Students Call Study Abroad Experience in Poland ‘Life-Changing’
While spending two weeks visiting three cities in Poland this summer, a group of students interacted with the Polish National Police and got a behind-the-scenes look at the country’s criminal justice system. They also explored Poland’s history and culture, and for some students, that meant learning more about their own.
August 21, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
While studying abroad at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, Kelsey McDonnell ’25 discovered a passion for exploring new places. She visited nine countries while abroad, and she’d hoped to visit Poland as well, since some her family hails from the country. But she didn’t have the chance to go – until earlier this summer.
The first member of her family to go to college, McDonnell was excited when she learned about an opportunity to study abroad in Poland. The summer study abroad trip, led by David Schroeder, Ph.D., enables students to explore the Polish criminal justice system and to interact with the Polish National Police (PNP). She decided to go, and she experienced another first: Dr. Schroeder told her she was the first student studying forensic psychology to go on the trip.
“This trip was like Mary Poppins’s bag – there were always surprises and new things,” said McDonnell, who is pursuing a minor in criminal justice. “There was so much to learn about forensic psychology, and many of the police we met had some psychology training. I found out so much about my own interests while interacting with the police force.”
‘It blew my mind’
Dr. Schroeder, associate dean of the Lee College, and the student group visited three cities – Kraków, Łódź, and Warsaw – over two weeks and learned about the Polish justice system directly from the PNP. Dr. Schroeder has developed a working relationship with the PNP, which presented him a Centenary Medal four years ago.
The PNP showed students police facilities and answered their questions. Students focused on comparing the Polish and American criminal justice systems, and they were fascinated by what they learned. Many marveled at Poland’s comparatively low rates of gun violence and homicide.
“I was nervous at first because it was my first time out of the country,” said Sierrah Guyette ’26, a criminal justice major. “But I felt so safe. I remember how refreshing – and mind blowing – it was as we walked the streets of Warsaw. When I started my first year at the University, I was scared to be away from home, and nine months later, I went to Poland. I feel like a different person now, that I could go anywhere.”
For Maverick Melchiore ’25, ’26 M.S., a national security major, one of his favorite experiences was visiting the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Polish equivalent of the FBI, of sorts. He says it was a chance to delve into the field of law enforcement and to take part in experiences that are simply not available to most college students.
“I want to work for the FBI or a similar agency, and this was an awesome experience,” he said. “It blew my mind that a college student could go abroad and do this. Seeing police headquarters in different cities was incredible. Meeting them was a great experience, and we got to ask them questions.”
‘Positive change can occur’
While the trip was focused on exploring the Polish criminal justice system, it was also designed to enable students to experience Polish culture and history.
For Jonah Plawker ’26, the trip helped him to learn about his own history in ways he’d never imagined. Plawker is Jewish, and his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. He knew some of the horrors of the Holocaust from what he’d learned in the classroom, from attending Hebrew school, and from reading books and watching documentaries, but visiting Auschwitz with Dr. Schroeder and his classmates made him understand what took place in a way he never had.
“Auschwitz is the most awful place I’ve ever seen, and yet it should be seen so people can learn what happens when hate and evil win,” Plawker journaled after the visit. “No man, woman, or child should pay for a crime they never committed. This is yet another reason why I chose to study forensic science. It reveals the truth of a crime – not what someone thinks happened.”
Plawker has taken the time to process what he saw and felt at Auschwitz, as well as on the trip as a whole. He says it has changed him for the better, and it has given him a sense of hope.
“When we were talking to the commander of the Łódź police, he told us that when he visited the U.S., he found parts of the country to be wonderful,” said Plawker. “I was basking in how great Poland is. Hearing him say that made me realize the U.S. is okay, too. Growing up now is frustrating and confusing, but this made me realize that even though things are in a strange place in the U.S., positive change can occur once people decide to take steps toward a better future.”
‘It gives me hope’
While in Poland, the students also had the opportunity to tour the country and experience the sights, sounds, and tastes of a new place. They visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Kraków, the Łódź Zoo, and a castle. They also enjoyed the delicious Polish food.
“Visiting Poland and having all these different experiences made me realize there is more to the world than the United States,” said Reesa Glauner ’25, ’26 M.S., a criminal justice major. “Every day we were challenged to do something that scared us, which made me try new things and do things I wouldn’t normally do. Students should look into this amazing experience. I would definitely recommend it to anyone.”
Now that they’re back in the U.S., the students are continuing to reflect on their experiences in Poland. While visiting police facilities and interacting with Polish law enforcement officials, they were taking notes and asking questions. It was part of an immersive research experience, as they each had a topic in mind that they planned to explore in a paper that compares what they learned about the Polish justice system to the American system.
“It was an adjustment for me to be around people who have a high level of power within their country,” said Ashleigh Siciliano ’25, a criminal justice major. “Being able to ask these individuals questions directly helped me grow, along with being able to see a system that operates completely differently than our own. This not only broadens my perspective on what a criminal justice system could look like, but it gives me hope for how we can improve our own criminal justice system.”
‘A perspective that I couldn’t get anywhere else’
For McDonnell, the psychology major, the trip solidified her interest in research while confirming that she is indeed on the right career path. She’s already looking for her next study abroad opportunity, and she expects to draw from her experience in Poland for years to come.
“This trip was life-changing,” she said. “Going to Europe and seeing an in-depth perspective of their criminal justice system showed me how my future research could pull from that and inform my research here. It will inform my career, and it was an experience I couldn’t get anywhere else, giving me a perspective that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”