Studying Abroad Can Change Your Life: Meet Piotr Wiszowaty

Piotr Wiszowaty spent a semester studying in Sweden. Here hes pictured in a "cooler"moment.

Piotr Wiszowaty grew up on a farm in a Polish village. His parents owned a dairy farm and when Piotr was a boy, he’d help his father with the farm.  Piotr liked to help his father fix the tractors and the other farm machinery.  To take a diesel engine apart and rebuild it delighted Piotr, who loved hands-on projects.  He’d often tinker with the motorcycles he rode around the farm and through the countryside.  

“Even as a boy I loved to use my hands and to disassemble things,” says Piotr, who is now a senior at NJIT majoring in civil engineering. “If something didn’t work, I’ll take it apart and try to fix it.”

After he finished junior high school, Piotr’s family immigrated to America.  They settled in Jersey City and Piotr enrolled at Dickinson High School, a gritty school not known for its academic niceties. Nonetheless Piotr excelled academically.  Back in Poland, his junior high math class was on calculus.  At Dickinson, his class was on geometry. So with such a strong foundation in math, Piotr aced his math and science classes.   

That helped him get accepted into the Albert Dorman Honors College -- a rigorous school that attracts top students.  Piotr continued to excel at NJIT, and during his junior year he decided he wanted to broaden his education.  With help from the Office of International Students, he spent a semester in Sweden, studying at Jonkoping University.  That semester turned out to be the best experience of his life.  In this interview, Piotr talks about that experience -- what he gained from it -- and why he thinks more NJIT should consider studying abroad.  

Why exactly did you decide to study abroad?  What did you want to get out of it? 
After three years at NJIT, I realized that having good grades doesn’t guarantee you a life filled with knowledge.  I realized that part of your education comes in overcoming real-life challenges.   I knew studying abroad would challenge me -- challenge my assumptions about the world -- and give me a chance to try something new.  And living abroad was indeed a challenge; it leaves you with great memories and experiences and a deeper knowledge of life.  You experience things abroad you would never otherwise experience and in my opinion that’s the best feeling -- when you actually try something challenging.  Studying abroad is a life-changing experience; it’s only limited by how much you can take out of it. 

What was Jonkoping University like academically? Did they teach civil engineering differently than NJIT?
I major in civil engineering, but in my opinion taking courses abroad is not the most important aspect of studying abroad.  I took four courses in Jonkoping, the equivalent of a full credit load at NJIT.  The professors are detail oriented and make sure students master the details of their subjects. But at the same time, the classes are informal and unrushed.  The professors treat you like adults and expect you to teach yourself.  I took two humanities courses as well as two engineering courses, and I enjoyed all the classes.

What about cultural differences: How do Swedes differ from Americans?
In Sweden, the people tend not to rush, they believe in peace and harmony.   That is evident in they way they teach college classes.  During each class, the students get a "fika," which is like a coffee break.  Professors join the students for a smoke or a coffee. Students there are not eager to graduate; they take their time, especially since schooling is free, so they needn't worry about getting jobs right away and paying off debts.  It’s fascinating to see these cultural and educational differences. 

You grew up in Poland, so in Sweden you must been struck by how the Swedes differ from the Poles?
Right away I noticed that Swedish people are a bit guarded at first.  But once they get to know you, they treat you well.  Poles are usually friendly to newcomers.  While in Sweden, I took a friend of mine, who grew up in Columbia, on a trip to Poland.  He was surprised that the Poles were so welcoming to him.  They invited us into their houses and were so hospitable – giving us their best food and drink.  I also took him to the Polish countryside, where he tasted the best traditional food and drink and saw what Polish country life was like.  He was pleasantly surprised. 

What was the single most enjoyable thing you did while studying abroad?
The most fun part of my semester abroad was when I went to visit Brussels in Belgium.  I met a good friend from Poland (we went to Junior High together, and he found me on Skype) who I had not seen for a few years.  These were the best days that I spent abroad.  In only a few days, we travelled through many places in Belgium, tried awesome food and experienced the best weather – sunny and warm -- that could possibly happen in Brussels.   It made me want to spend the rest of my life travelling as much as I can.

You are also an Honors College student.  Did the college encourage you to study abroad?  In what other ways is it beneficial to be in the Honors College?
Yes, the staff there encouraged me and was very supportive. Of course the honor’s scholarship is very helpful.  The honor’s staffs of advisers listen to you intently and advise you well.  Honors classes are also more demanding. You are in class with very bright students. That’s a nice challenge.   And after I graduate, my diploma will say I attended the Albert Dorman Honors College, which I suspect will impress employers.  That shows employers that you’ve distinguished yourself by being accepted in and graduating from the Honors College.   

For students who, after reading your story, might want to study abroad, how should they arrange that?
They should just contact Scott Kline in the Office of International Students. He was extremely helpful to me and the other NJIT students who went to various countries and colleges for a semester.  Without his support, I would never have gone to Sweden. Mr. Kline assisted me, and the other students who studied abroad, from beginning to end, making sure that we derived all we could from our experiences.

Would you recommend NJIT’s study aboard program to your fellow students?
If you’re considering studying abroad -- do it.  It was the best experience of my life.  It made me yearn to travel more and see the world.  I’m in touch with a lot of the new friends I made abroad and I’ll visit them when I travel again.  And career-wise, when I apply for jobs I think it’ll help me to have studied abroad.  Employers look for students who have done interesting things and taken chances.  It shows you are curious and like new challenges. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.     

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)