Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Studying Environmental Engineering in Kraków Poland

My time as a Fulbright Fellow living abroad in Kraków Poland has been incredibly rewarding. Over the past year, I have come to more truly understand the people of Poland and what it is like to live amongst them. I lived in Poland twice before (1989 and 1998) as a child because my father was a Fulbright Scholar, and he worked as a guest lecturer at the Cracow University of Technology. Each time I have come back, the country has change dramatically, and I have also changed much from when I first lived here at the age of two. Returning as an adult in the Fall of 2009, I fully integrated myself into Polish culture. I arrived two weeks early to enroll in an intensive Polish language course at Jagiellonian University. This is one of the oldest schools in Europe, established in 1364, where actually Copernicus studied. The city of Kraków has an ancient magical feel to it, and it was pretty incredible to take language classes next to the grand Wawel Castle. These intensive language classes jump started my Polish, and they allowed me to quickly integrate into society. I obtained an apartment near the city center, enrolled in Argentinian Tango courses, attended a local Catholic church, and joined a gym because I wanted to fully experience life in Kraków. I figured that the best way to become apart of a society is to do what people do in this society. Participating in these things that only a local would do exposed me to a group of people I never would have met as a tourist.
I continued my Polish language courses, and this allowed me to gain a comfortability with the Polish language. This garnered me huge respect from Polish people I met because most Americans who know Polish, unlike me, either have Polish parents or a Polish spouse. My proficiency grew quickly and I was speaking at a conversational level about four months into my stay here. This proved very useful in my day-to-day life and later opened up many doors for me with my project. I hope also when I return to the US, my language skills will sustain my link to Poland and allow me to interact with Polish-Americans on a different level.
My project here at Politechnika Krakowska has been to statistically model the water infrastructure of the city of Kraków to predict failures. This proved not as straightforward as initially expected. The situation in a country changes a lot from when you write your proposal to when you are actually able to carry out the project. When I arrived in September, the partnerships in place a year previous had dissolved, and my expected sources for sewer-network data no longer wished to pursue this project. I changed course immediately and shifted towards another source focusing on the water-supply network of Kraków. This also proved a challenge because I corresponded with my source for data at the water company via my advisor and not directly. This was when my language skills became so necessary because they allowed me to take my project into my own hands and directly pursue these data. One of the things you learn quickly about a Fulbright is that it's really what you make of it, and things you want to do, you have to do yourself. The next thing you must learn is to be very persistent. There are reasons why no one has done this project that you proposed previously, and you must overcome these reasons to complete what you originaly set out to do.
In addition to taking language classes, I also took classes in environmental engineering. These courses were taught in English with both Polish students and European students studying on the Erasmus program. This exposed me to students from all over Europe, and the people I met were fascinating. With the United States being in the spotlight of the world and it's recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many people are interested in hearing what my perspectives are. This is, at times, a lot of pressure being a representative of the US, and sometimes political conversations will come up about American policy, past and present. I highly recommend to future Fulbrighters to be abreast of current events and past history.
Whereas my project here will eventually be completed, the relationships I have made both professional and personal will be the things I carry with me. I kept a blog of my travels, and one of the culminating experiences where I truly realized all of the relationships I had made over the past year was when I ran in the Cracovia Marathon. On the 25th of April after 16 weeks of training (many in the snow), I ran my first Marathon. In attendance were my parents with my aunt, our Polish family friends from Kraków, my professors at Politechnika, and my good friends here in Kraków. After a long 26 miles, 3 hours 40 min 5 sec, I crossed the finish line to the loud cheers of my family and friends who had all come together to see me, and I realized how lucky I am to be living here with all of these people from many parts of my life supporting me. I am very thankful for all the tools that Georgia Tech provided me to put me here today. Tech gave me a great education for which I see no limits. Thank you so much to Dr. Adams for all the help she gave me in preparing the application. Also, thank you to Dr. Goldberg for the advice on the necessity to learn Polish. It has truly enhanced my experience. Additionally, thank you to Professors Jim Dai and David Goldsman at Tech and Dr. Patrick Lammie at the CDC for writing me great letters of recommendation and for all that you have taught me. Finally, I must thank my parents for their unwaivering support and love. Their brave choice to live in Poland with their family twice before has given me the confidence to take on the world, and for that I will always be grateful.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Life of a Working Girl in Mexico City

Here I am (in the funny glasses) with my coworker Sai at my company Christmas party.

My New Years resolution is to begin this blog por fin. I should have begun ages ago, but I’ve been so busy that when I actually have time to sit down and write I am at a loss for words or for where to begin. I want to start by thanking all of the people at Tech that made this scholarship happen for me, Michelle Dion and Jennie Lincoln for writing my wonderful recommendations, Karen Adams and Phil McKnight for guiding me through the application process, and most of all Vicky Galloway for introducing me to the beauties of Mexico and encouraging me to return as often as possible.

I can honestly say that this trip has been incredible since the moment I arrived in late August. We started with a kick-off orientation the first week, learning about Mexican history and culture, speaking with past grantees, visiting cultural sights and getting settled in (unfortunately I got horribly sick and had to spend a whole day in my hotel room ordering chicken soup and watching TV). It was interesting to meet all of the other Fulbrighters and learn about their projects, one studying city planning, another researching pine tree genetics. I met an artist/writer who spent her previous grant walking down Insurgentes Sur, the longest road in México, speaking with locals from different zones of the city and documenting her experiences.

There are over sixty US Fulbrighters living in Mexico this year, ranging from English Teaching Assistants to researchers to professors. I am among a group of ten who received Binational Business Grants to both work and study in Mexico. I chose to apply for the business program because I wanted to gain some work experience before starting law school. Since the beginning of September I have been working at Volaris, a Mexican low-cost airline that follows the business model of Southwest. I chose to work for Volaris because I had studied the Mexican low-cost airline industry in one of my economics courses at Tech.

The atmosphere at Volaris is exciting, because it is one of the first low-cost airlines to take off in Mexico, and since 2006, has risen to become the third largest airline in the country. I work within the marketing team as a commercial strategy analyst. Since I began, my bosses and coworkers have entrusted me with a high level of responsibility and high-profile projects. I started off working under my immediate supervisor Manuel, with whom I get along very well. My first assignment under him, a competitor analysis, resulted in our CEO’s decision to open up new routes to compete with a rival airline. One of my proudest moments so far was hearing him announce the new routes at a marketing luncheon.

The project I am working on now, aimed at increasing customer loyalty, will change the face of the airline forever, bringing it onto the global stage. My partner and I presented the project to the CEO and he gave us the green light to move forward. In a few months I will have the opportunity to work with our in-house lawyers on negotiations for this project. I am excited about the prospect of getting some legal experience before going to law school. From the very start, Manuel has made a serious effort to involve me in projects that will help build my professional skills.

Aside from my internship position, I have been taking classes at the business school of ITESM, which has a campus in the Santa Fe neighborhood where I work. The first semester I took a finance and accounting class, and next semester I will be taking an economics course with another business Fulbrighter who also works at Volaris.

I live with two girls from the business program in Colonia Condesa, a beautiful art deco neighborhood close to the center of the city. The neighborhood is full of green spaces, restaurants, book stores, and just about everything one could need to pass the time - if only I had endless amounts of it. I work in Santa Fe, a business and financial district in the far western part of the city. While the commute can be up to an hour each day, it has been worth it to work for Volaris. I started off riding in to work with my boss Manuel, but now I catch a ride with a friend who works close to my office.

Looking back over the past four months, I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of working in Mexico is the business culture itself. Granted, the minimum 9 to 6:30 schedule is tiring, but the work environment is very relaxed and welcoming. In the morning everybody greets everybody else on their team, giving hugs and kissing cheeks and asking about their night or their weekend. The first hour of work is devoted to getting coffee, chatting, and settling in for the day. Lunch is taken late, usually around two, but often lasting an hour and a half or more. My team often goes to lunch as a group, but not to talk about business. In Mexico, coworkers are friends that you enjoy seeing every day, and often see outside of work, rather than people you complain about to your "other" friends. In a word, the work atmosphere is very warm, just like Mexican culture as a whole.