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Student Spotlight: Stephen Szypulski (MARS-REERS ’15)
February 25, 2015

In September 2014, less than a month after starting his graduate studies at the Harriman Institute, Stephen Szypulski (MARS-REERS ’15) found himself face to face with Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and some of his top cabinet members in a private room at Columbia University’s Low Library. The meet-and-greet took place after Komorowski’s address at the university’s World Leaders Forum, and Szypulski, who was invited because of his interest in Polish studies, was thrilled. “I want to go into public service one day and possibly to work in Warsaw; meeting the head of state was a rare and exciting opportunity.” Now, nearly six months later, Szypulski sees the event as a testament to the Harriman Institute’s greatest strength: “Your education goes beyond the classroom 90 percent of the time, and Komorowski’s visit certainly highlights that.”

Szypulski, who is the first person in his family to speak the Polish language since his grandparents immigrated to the United States as young adults, started exploring his roots after he joined People to People International (PPI) in high school. The organization, founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, seeks to foster “peace through understanding” by promoting transnational people-to-people contact. It was through PPI that, in 2006, Szypulski first traveled to the post-Soviet space; he was a high school sophomore on a two-week trip led by President Eisenhower’s granddaughter Mary. “We went to Russia and it was one of my first experiences with in-depth cultural immersion,” he says. “It really opened my eyes to life outside of the United States.” The trip solidified his interest in the post-Communist region. Since then, Szypulski has made it his mission to learn everything he can about the culture and politics of his ancestral country.
After finishing high school in 2009, he attended Georgetown University, his “dream school,” where he became an active participant in Polish-American life on campus and in the DC area, joining Georgetown’s Polish Club and eventually becoming its co-President; working with the American Polish Forum; and frequenting events at the Polish Embassy. He finally visited Poland for the first time on a two-week Christian-Jewish Interfaith Travel scholarship sponsored by the Polish Foreign Ministry and Georgetown’s Department of Theology during his sophomore year, and then returned the following year to study at the Warsaw School of Economics. “I loved every minute of it,” says Szypulski, who made an effort to go beyond the confines of his abroad program to meet locals and establish ties with Polish professors. In 2012, he returned yet again, this time on a yearlong Fulbright scholarship to Warsaw, where he researched the Catholic Church and its influence on Polish politics.
Szypulski, who received a FLAS scholarship to study Russian and a graduate grant from the Kosciuszko Foundation, is grateful for the resources and flexibility the Harriman Institute has provided him. “It is a good fit for me because I’ve been able to craft a program for myself within the requirements.” He is studying both Russian and Polish and taking courses on subjects ranging from energy politics and human rights to post-Soviet architecture.  In March, he plans to visit Ukraine on a Harriman Pepsico grant to research anti-corruption and lustration. “I’ve only been here for a few months and already I’m receiving another scholarship,” he says.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner
Images: Szypulski watching President Bronisław Komorowski address Columbia University, Szypulski with President Kmorowski and other Polish Studies students at Columbia.