in about an hour by public transportation, which is generally frequent and reliable. I also never get tired of taking a walk around downtown, as it is truly a beautiful place. It is also a major university city, with several schools in town, making it a great place to be a student.