Earlier this year, the social work department at UCM began its participation in the Erasmus + program in which they host an international professor and sentone of their own abroad to teach students within the program. In February, UCM hosted Marzanna Pogorzelska from Opole University in Opole, Poland. Pogorzelska guest lectured in the social work department about social justice in Poland. In March, Marlys Peck traveled to Opole to work with students in the Erasmus + program. Peck has taught at UCM for four years and is the director of the social work department’s bachelor’s program.
Jason Brown: How much time did you get to spend in Poland?
Marlys Peck: I was gone March 11. And I came back. I believe I got back on the 21st, whatever the Thursday was the travel day. So I left on the 11th and came back on the 21st. OK, and that was a travel day, and I had nine days there.
JB: Were you working with only Polish students or international students?
MP: I had five different classes that I taught to five different groups of people. And four of the five classes were Erasmus + students. And so that meant they were from all different countries. And then I had one class that was strictly Polish students at the university.
JB: What were some things that were different there?
MP: Well, it was very interesting, the very first day I went, the university had a holiday. It was scheduled to be on Tuesday and I was to teach on Wednesday. Well, between the time that I arranged to go on all of this, they moved the day off from Tuesday to Wednesday. So my very first class, we weren’t sure if anyone would even show up because the entire university was shut down. And you know, every single student showed up. And then I did a lecture a few days later, and six students out of that class showed up to a second lecture. And so I thought that was kind of neat, that they didn’t even have to be there. And yet, they all showed up for that.
I did a project or a group activity, a class activity that I do with my students in the social work program. It’s where we look at social problems. So there were three topics that I did, one was on preserving oral histories, one was on social problems. Then another one was on cultural humility. During the social problems, we were talking about how you identify them. So we were talking about social problems that they have, that they would identify and social problems that the United States has, that we identify and the very interesting thing is they had envy on their list of social problems. They had the very common ones that we have like alcoholism, homelessness, drug use, abuse and child abuse, then they added envy. So I asked them what they meant by that and they said that there’s sort of an attitude in Poland, that if you’re successful, then I shouldn’t encourage you. I need to tell you, well, you know, it won’t last or you just got lucky there. So there’s this sort of pessimism that they said, is pervasive. And so they think that’s a problem. Because it’s just been long standing, where you can’t really be celebrated. You have to be put back to where you should be.
JB: Is there any indication of when that attitude began?
MP: They just said, it’s always been there. These were traditional-age college students. I thought that was interesting that they felt there’s a lot of the other things that were very similar, unemployment, a lot of the same issues that we have, but then they threw envy in there. That was fascinating.
JB: Is it difficult to reach an entire class when they are from vastly different cultures?
MP: It was because they had varying levels of English. Of course, when I first started, not thinking, I wasn’t necessarily using proper English, like I would use a slang word. And they look and then I would look over. I would ask them a question and I think they were looking for translations. Then I caught on. I started asking does everyone understand what I mean by the word, and the first word that I caught on to was humility. Do we all have the same understanding of what humility means? So when I talk about cultural humility. And so then we started picking out some of the words to make sure. What do we mean by that? Aboriginal, they weren’t familiar with that word. There were a few things like that. So the language and then hearing the differences in how problems were described for different cultural habits was very interesting to hear from the different countries.
JB: How do those students view issues that we see as problematic? Like alcoholism or homelessness.
Peck said she had her students do a ranking activity where they would pick three social issues and rank them in priority. They were put in groups where they had to discuss the issues and reach a unanimous decision of how they would prioritize those issues. The deliberations allowed the students to talk about their values to gain a better understanding of each other and the issues that exist in other cultures.
MP: They had a lot of the same discussions of, if we had no alcoholism, we’d have less child abuse, then we’d have less homelessness, and so there were a lot of those connections that they’re the same world over.
JB: How did you prepare to teach in a different culture?
MP: I stuck with topics that I know, with classes and activities that I was very familiar with and comfortable from having taught. I just really tried to think, I’ll present what we do and then ask and talk. So that’s what I did and a lot of times, we didn’t stick with what I had planned. We veered off because we got into other areas of, “OK, well, how is this different?” And I let them ask questions.
We talked about stereotypes and things like that.
JB: Did you spend the whole time teaching?
MP: A big part, of it that I was surprised at, is that they also want you to learn the culture. A wonderful part of this grant was that I got to go to Warsaw for two days. I had a four-hour tour. It turned out to be a private tour because no one else signed up that day. So I had a man that took me around Poland and showed me all of the highlights, told me a lot of the history and I really got a feel for that area.
Then back in Opole, they have so much history there. I went to mass on Sunday and I think the foundation of that church was laid in 1214.
The biggest difference, of course, was no ice. They don’t have ice in drinks. To ask for ice cubes is totally weird. “Why do you want ice?” And they think that we’re so strange because we have ice.
JB: Did you have any breakthrough moments with the students you were working with?
MP: I think the more we taught, the more we realized that we had a lot more in common than we didn’t have in common. I think especially when we were talking about cultural humility, I tried to explain and of course, I like to use humor a lot. I explained how Missouri is considered flyover country and some of the differences here and then that sort of, I think, opened them up to then talk more freely about what they thought of the United States about their own country because they could see that it was going to be just an honest, open conversation and not a lecture.
I think we did kind of get into the whole, this isn’t about competence, it’s about me trying to understand you and, hopefully, you understanding my small piece of the United States like I’m trying to understand your small piece of Poland.