Poland has a different education system than the United States and the system has even changed since I went through it. Back then, there was no flexibility to change disciplines once you started university. I started as a Physics major but I realized that labs and numbers were not for me and that I wanted to engage in something that would allow me to work with people, and to participate in social changes. In order to do that, I had to retake all of the university entrance exams but in the end, the switch to Geography was the right choice for me. Later I started a PhD program at the Polish Academy of the Sciences but had to start all over again when I came to the United States and completed my PhD at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
There is no question that the fact that I am from Poland had an impact on my professional career. Much of my research, writing and policy work has focused on Poland, central and eastern Europe, and more recently on the Caucasus region. My research, collaborative projects, and networks are predominantly located in Europe. Studying and working in the United States has given me another set of connections and a point of view that is useful to my work. Still, I am alien to many things and adjusting to a new culture and academic environment in the United States can be difficult. I do not have many of the shared experiences like growing up together, going to the same high school or being roommates as an undergraduate. I am also an insider and an outsider to Poland because of the length of time I have spent away from the country. Once you are uprooted, you are uprooted forever; it's a question of what you do with such an experience and how it will become a source of inspiration and knowledge for you. Besides the challenge of adjusting to a new culture, I had the additional challenge of being a single mother as a young assistant professor; pressure of time and competing demands became a familiar everyday scene. As an immigrant, my family was back home so I could not count on them for support. Friends became family.
So how did I end up in academia? My mother and father were in academia and my younger brother also went into academia. I was able to see and learn from my parents how the life of an academic looks like on an everyday basis, but I also had my own desire to further my learning, understanding, and experiencing.
I came to Rutgers in 1982 and started as a faculty member in the Geography Department and since then have a split line between Geography and the Women's and Gender Studies departments. I like the entrepreneurial spirit of the institution; if you have good ideas and you want to accomplish them, there is an environment conducive to doing that. It has been very rewarding for me to be able to connect my research interests with policy work. With the 1989 changes in Poland, I took my questions about decentralization and the devolution of state powers to the local level, to work with policy makers and activists in Poland to implement these reforms in real life and to work with communities to assist them in their efforts to engage in the establishment of democratic practices. I have also been a strong advocate for women's rights and for an increase in women's political participation across central and eastern Europe. Academia is a place of knowledge production, and while much is disseminated through publications, being able to produce knowledge through social change and having an active engagement with different communities that are often on the margins of political processes, has been tremendously important for me. These changes come from working in partnerships with communities. To do this you have to be a good listener, but more importantly, you have to know the people with whom you are working and respect their needs, desires and goals. I am able to be a scholar and an activist. The connection my work has to the real world gives me great pleasure.
I have enjoyed being a Rutgers professor tremendously. I now have the responsibility of building new programs that will create opportunities for students, faculty and staff to engage internationally. I have always been a builder and I am happy to find myself in that position again. I am excited to enable Rutgers to be more visible on a national and international map.