Polish professor lectures at UCM through professor exchange

From left, Marlys Peck, social work program director, and Marzanna Pogorzelska, guest professor from Opole University in Opole, Poland, are working together as part of the Erasmus + program. Pogorzelska spent the last week holding lectures with social work students. Peck will travel to Opole to teach later this month. Photo by Jason Brown/Managing Editor

The Erasmus + program is a study abroad initiative created by the European Union to allow students to study in foreign countries. Originally, the program only allowed students to travel to countries within Europe but now gives them the ability to visit countries like the U.S. That is how Marzanna Pogorzelska, assistant professor at Opole University in Opole, Poland was able to make her second visit to UCM over the past week and give guest lectures to the social work program. Pogorzelska’s work centers on human rights and social justice as well as tying together how oppression is felt across the world in different cultures. She also teaches English to students of varying competency levels.

Jason Brown: What brings you to UCM?

Marzanna Pogorzelska: I am here because of the Erasmus + program. That is the European program that makes it possible to exchange faculty and students between universities. I’m here to have some lectures and next month, Dr. (Marlys) Peck will come to my university to teach. I am always met with great responsiveness and reception. American students are so curious in asking questions and compare also what I say about Poland with what they have here.

JB: How is teaching English as a foreign language different?

MP: In Poland, English started to be taught commonly in 1989 after the fall of communism. Before, the language was Russian. English was always something people wanted to learn, but they didn’t have many opportunities. So, after the fall of communism, when English appeared, I think it was great to teach it because everyone had motivation. People wanted to learn because they knew they could use it, that they, at last, could travel because that was difficult during communism. They perceived English as something they needed. So, I think it was different in a way that the student’s motivation was higher to learn English when you compare with other, non-communist countries.

JB: How many times have you visited the States?

MP: I’ve been quite a lot of times. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time. I have a connection with the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. That is the educational center that has very strong links with Poland because they do projects on Unsung Heroes — the people who did something important and are not recognized. They started the project on a Polish woman, Irena Sendler, who rescued Jewish people during the second World War in Warsaw. They brought this project performance to Poland, so we found out a lot about our hero from American students and their teacher. Now, they are doing projects on Unsung Heroes from different paths of life. I also visited Kansas State University for lectures as well as in Warrensburg.

JB: Are your lectures here through the social work program?

MP: My lectures are for the social work program, but they have different courses here. I try to adjust the course to their needs. For example, I speak about social issues and justice in Poland. How we understand it and what is challenging about it. I also teach about how we deal with difficult facts from history. It is so fascinating that Poland might seem far, but students find so many similarities and differences. They compare things and when they do that they realize that they understand their own country better when they see another country. It’s really interesting.

JB: What kind of social justice do you research?

MP: I do research on educational materials and how they present minorities. I also cooperate with a lot of organizations related to human rights and social justice, so I do projects with them. For example, it means working with students, doing performances related to social justice, doing exhibitions, debates and discussions with students. It’s not only academic work, but also related to activism, but I do it with students at universities.

JB: What was your inspiration for working in social justice?

MP: I think it all started when I was working in high school. It was a student who was gay, and I was the first person that he came out to. I just didn’t realize what hell he had experienced and what hell these boys and girls experienced. He opened my eyes. So I thought that there is a big part of life that I didn’t realize that I wanted to do something about. If you look at different minorities — national, ethnic and religious — the oppression is the oppression. The mechanism is the same.

JB: What was your inspiration to start teaching?

MP: It came with English because I was going to school during communism. I had very little English during school, maybe two hours a week. It was fewer than I wanted but that’s how it was, we were supposed to learn Russian.

After the fall of communism, it turned out that we needed English teachers. So, colleges for English teachers were created. I joined the college, so first I loved English and then teaching, but was able to connect that.

JB: Which of your many volunteer opportunities sticks out to you?

MP: What I really love and am engaged in and is related to minorities and social justice is something I do with my students regularly. It’s called the Forum Theater or the Theater of the Oppressed. We prepare the performances in which we show the oppression. During the performance, the audience can stop the play anytime they want and intervene. This way, the audience can have an influence on what is happening. They can stop the oppression or show a victim how they can react or show a bystander that they can do something. It is practicing of being an active bystander in the situation oppression, but you practice it in a safe environment. So, there’s a hope they will apply it in reality. I also love this Unsung Heroes project with the Lowell Milken center finding unsung heroes, people that are forgotten.

JB: What kind of content do your lectures to UCM students include?

MP: I was talking about the attitudes toward social justice and minorities in Poland. The context and history before, during and after communism and how their attitude toward minorities and inequalities is shaped by our past. In this way, American students think about how they’re attitude is shaped and how some things are taken for granted that can’t be. I was also teaching about the difficult past and how we learn about those difficult things.

JB: Do you encourage your Polish students to come to the U.S.?

MP: Absolutely, I always talk about my experiences here. I encourage them and through this Erasmus program, it may be possible. The main obstacle is the cost for many students.

JB: What are you currently working on?

MP: Many things. Now that the winter term has finished in Poland, we are about to start the summer term so I am preparing for the new students. I have a lot of international students that come to Poland. I am going to do some more research on the materials and textbooks from which we teach English. Sometimes there are a lot of stereotypes in them and sometimes they teach language but they also teach prejudice. So, I am very interested in it.

To read more about the Unsung Heroes project, click here.

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