GV student uses Gilman Scholarship to travel to Poland

Headline: Connecting with her roots

Subhead: GV student uses Gilman Scholarship to travel to Poland

By: Kyle Doyle


Everyone has a heritage, a rich background of culture, history and traditions that makes them who they are. Heritage is even how some people define themselves and place their identities.

One Grand Valley State University student used the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to go back to the country of her roots last fall and find out what her heritage really meant.

Jennifer Polasek, a GVSU senior, was the recent winner of the Gilman Scholarship, which is funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. Polasek used the scholarship to travel to Poland, where her family hails from.

“I thought it was so interesting to go back to a country where my family is from,” Polasek said. “It was important to go back and see the culture and the language.”

After the Polish program was cut at GVSU, Polasek started looking at options for study abroad and how to pay for it. She discovered the Gilman Scholarship with the help of advisors at the Padnos International Center. She applied and received the full amount and began to plan where she was going to go.

Polasek stayed in the Polish city of Kraków and studied at Jagiellonian University, the same university in which Nicolaus Copernicus studied. While there, Polasek also traveled around the country and continent visiting places such as the Auschwitz concentration camp and Grand Rapids’ Polish sister city, Bielsko-Biała. She also helped at the U.S. consulate with English-language clubs aimed at children and adults.

“(It) was basically an after-work/after-school program that (the consulate has) for any Polish citizens,” Polasek said. “I would have a small presentation put in place just to have some talking points, and then we would kind of just have an open discussion, and it would be a good time for them to work on their English-language skills.”

Being both Polish and Czech, Polasek wanted to know more about her Polish ancestry. She knew her grandmother was a first-generation U.S. immigrant, and she knew a bit of her backstory, but she didn’t know it all. While in Poland, Polasek had conversations with her professors and was able to gain a great deal of knowledge about where her Polish family hails from.

Along with this, she was able to check out her Czech side, too, seeing the work of a famous related sculptor, Albin Polasek, in Prague.

“When we stepped off the train (in Prague), there was a sculpture right away of Woodrow Wilson sculpted by him,” Polasek said. “It was really amazing.”

The Gilman Scholarship is a federally funded scholarship that assists U.S. students who wish to travel abroad. Those interested in applying have to write an essay stating why they want to go and then also produce a plan for a service project that advocates study abroad and the country they went to. The service project has to be completed within five months of the person’s return.

For Polasek, she chose to do a multitude of different things across various platforms. While in Poland, she did a video series and a weekly blog about what she was doing. While there, she wrote articles about her trip in Grand Rapids’ sister city for Awesome Mitten, a Michigan tourism site, as well as Pure Michigan.

On campus, she has written for GVNow and In Writing and given a public talk about her experiences.

“I’m a public relations minor, so it was kind of fun to plan all this out and kind of connect with the community to kind of get it promoted the best I could,” Polasek said. “So, it was kind of testing what I was learning anyway and putting it into action.”

After spending three-and-a-half months in the country learning about its history and her own, Polasek knows that everything she’s learned and experienced will be something she will always have and never lose.

“No matter what, it broadened my perspective,” Polasek said. “Everything I did there I can take with me and build off of for future skills, which is really the best thing about study abroad, no matter what.”