The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Ellie Hackett '23 RGLP Reflection: Learning by Mistake

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A cultural experience that took me out of my comfort zone, and yet was extremely valuable to me, was when I stayed at a boarding school in a small town in Poland for a few weeks. I had the opportunity to travel to Szamotuly, Poland my junior year through an exchange program with my high school. It was a history program devoted to studying the history of cultural diversity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. I had never visited Poland, did not speak any Polish, and knew very little about Polish culture. However, I had an interest in European history and politics, so I signed up. In Szamotuly, we stayed in the dorm of a local boarding school. I shared a room with two other girls from my school on a floor that was otherwise populated with Polish students. It felt very odd, not knowing the language and not really attending the school (we visited, but didn’t attend regular classes as we didn’t know Polish), and yet living with the students, dining in their cafeteria, and otherwise experiencing Polish teenage life. This meant that we essentially learned about the culture by observation, and often by making little mistakes. I remember specifically one day being served a plate of noodles in the dorm cafeteria at lunch. Assuming it was an egg noodle dish (some sort of pasta or a sandwich with a cup of tea were often our options for every meal), my roommates and I began to eat it, only to be met by stares from the other students. Our Polish friends soon let us know that we weren’t supposed to eat the dish yet as it wasn’t complete. A cook soon came around with a vat of chicken broth and vegetables, and ladled it into our bowls, creating a soup. This was something I had never experienced in the U.S, and I remember feeling embarrassed and out of place in that cafeteria. However, it was the little moments like this when I began to feel like I was truly learning about this new culture. Although during this trip, I often felt out of my comfort zone, I think that these moments made me bond much more with my new Polish friends, and offered an amazing opportunity to dive into a new culture.

Written by Ellie Hackett, a member of the Winter 2021 Cohort of the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program

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