Skip to main content
Santa Clara University

Faculty, Staff and Alumni Profiles

Picture of Jane Curry
Jane Curry
Professor

How would you define your international education experience? 

  • International Student
  • International Scholar
  • Study Abroad Student
  • Fulbright Scholar

What was your international education experience like?

To be clear, I’m not from a family that traveled the world.  I am of cowboy lumberjack stock.  My “international life” only began my sophomore year of college when, having had a disastrous year trying to learn Russian, my parents offered to send me someplace where I could learn Russian.  I did not want to be in a summer school class.  I wanted to live where they spoke the language. 

I did my research and found that the Experiment in International Living had programs in the old Soviet Union; but, they were in sports camps—both of which were not my “thing”.  They also had a program where you would live with a family in Poland and then travel in the Soviet Union and learn Russian.  What did I know, I had seen all the movies about the Soviet’s controlling their so called satellites. Poland was one of those satellites so I thought I could learn Russian in Poland.  That was wrong.  In those days, Poles hated the fact that they had to learn Russian, the language of the occupier, as “my Polish family”  explained to me in their very limited English.

That summer changed my life.  I learned some Russian and realized I did not want to spend much time in the Soviet Union but that I loved Poles and Poland.  Two years later, the day I graduated from college, I found a letter in my mailbox telling me that I had been awarded one of the first undergraduate Fulbrights and, if the Poles accepted me, I would be funded to study at the Journalism School in Warsaw.  Little did I know then, that I would be the first Westerner to study there.  It was a school for what the state hoped were loyal young communists.  I went to learn why it was that professional journalists were willing to be told what to write and be censored.  (In the process, I was constantly being asked by students if X or Y “Was what they said about the West true?” My answers were not what the authorities hoped.  But, what could they do?  I was hard to shut up even though I barely spoke Polish at the start and there was always someone reporting on me and who I saw.)

Life was hard.  Everything was in short supply if it could be found at all.  So, life was a great scavenger hunt. And, I discovered most of what I thought I had to have was not so important. That Polish family with whom I had lived in the summer of 1967, took me on as their third child.  I also had the advantage of being the youngest in the American and British scholarly community.  As one of the few Americans studying in Poland and the baby of the group, I got to know the people at the American Embassy.  They and the other scholars I knew became my second community,  Many remain friends 50 years later.  Ah, the crazy things we did.

That was the beginning of what would be a half century of teaching and doing research in Poland and doing shorter stints of research and teaching elsewhere in Europe.  In all, I taught for two years at the University of Warsaw and one at the Catholic University of Lublin as well as teaching students from the former Soviet Union and outer reaches of Eastern Europe at a special Institute of the University of Warsaw where I had a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in East European Studies in 2005-6.  What I call “my Institute” was an amazing place:  I taught students about the politics of their areas of the former Soviet Union and how we “learn” in the West.  They, in turn, talked to me about their lives and ideas.  Years later, they were my translators and arrangers when I had a grant to go to Ukraine and Georgia to interview people who had protested and camped out for weeks on their capitals’ central squares.  They were taking risks to oppose their regimes’ falsifications of election results.  To get the full story, I also interviewed the politicians they supported and those they opposed.   

I learned so much and had such good times, that I wanted to students at SCU to have the same experiences.  To do this, I arranged for Santa Clara students to go to the Soviet Union (and student from Donetsk in the hinterlands of Ukraine to come to SCU.  On both sides, the students planned and organized what their counterparts would do when they came.  One of the first of the SCU students to go was so taken by his trip that he went back, lived with “his exchange family” and taught English at the University. 

And, one year, Fr. Charles Phipps, SJ, volunteered to go as a chaperone with a group I led.  He too got so engaged that he went back, lived in an overcrowded apartment with a family, and taught English.  He also came to visit my children and me in Warsaw where he gave lectures on American literature that filled a lecture hall.  (He also brought what were much needed sneakers for my children--- even the red ones my 7year old thought she had to have--- as they had grown out of theirs and there were none to be had in Warsaw.)  And, while I taught in Warsaw, a Polish political scientist came and taught at SCU in my stead.  My research trips continued, sometimes mixed with teaching and speaking “gigs”. 

I kept wanting to explain one thing after the other.  When thousands of people in Georgia and Ukraine went to the main squares to demonstrate against their governments’ falsification of election results, I had to know why they would take those risks and how they organized themselves so that they could peacefully stay on the concrete and asphalt squares for weeks and weeks in the cold.  Those interviews are the base for a new book I just finished.

Of course, although people in Donetsk opposed the strikes, I went to hear their sides of the story and to find out what had happened to “our” Santa Clara exchange partners.  When I was interviewing there, the university let me use their “university museum” to do my interviewers.  And, there I found a long shelf of pictures and memorabilia of the Donetsk students’ visits at SCU.  I felt right at home.

Honestly, the best part, for me, of my research has been not just sitting in a library or archive although it's fun to find those hidden “gems”; but, the people I have met and interviewed. They never fit the statistical models we have; but, they fill in and give life to what we see from outside.   

I’ve made life long friends, gone from thinking I knew everything to having new questions raised and answered in ways I never imagined.  How lucky I have been to have interviewed everybody from regular people living unusual lives to prominent dissidents who fearlessly opposed their authoritarian systems and, on the other side, writers and journalists as well as prominent government officials and politicians--- and even dropping in on one, because I was “in the neighborhood”, only to find Mikhail Gorbachev and Raisa on his couch.  From that perspective, they looked and talked like regular people.

Living, researching, and teaching abroad has taught me much about myself and allowed me to talk to the real “players” to answer my questions--- which never seem to end.  It has made it possible to bring my colleagues and friends here to visit.  Now I can see the world through their eyes.  My children and I have had a Polish family for 50 years.  I have  “friends for life”.

It’s been a family affair.  My three children each began going to live in Europe (mostly Poland) when they were toddlers every time I went for more than a month.  They learned to speak and read Polish and to play all sorts of games. And, the friends and family we made have come here to visit as well.

Living not as tourists but as people with regular lives does change your way of looking at the world and what you think you can and can’t do as well as what you have to have.  We’ve all learned that all the “must haves” are not so necessary and found new things that we love.

And, once is never enough.  You will miss what you had here and, when you are here, what you had abroad.  And, you will always be drawn to see how things changed.  I, afterall, went to Poland first in the dark days of communism when hot water was a luxury and grocery shopping was a challenge. And, now, they have it all.

You make holidays.  We had Thanksgiving dinner for our friends and showed off the “American holiday” even though turkeys used to be hard to find.  One year, the entire American academic community made turkeys for a Thanksgiving dinner for our Polish friends…. In the process, we discovered Embassy folks who were happy to give us advice and Pepperidge Farm stuffing so it would taste like home. 

As you can see, living abroad, not in hotels but like “the locals,” creates memories that never fade and gives you new perspectives on life.