It is a pity this interesting interview is not published on facebook, otherwise I would press "like" immediately! Thanks a lot+good luck!
Zuzana Starovecká: Don't hesitate for a split of a second
ZUZANA STAROVECKÁ (in the middle) is a second-year student of the Master’s program in English and German Studies. She spent the fall and winter of 2009 studying at Slippery Rock College in the United States.
Why did you choose to study in the US?
Well, it really wasn’t a choice. It was an option. In the first place I wanted to study in an English-speaking country, to know how it feels to sit at a school desk with native speakers and be taught what they are taught, see if I could do as well as they could. I didn’t have any preferences concerning a particular country. I might have as well ended up in Canada or Australia. But perhaps somewhere deep I hoped I would be able to go to the US, which, however, was rather a dream than a goal, I didn’t imagine it would actually come true.
Why Slippery Rock College? How did you find out about studying there and how did you make it happen?
I didn’t know where to begin, whom to ask for help. The deadline for Erasmus applications was long past. Mind you I “woke up” at the end of March and I wanted to go abroad the following winter semester. All these things are planned long before the actual start of the mobility, so I started with the thought that every door that I open might be slapped in my face the second I say what I want. And most of them were indeed. My first steps headed to the offices of our department. I asked the teachers for advice or any kind of information that would be of any help. Having heard from students from other departments about their school activities abroad (Portugal, Spain, Germany, Russia) and what immense help they got from school assistants and mentors, I was very eager to find someone who coordinated such activities at our department. My enthusiasm was soon damped by negative responses and puzzled face expressions. Most of the teachers I asked shook their heads in confusion. Dr. Lacko was the only one who knew about two students that had studied abroad and he kindly gave me their contacts. Then I tried to talk to somebody at the international office at our faculty, this time I could not even meet the person because she was constantly out of her office or on holiday. Although down in spirits, I searched further. On the school’s webpage I found a list of foreign universities with which Comenius University has signed a bilateral agreement concerning the student mobility, offering exchange programmes. There were about a dozen of them, a couple in Canada, one or two in Britain and Australia and the rest in the United States. I e-mailed all of them asking for information about the conditions for acceptance. And I got a very surprising e-mail from Slippery Rock. The lady from the international office said that they had had students from Comenius University come to SRU and that they would gladly have me there too. She also said that she had re-sent my e-mail to someone at my university who was responsible for the student exchange programmes and that I should meet him. To my great surprise, Mr. Ponomarenko, the person in question, worked at the international office at the Faculty of Law. Then it all went fast. I did not search further, I was determined to get to SRU at all costs. He helped me get accepted even though I was from a faculty that was not included in the exchange program. Namely, the program works on the exchange principle. Only faculties that can accept foreign students can send their students abroad. Our faculty, unfortunately, does not offer any study programs in English, which is the first drawback (translating does not count because you have to speak Slovak). Because nobody from the faculty of law or natural sciences had applied that semester for any exchange program, SRU, with Mr. Ponomarenko’s recommendation, agreed to accept me. Meanwhile, I was getting together all the documents in order to get a grant—financial support from SAIA. The most important was to get an acceptance letter from SRU, and with the deadline for applications at SAIA at the end of April, I only had something more than a week left. Mrs. Slogar (who then helped me with problems at SRU) took things into her hands. I could not believe my eyes when a courier with a thick envelope in his hands rang our doorbell. A green stamp of SRU stood on it. I later got the grant from SAIA too and could sigh with relief. I managed to make all this happen in a month, which is an incredibly short time. And I must admit it was not all about my perseverance, I was lucky too.
What were some of the great things about Slippery Rock College and what – if anything – was not so great?
If you ask about school, I liked the structure of the study, namely the whole school system is totally different from ours. Students generally need to take courses that are worth at least 12 credits per semester. But since I was on the exchange program I was not treated as an ordinary student. The choice of the courses that I was to take was mine. That was one of the great things because I ended up studying what I was really interested in. I took five courses, each worth 3 credits and they all counted toward my degree at my university at home. I took American Literature, Film Analysis, History of Women to 1750, History of America in the Colonial Period, and Survey of Dramatic Literature. Every single one was somehow special for me. For example, the drama classes were taught in an auditorium (theatre), and the students that were in this class mostly studied acting. Later I went to see them in two plays. They were also the first who invited me to my first house party in America. It was a theme party entitled “Let’s revive our childhood” and people came dressed up in tight children’s clothes.
What was the hardest thing to adapt to?
I’ve been traveling a lot since high school and I worked over the summer in England and Germany, so I’ve had to adapt to different cultures and customs many times. Every time I come somewhere I haven’t been before I sort of expect that “shock” and then it’s not that difficult to deal with. In general, all the people that have spent some time in the US complain about the food there. I, however, must say that our Dining Hall was perfect. They cooked everything and for everybody. Slippery Rock’s dining hall took part in a cooking competition and they were among the five best dining halls in Pennsylvania. I ate very healthily and I even lost some weight! What was not so great was the time difference. I suffered badly from jet lag, the time difference was really awkward, it took me more than a week to get used to it and maybe a month when I got home at Christmas. The arrival home was particularly bad. I was dehydrated for a few days and I couldn’t get up and have a normal lunch with my family because I completely lost my appetite. It was as if I had to wake up at three in the morning and have a complete menu with a soup and a main course, which my body perceived as nonsense.
Did you have an opportunity to travel elsewhere in the US?
Hmmm, my traveling experience. I went to Pittsburgh a couple of times. Once I went with my friends, it was for a concert of some (for me until then unknown) band, which turned out to be awesome. I went to Pittsburgh Ballet to see Sleeping Beauty (I saw the very same performance in Bratislava at SND :) I spent the whole Thanksgiving holiday in Delaware with my roommate’s family, who took me to New Jersey, Maryland and Washington DC and showed me around. And not to forget, my parents and my sister came to visit me for a few days. I took a flight to New York to meet them. They actually never came up to Pennsylvania, but I cherished those moments that we spent in NY together because they experienced some of the culture that had become part of my life for a few months. Then they could understand my life a little better. My mum just couldn’t believe girls would come to school in sweatpants and a jersey. Only after she saw them with her own eyes. Speaking of the clothes girls wore in Slippery Rock, I, in my high-heeled shoes and pretty skirts, felt like an attraction. My American lit. teacher told me, ‘I bet you bought those shoes in Europe,’ which I came to understand only later. It was really difficult to buy a pair of any kind of fancy shoes so those that I was wearing looked rather “exotic.”
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to other students considering studying in the USA?
Well, it’s hard to advice on a thing like this. But look at me, I am a living example that it is indeed possible to reach the unreachable, be it either the shortage of time or lack of information that hinders you from achieving your dream. If you really want to go, then go, don’t hesitate for a split of a second for it may be too late tomorrow. If you need more information or if you want to ask anything concerning my stay, whether the thorny way that led to it or the actual time that I spent in the US, contact me. I will gladly answer your questions and help (if I can).
Interview: Lucia Otrísalová Photos: Zuzana Starovecká's archives