It’s been two long semesters since her life-changing stay in Poland. This fall, recent international studies graduate Nicolette Kontor ’10 returned in a new capacity to the place she considers a second home.
Her ticket back was hard-earned: after a months-long application process, the US Department of State awarded Kontor a Fulbright study scholarship, a selective grant that supports firsthand cultural and intellectual exchange between the United States and other nations. Last month, Kontor began a self-designed study project at the University of Warsaw.
During her 10-month stay, Kontor’s research will span Polish domestic and foreign affairs and focus on the role of Poland—a nation not traditionally considered a world power—in the European Union.
“The grant will allow me to attend courses in a city that I love, understand one of the globe’s most important players, and carry out research, which will, hopefully, act as a springboard for future analysis,” she said.
Kontor’s love of Poland, she explained, was a couple years in the making.
“I entered TCNJ not quite sure what I wanted to ‘do’ or ‘be’ in the elusive future…. Even with a strong academic record, I still felt I had no direction in life,” she said. “Fortunately for me, [TCNJ’s] International Studies Program has a study abroad requirement.”
Having grown up with a strong Polish heritage, she admitted that “Poland was another haphazard selection, more an ‘easy’ pick than an academic one.” However, once she arrived in Europe last year, her perceptions quickly changed.
“The people I had spoken to before my trip assured me that I would despise Warsaw,” she said. “They could not have been more wrong. Poland, especially its capital, accepted me as I was and I returned the favor with pride.”
As Kontor delved into Polish culture and spoke with Polish people, she said, “Suddenly, my upbringing began to make sense…. Although I had taken my childhood for granted, my parents provided me with the foundations that would later inspire my cross-cultural experiences.”
Soon, she discovered that she had an intellectual calling in Poland.
“I became acutely aware of the anti-American sentiment among some Europeans,” she said. “However, a hunger to understand America’s inner workings also existed. Suddenly, I was ambassador on the small scale, acting as a bridge between the US and Europe.”
The semester’s end only reinforced her connection to Poland. “I left Europe for my old life with tears in my eyes, hoping it would not be ‘goodbye forever,’ but rather ‘See you soon,’” she said.
She immediately set to looking for an opportunity to get back. With the help of Nancy Freudenthal, assistant provost of academic affairs, Kontor found the Fulbright Scholarship and orchestrated her application—including a personal statement, a research proposal, letters of recommendation, and a language evaluation—for passage through American and Polish panels.
In March, the Polish Fulbright Commission and Foreign Scholarship Board announced her selection.
“I was ecstatic!” Kontor said.
As a new addition to the Department of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw, Kontor said she plans on “learning as much as possible about Poland’s domestic and foreign affairs, exploring Warsaw and more of Poland’s stunning cities, and immersing myself even further in Polish culture.”
As a freshly inducted cultural ambassador, she is helping to construct the kind of “global community” her parents have always talked about. Her Fulbright stay only lasts until June 2011—yet Kontor, who plans to pursue a career in Polish or American government, shows no intention of saying “goodbye forever.”