My experience in Poland as a Foreigner
I learned it all on my own. At first Poland seems like a nice and attractive country for foreign students to improve their education. After all, it’s a European country, well developed, and not very expensive in comparison with the rest of the EU.
My first contact with Poland was not very nice... Before I arrived, I had thought about Poland in a stereotypical way: Post-Communist, cold, snowy, underdeveloped, a rural republic. Despite this negative image in my head, I decided to become a volunteer and visit Poland — Zakopane  for 2 weeks.
Firstly I took a night train from Budapest (Hungary). Travel was very nice and easy until I arrived at 2 am to Krakow (Poland), where I had to transfer trains in order to get to my final destination. As I had been expecting, the weather was very cold. You have to remember that I come from Mexico, and I am therefore used to hot climates; the Polish cold was more severe for me than the average person. In regards to the train, it was old and full of people, maybe even too full, since I had to stay in the corridor for over three hours, surrounded by some strange guys who were not sober.
Despite that bad first impression, I had a great time in Zakopane. I had fantastic experiences with my new friend from the workcamp. In fact, it was such an excellent time that I decided to repeat the summer camp the following year in 2012. Those good experiences also convinced me to start my master studies in Poland.
By the end of my studies in Mexico, I applied for the Masters program in Political Science by contacting the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the Warsaw University in Poland. After a few days I received a positive answer: I got in!. The access process was surprisingly easy, even though I didn´t have all my papers from my university. It wasn’t a big problem, and Warsaw University administration let me deliver all missing papers later. Professors often ask me why I moved from a sunny land to the cold north, so far away from home...sometimes I ask myself the same question.
I arrived to Warsaw on the second day of classes, completely tired and without knowing anyone. But to my surprise, everyone was very gentle and friendly. Today I am the only Latin-American person in the group, amongst my colleagues who are of so many different nationalities: USA, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Turkey, and Greece. Their reasons for studying in Poland vary too, from being here for a husband, to being here for fun, to being here for a scholarship. My reason is that I could have a European education degree in a nice country, but at comparatively low costs.. I have also considered possibilities of extending my stay (depending on job offers).
From time to time, I get a feeling of discomfort when I realize that I’m a foreigner studying in a different country without receiving a scholarship or money from the private or public (State) sectors. I make a great effort to afford transportation, tuition fees, and the general cost of living in Warsaw. I know some students who receive funds from the State or the European Union at times don’t care about studies at all. For them, studying abroad is a kind of fun holiday.....and I feel pique as I watch it.
Now, going back to the beginning of my adventure as a foreigner living in Poland... when I arrived to Warsaw, I was excited to be one of the students at Warsaw University. I had such a positive vision of my future!
Unfortunately, the person in charge of my accommodation did not find me a home, so I had to stay at a hotel. After a few days, with help from my new friends, I finally found a nice flat. For the first free months everything was very nice and met my expectations. Then, cold days came, and I was not ready for weather like that. It was the first time in my life that I saw snow and experienced freeze and frost. It was a type of cold that could kill you if you were not prepared; it was a situation I never experienced before! The lack of sun submerged me in a winter depression, and I didn’t want to get out of my house. Even everyday shopping was a nightmare for me.
I noticed differences in Polish and Mexican culture. We, Mexicans, are very companionable and warm in contact with others, while Poles are not as open and sociable. I realized that even my Polish girlfriend is distanced from me, and my new friends are not that close, like the way my friends are in Mexico. Winter took not only the light of the sun but also the light from people’s souls. I felt alone.
Poland had tempted me with the possibilities of economic growth, international contacts, and development, but the reality was disappointing: summer days passed away with tourists and small-job possibilities, knowledge of the English language wasn’t sufficient enough to communicate with the Poles, Polish was too difficult to understand and learn, and the opportunity for easy scholarship (loudly promoted) did not really exist.
Somehow I survived winter.
It was not the end of my problems. I had to face the fact that a major part of Polish society has a little bit of racist beliefs and habits. For me it is unthinkable! However, my girlfriend’s parents told me directly that they didn’t trust me because I’m not European… what a shock! Also my girlfriend started to say that my culture is much more barbarian than that of the Polish and not as civilized. All her friends supported her in this belief. Also surprising was the fact that people in general are shocked when they realize I am not Catholic. Therefore I had a few uncomfortable situations.
Despite all those disadvantages, I decided to continue my studies. The state of Poland opened a scholarship opportunity, so I applied. I submitted all the necessary documents, and my grades were good. According to the Embassy of Mexico, I had a great chance of obtaining the scholarship. I received a negative answer. So then I proceeded to ask the proper department (the Biuro Uznawalności Wykształcenia i Wymiany Międzynarodowej) for an explanation. I waited for one month for mail, but all I got was a ridiculous excuse. Afterwards, I made a complaint at my University, and the Administration of my master studies agreed that the reason for refusing me the scholarship was baseless. A representative from my University asked Biuro for a written explanation, and he immediately got one the next day. Meanwhile, I had waited one month...
For the next scholar year I had to obtain a residence card instead of a visa. During that process I faced one of the most horrible bureaucracies I have ever seen. Simple paper work seemed to be the most impossible task for officials.
I will never understand why some officials treat good, honest foreigners, who are studying and bringing money to their country, in such an unpleasant way. I’m a student at one of the best universities in the country, my papers are complete, and yet, they treat me as a cheat and an illegal. They asked me for 25,000 zlotys on a Polish account, registered in my name, to prove that I did not plan to stay in Poland forever.
Because I really want to finish my studies, and I don’t want to waste the time I already spent in Poland, I’m collecting money to complete that amount.
So all in all, my Polish experience is filled with bad and good stories. I love this country, but I would advise other foreigners to first be really sure they want to live here and realize that things are not what they seem at first. There are not a lot of job opportunities especially since the paper application process involves governmental interference, which is long and tedious. Even if foreigners are here for the right reasons, they should not expect to have any type of consideration. On the other hand, I have also met people who will mark my life forever in a positive way. I have experienced so many great adventures in this country.
At last, I’d like to mark that sadly, the Polish government does not support young, foreign, and national students who want to stay in the country, even if this would create a multicultural society. Most of the graduates escape from Poland to other countries to look for jobs. I believe the government should invest in higher education to promote the integration of foreign students. We, as international individuals, are the best connections with our mother countries. We can assure the enforcement of diplomatic, economic, educational, or political cooperation. The results will not be visible in the next five years, but in the long-term, it could ensure the continuous development of Poland as a country, inviting even its own nationals to stay and create a better Poland.
Carlos Ivan Vargas Álvarez del Castillo
The article has been written with support of the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union and the International Visegrad Fund. The article reflects the views only of the author, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
 Zakopane – not very big, touristic town on south of Poland, surrounded with mountains Tatry. The most popular place for mountain activities on polish territory.