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The Polish Connection

John Nezlek, professor of psychology at William & Mary, received a Fulbright Core Fellowship for the 2013-2014 academic year to study people’s daily experiences, and their correlates, to the Szkoła Wyższa Psychologii Społecznej (Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities). Nezlek and colleague Joanna Schug also received a 2013 Reves Faculty Fellowship to conduct cross-cultural research on perceptions of economics and social inequality in Poland, Japan, and the United States. During his time in Poland, Nezlek will consult for the recently reconstituted Office of Research within the Polish Ministry of Education (IBE) as well as carry out his individual research.

I am writing to you from an apartment in Warsaw, Poland.The square of the Stare Miasto (old town) in Warsaw, Poland. The old town was literally leveled by Germans as they left the city in 1945, and so had to be rebuilt. Courtesy of John Nezlek.

First, it is important to note that I think of Poland as more of a Western European than Slavic nation; perhaps the label “Central European” is apt. It is now part of the European Union, and it was the easternmost nation in the Holy Roman Empire. It is a Roman Catholic nation, although before the Nazis occupied it from 1939 to 1945 it was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe.

Living and traveling in Poland is much like living and traveling in much of Europe, and the similarities far outweigh the differences. The water is healthy (although bottled water is very popular), the food is quite good (although wine has taken some time to make inroads), public transportation is excellent, you can buy pretty much whatever you want in the shops, and the people are generally quite friendly.

When I first visited Poland in 1994 on a grant from IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) I was immediately struck by the Polish phenotype - lots of blondes with blue eyes. Maybe I should not have been surprised because I have blue eyes and blond hair (okay, I had blond hair), and, as I have discovered over time, I have deep Polish roots.

In the late 19th century, my grandfather, Jan Niziołek, emigrated from Ołpiny, a small village east of Kraków. At Ellis Island, Niziołek became Niziolek due to the Polish ł confusing English speakers, and eventually Niziolek became Nezlek. Within my family, there was always some doubt about my grandfather’s hometown. After all, there was no Poland then, everything was Austria. Added to that,       -lek is a typical ending for a Czech name, and what is now the Czech Republic is pretty close to Ołpiny so we just assumed he was Czech.


During my 1994 visit to Poland, once we determined that my grandfather (“dziadek” in Polish) was a Pole and I had a copy of his birth certificate to prove it, there was much celebration. I was the prodigal son returned home. Poles are very welcoming, and they are particularly welcoming to those with any sort of connection to the homeland. During this first visit I learned (among other things) that Niziołek translates to something like “hobbit,” “dwarf,” or “wood elf.” I must add that I am 6 feet 3 inches and not thin.

Poland left the Soviet bloc in 1989, and so in 1994 meaningful changes were just beginning. Between 2000 and 2010 I visited Warsaw a few times, and Poland’s modernization became more obvious each time. The trams were modernized, shops cast off the gray, dull, sameness of Soviet architecture; all in all, things were noticeably changing for the better.

During these visits, I developed a number of collegial relationships, some of which resulted in a  study on the experiences of Muslim minority newcomers in Western Europe. We studied Chechen refugees in Poland, and in collaboration with some colleagues in the Netherlands,  we collected data on ethnic Turks and Moroccans. These studies used the daily experience method that I developed in graduate school and that I have used during my career. These relationships also paved the way for extended visits during a sabbatical (2011-2012), and eventually, for the Fulbright I have been awarded.

As a “Fulbrighter,” I will be doing more than working with Polish scientists. Fulbright Fellows are considered to be cultural ambassadors of sorts, and I expect to meet with all types of folks to help strengthen U.S.-Polish relationships, including giving speeches at schools and to civic organizations. Moreover, my fellowship is based in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which provides me ready access to various ministries.

During my time here I will also be exploring possibilities for collaborative working relationships between W&M and universities in Poland. Poland has a long and proud intellectual history, and now it is interested in making up for the time lost during the decades spent as part of the Soviet Union. The Poles certainly have the energy and talent to do this, and it is exciting for me to be part of this resurgence.  I will be working with my Polish colleagues to enhance their international visibility by preparing papers with them for publication in internationally recognized journals. It is time to undo the damage of the decades of Soviet censorship.

Nezlek will remain in Poland until summer, 2014. A recap of his Fulbright year will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of World Minded. Until then, Nezlek invites any W&M community member to email him at should they find themselves in Poland and are interested in having a meal.