My decision to do postgraduate study in Krakow was a large undertaking: not only was I committing myself to at least two years of study, but the financial commitment was also significant as I had chosen to self-fund my MA studies. However, I have no regrets about going to Poland. Not only did I have the opportunity to immerse myself in a language, culture and history about which I was (and still am) deeply passionate but I also gained great experience studying at one of the best universities in Poland, experienced and appreciated a different approach to higher education and made some friends for life.
I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 2007. I then took a year out and worked, which gave me plenty of time to decide exactly what I wanted to study at Master’s level and where. During my studies at UCL I had become interested in Polish history, having been exposed to all the weird and wonderful languages and cultures of Central and Eastern Europe on offer there. I had already spent some time in Poland after taking myself off to Krakow for a month at the end of my second year to master the basics of the Polish language. It was then that I came across the Masters programme at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Although it was at that time much too early to be thinking about Master’s courses and life after graduation, the idea of studying in Poland was in mind from that point onwards. My interest in Poland continued to intensify during the final years of my undergraduate degree and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was the perfect option. Not only did I want to improve my Polish language as much as possible, but I also wanted to study Central and Eastern Europe in the region itself and “live” the Polish lifestyle I had tasted during my month in Krakow.
I arrived in Krakow in September 2008 not sure what to expect from the two years of study I had signed up for. Although I had spent time in the city previously, it had mainly been as a tourist and not as a student. The first hurdle I had to overcome was finding somewhere to live. Although the university offered a space in the halls of residence for every student, I was not so keen on the idea of sharing a room with someone I barely knew. It is common for students to have to share rooms in student residencies in Poland so instead I opted to rent a flat privately. Luckily, my department had a co-ordinator who was on hand to make each international student’s transition into Polish life as hassle-free as possible, assisting with finding accommodation within the private sector and registering visas etc. I was able to find a reasonably-sized flat not far from the centre of town through an agency who primarily dealt with international students looking for accommodation. They were able to communicate with me in English at a time when my language skills couldn’t quite cope with the intricacies of a tenancy agreement in Polish and made the whole process much less stressful than it could have been! I also managed to set up a bank account so I could pay my rent and other bills regularly. If I ever had any language problems, people I met were always very patient and kind and I could always rely on the staff in my department to help me out with any translation issues, even accompanying us to see the doctor if we weren’t able to communicate our problems fluently enough in Polish. The staff at the Jagiellonian and, I’m sure, other Polish universities are well-versed in dealing with international students due to the high numbers who come to study in Poland each year.
Settling into student life in Krakow didn’t take too long as my department held an induction before the beginning of our first term, going over all the important information we needed to know about living in Poland, what our course would be like and also where to go if we had any problems. We were also offered beginner courses in Polish language, Central and Eastern Europe and on the European Union to give us a small taster of what was to come in our proper MA courses. There were also plenty of opportunities to socialise with the other students on the programme specifically and the Polish students within the larger department. My programme was extremely international, with students from America, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and even South Korea. Although I was the only British student on my course, it was interesting to meet people from so many different countries, learn about their cultures and also what they think about the United Kingdom! Due to the collaborative nature of several assignments we were given for our core courses, it did not take long for me to get to know the other students and make friends with them. Many of us are still in touch and although we are no longer all in Poland, we manage to see each other when we make trips back to Krakow.
The location of our department was very central and easily accessible. Our classes would usually take place in classrooms within our department or in another building close by. The classrooms were very comfortable and modern and we also had access to our own reading room, study lounge and computer room. The study facilities offered by our department were very good – not only could we have 24hr access to the computer room and study lounge, but our reading room was well-stocked with books and materials for all our courses, including Internet access.
As well as meeting the students you share a classroom with, the sheer number of students who choose to come to Krakow on Erasmus means there are plenty of informal student networks across the city, including language exchange evenings, which were a great way to meet other students and share your culture and language. As a British student, I also enjoyed socialising with my fellow countrymen and other English-speakers at one of the local Irish pubs just off the main square, where I would take part in the weekly pub quiz. Such events not only attracted other English-speakers who were living and working in the city, but other international students. It was a great chance to meet others living in Krakow, share our experiences of Poland and know that we were part of an international community within the city. I also joined a local gym and met new people that way. There are plenty of activities to get involved in in a city like Krakow and no door is closed to you just because you are an international student.
Krakow is a fantastic city to live in. I really enjoyed living in such a historic and beautiful place, surrounded by amazing architecture and buildings which have stood for hundreds of years. I used to spend a lot of time hanging out in the Old Town, walking along the Wisła river and taking in the views of the Wawel Hill. The Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, is also a very popular place to go out, full of small bars, cafes and restaurants. It goes without saying that Krakow has great nightlife and a wonderful café culture and certainly can cater for all tastes. Krakow also has a lot to offer in terms of tourism as it is home to many museums, galleries and other cultural icons. Whenever my friends came to visit, there was always something to take them to see and the rynek (main market square) always seems abuzz with a festival or outdoor event, which anyone could attend for free. Krakow’s position within Poland also meant it was a good place from which to visit other cities within the country and further afield. I really enjoyed exploring the surrounding region of Małopolska (“Little Poland”), as well as taking myself off to the Tatra mountains near Zakopane to go hiking or skiing in the winter. Discounts on public transport are quite generous for students and therefore travelling by train to cities such as Warsaw or Wrocław was relatively inexpensive compared to UK prices.