Comparing University Life: Poland vs. The USA
default, UniversityofMIchiganDiag.jpg, University of Michigan Diag during Festifall in September 2010, photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Universities around the world share characteristics, but experiences vary – especially when looking at Poland and the United States. Culture.pl’s US intern Elizabeth Lawrence compares her own experiences and interviews three Polish students to examine the differences.
In April, I finished my first year at the University of Michigan, one of the most classically American universities in the country, with our prominent ‘Greek’ life and our Division 1 football team. While in Warsaw this summer, I started wondering about what it would have been like if I had studied in Poland instead.
While here, I’ve met and mingled with other students, and three helped me figure it out: Claudia Chmielowiec, who attends the SGH Warsaw School of Economics; Julia Nowak, from Warsaw School of Medicine; and Patrycja Chmiel, who studies law at Rzeszów University.
We bonded over the usual uniting factors university offers – the stress of final exams, the joy and relief of having a fun night out after a grueling week, and wacky professors. But in some areas, we couldn’t relate.
The cost of an education
The biggest disparity is definitely in the tuition of our different universities. All public universities in Poland are free. Private ones do have costs, though minimal compared to those of American universities. In the US, prices for college have reached astronomical heights. There are cheaper alternatives, as well as financial aid, but for most students, college is barely affordable. This is the main reason Chmielowiec, a US-born Pole, decided to study in Poland. She studies in English, but the price is minimal compared to what she would pay in the US.
That’s the main reason why I chose to study in Poland, because I didn’t want to have debt before I was 20. I have this relief that I don’t have to be in debt and pay that off and I’m able to get a good education – the school I go to is one of the best economics schools in Poland, so I’m getting a great education for a fraction of the price of what I’d have to pay in the US.
Nowak is in a six-year medical programme, for which she pays no tuition. My pre-med friends at Michigan would probably swoon at that opportunity because in the US, you have to go through four years of college, four years of medical school and then, depending on your specialisation, between three and seven years of residency training. Many doctors pay off their student loans well into their adult lives.
Having this guaranteed free schooling takes some pressure off Polish students. They don’t, for example, have to decide on a school based on price. And they don’t have to worry about lifelong loans. However, the three students I talked to explained that there are drawbacks. Though it may not be a common experience, Chmiel said her professors sometimes didn’t show up for lectures, and Chmielowiec noted some of the equipment her school has is not as advanced as her friends’ schools in the US. Free tuition, Chmielowiec says, comes with a price, but she’d ‘rather pay the amount that I’m paying right now any time of the day.’
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Finding your academic passion
Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S - University of Michigan Law School graduates wait for their ceremony to start inside Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI, photo: Mark Bialek/ZUMAPRESS.com/Forum
Coming into university, I had no idea what I was going to major in. Honestly, I’m still undecided. At the University of Michigan, students don’t have to decide upon their field of study until the start of their junior year, and this is generally the system at most schools around the country. But in Poland, like in most of Europe, students apply to a specific faculty. Nowak had to decide on her future field even earlier than most, because in order to study medicine you need a specific type of high school curriculum.
While American students take all different kinds of classes to figure out their paths in life (I took Linguistics last year, and learned that language structure trees are definitely not for me), Polish students are diving right in. It’s possible to change your faculty, and according to Chmielowiec first-year classes are more general, but once you’re in a faculty, you delve deeply into just that topic.
In addition to deciding what faculty to apply to, Polish students have to, of course, consider what university to attend. This is a struggle in the US as well, with the overwhelming prestige of the Ivy Leagues and the increasing difficulty to get into a ‘good’ school. The label of the Ivy League can go a long way when entering the workforce, so some students, like many at my own high school, become obsessed with getting accepted.
The view of ‘elite’ schools in Poland is a bit different. Nowak said certain universities are considered prestigious, such as the University of Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, but the differences in prestige aren’t as intense as in the US. And, she said, since everything is free, there’s no concept of someone paying more to attend a ‘better’ university.
Party all night long
End of the academic year at the Faculty of Law of the University of Warsaw, photo: Michał Dyjuk/Forum
Going out and partying is not a part of every student’s experience, but university certainly is a time when more people let loose. Alcohol is a major player in this. According to a 2016 SAMHSA report, 1.2 million American college students drink alcohol on an average day. The legal drinking age is officially 21, but that doesn’t stop them. They buy fake IDs, use older friends or siblings to find alcohol, or attend frat parties where free beers are aplenty.
Alcohol plays a huge role in Polish culture, too – Warsaw even has a Polish vodka museum. There’s a bit of a stereotype surrounding Poles and alcohol, but Nowak claims, laughing, that this stereotype is entirely true.
It’s not even a stereotype. Alcohol plays a huge role. It’s like our number one drug. All the other ones are second place to alcohol. It’s our thing. And it’s part of a lot of things we do.
In Poland, the drinking age is 18, so university alcohol culture is different. From their first year, students are legally allowed to go to bars and clubs. They don’t have to look into fake IDs, pester older friends, or attend frat parties in the hopes of scoring some beer. Nowak says because of this, drinking just isn’t as big a deal.
Just the fact that we can drink it legally affects the way we drink. I remember in high school how people would drink illegally, so I feel like in the US it’s the same thing, because you theoretically can’t drink until you’re 21, it’s way more fun. Suddenly when you’re 18, it’s like okay I can just do it legally, it’s not as fun anymore. So I think because of that we don’t abuse it as much, it’s such a normal thing.
Chmiel and Chmielowiec echoed this sentiment, saying that without the taboo aspect of drinking, students are less likely to get blackout drunk and push their limits. It’s still a large part of their party life, but doesn’t hold the same weight as in US colleges. Meanwhile, at my university, I’ve seen dozens of students being carted into ambulances for alcohol poisoning on party days like ‘St. Fratty’s Day’ or at pre-football game festivities.
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To dorm or not to dorm
For me, at least during my freshman year, college life revolved around the dorm. I made my closest friends on my floor, ate my meals in our expansive dining hall, and napped, sometimes even studied, in various study spaces. My resident advisors hosted various dormwide activities and programmes, usually with the lure of free food.
At Polish universities, according to the students I spoke to, dorms don’t hold that same kind of weight. Chmielowiec explains how students need to fit certain criteria to even be eligible for the dorm (perhaps exaggerating a bit).
To be brief, to get a dorm in Poland you have to be from the poorest family on Earth, 500 km away, have a broken bone and then maybe be blind in one eye. So it’s just really hard to get.
Chmiel lives with her parents, and says most of her friends live in apartments. But from what she’s heard, Polish student dorms are very affordable and a solid place to socialise.
I’ve heard that people are happy. They live there because it’s a good place to meet new people and it is a cheap place, so it’s good for people who are poor and don’t have money to rent some apartment.
Chmielowiec and Nowak rent out apartments, and they say the freedom and independence that comes with having your own place was a huge plus. It can be hard to get an apartment as they can be expensive, and people often don’t want to rent to students. But the search is worth it. They can do as they please away from the prying eyes of resident advisors. Nowak says she might have made friends faster if she had lived in a dorm with fellow students, but she ended up making friends all the same.
The biggest difference of living in an apartment her first year, Chmielowiec says, is that it felt more mature. Resident advisors in dorms can bust American students for drinking, but can also be valuable sources of advice. Polish students don’t have this when they’re living in their own apartments, so it’s more of an independent experience.
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I feel like with dorms it’s still this big summer camp thing, this fun camp experience, which is a totally positive experience in its own way, but I feel like in Poland, we’re more grown up. We do have to find an apartment ourselves, and we’re living on our own and actually cooking.
University of Warsaw
university in poland
Polish students have the opportunity to participate in Erasmus, a European Union programme allowing students to study abroad in another European country for at least three months. All three students interviewed praised the programme, noting how it offers the experience of immersing oneself in another country at a low expense. Unsurprisingly, the European Union allows easy and more affordable travel among countries; it’s a bit similar to US citizens travelling between states.
In comparison, it’s harder for students from the US to travel to and study in Europe. But studying abroad is still popular in the US, even though Erasmus is not an option. Numerous programmes exist to help students study in a foreign country, including those run by universities themselves. The chance to better language skills, discover a different culture, and meet new people is one many students take up.
Studying abroad is part of what university is all about: having new experiences, finding yourself, meeting fascinating people, and learning what interests you. Despite all their differences, these experiences ultimately connect both Polish and American students. And perhaps through studying abroad, Polish and American students can trade places and learn for themselves what studying in the other country is like.
If you’re a reader considering these different options, I hope this article has helped guide you to your future decision!
Written by Elizabeth Lawrence, July 2018
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