Mark Wieczorek can identify other Slavic students without even talking to them.
The senior English major finds it easy to spot the minority that shares his family’s heritage.
“A lot of times, I’ll see someone in class and ask, ‘Hey, are you Slavic?’ and they’ll say, ‘How did you know?’” Wieczorek said. “It’s weird, but I’ve always found Polish people come up to me and say, ‘Are you Polish?’ and then just start speaking to me in Polish because they know.”
Wieczorek’s networking skills paid off when he founded the Temple Slavic Association, an organization recognizing the culture of Slavic people – an ethnic group in Eastern Europe not defined by country borders. He serves as the president and said he has a specific objective in mind for the organization.
“Our main goal is uniting people,” Wieczorek said. “In Northeast Philly, there [are] tons of Ukrainians, Russians and Polish people, and a ton of them go to Temple because it’s the most affordable school in Philadelphia. There’s got to be at least 1,000 on Main Campus, and I mean, what is life when it’s not looking for connections?”
The group is off to a good start, Wieczorek said. TSA currently has representatives from almost all of the 18 Slavic ethnic groups involved, “except maybe Croatians,” Wieczorek said. It also has nearly 400 likes on its Facebook page and a couple hundred people on Owl Connect.
Attendance to events varies between 20 and 50 people, and the attendees’ connections to Slavic culture aren’t all the same. Wieczorek is a second-generation immigrant, Vice President Michał Głogowski arrived in the U.S. in 2005 and others are third generation immigrants or further back.
“Our treasurer isn’t really Slavic at all, she just wanted to connect to her Slavic roots for some reason,” Głogowski said. “She doesn’t really know the language either, but she’s always there for us.”
TSA events have included general body meetings with handmade pierogies, volunteering at a Polish-American festival, an annual barbecue and hosting a Polish professor from the University of Pennsylvania. The group’s next big event is the Macedonian Film Festival on Oct. 12 with NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts professor and Academy Award nominee Milcho Manchevski.
“Biggest speaker we’ll probably ever have,” Głogowski said of Manchevski, who will be showing two of his films at the Reel with a Q&A after each one.
TSA is also pushing to have more Slavic education available. Recently, it successfully petitioned to have a course called Modern Slavic Literature offered in the spring. It is also working toward creating classes to teach Polish and Bulgarian to students.
“The story is that the Slavic department has been dying slowly, and ever since we gathered the people, there’s hope now,” Wieczorek said.
Kevin Wynne, TSA’s historian and senior history major, said he hasn’t found the decline of Slavic education surprising.
“I have come to the conclusion that Slavic history can be niche and very specialized, so the lack has not been that hard for me to accept,” Wynne said. “My one grudge of a class that I had was in my Crusade course, there was no real focus put on the Northern Crusades.”
But perhaps one of TSA’s greatest strengths is in what it offers newcomers to America like Todor Raykov, a graduate student and Fulbright scholar who arrived from Bulgaria last August and has connected with TSA.
“I believe that one of the best things one can do during his or her stay at a particular university is to get involved in different organizations and meet likeminded people,” Raykov said. “I think that this is a great opportunity to enhance your organizational and people skills. Moreover, since I am an international student, I consider TSA as a good place to receive information from peers who have a similar background on the best ways to cope with different issues in the U.S.A.
Nathan Landis Funk can be reached at email@example.com.