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Why Poland Rejects Its Best And Brightest

Graduates who come back to Poland after earning prestigious degrees at Oxford or Cambridge often find themselves shut out of the labor market. Blame a mix of suspicion and envy.

Members of the Oxford University Polish Society
Members of the Oxford University Polish Society
Magdalena Szwarc

WARSAW — If you hear Polish Oxford graduates saying they want to work in Poland, there must be something wrong with them. At least, according to Polish employers.

An increasing share of young Poles with Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard diplomas in their hands choose to come back and start their promising careers in Poland. They expect competition and promotion to be easier. What they find is a long road from door to door, with none of them open.

Jakub Szamalek, 28, had a master's degree in archeology from Oxford and a PhD from Cambridge when he came back to Poland two years ago. "In the Anglo-Saxon world, an "Oxbridge" diploma — common shorthand for Oxford and Cambridge — is the magic key that unlocks the door to success," Szamalek said.

Writing his thesis, Szamalek realized that an academic career wasn't his lifelong dream after all. Writing novels became his new source of satisfaction. He did not hesitate for a second when he found a copywriter position at a Polish game production company. But the company's recruiters considered his "Oxbridge background" more as an interesting fact than as a serious asset. What made him get the job wasn't his prestigious diplomas — it was his great writing skills.

"In London, Montreal or New York, I would have never had the chance to get a position like that," Szamalek said. "I would have had to compete with people perfectly qualified for this type of work."

His wife didn't have as much luck. A graduate of the universities of Bristol, Geneva and Cambridge — and a PhD graduate in geochemistry — she turned down many offers abroad to stay with Szamalek in Poland. She sent over 100 applications and stayed unemployed for about six months. Employers, she said, were afraid she would be a "know-it-all." Her desire to work in Poland despite such a brilliant background was also seen as suspicious by many.

"Just another mouth to feed"

"If you can earn money for what you do, why don't you do it in your native country?" Przemek asked. Now 35, he spent seven years studying and working in Oxford. Przemek, despite many efforts, never felt entirely at home in England.

"When a British man said something was OK, I never knew whether he really meant it," he said. When he tried to drill down on conversations "the Polish way," people would start feeling irritated.

When Przemek came back to Poland, he realized the extent of people's lack of knowledge about science outside of the country. "I was just another mouth to feed for them," he said. He finally found several institutions working on global projects, but was only offered a part-time contract with a low salary.

Krzysztof Koczynski, a 26-year-old political science graduate, is also disappointed with what he found on his return. He moved to Warsaw after four years spent in Canada and two in Oxford. Koczynski had never really considered leaving his country once and for all. After sending off twenty applications, he got three interviews. "I would ask every time: "what will I learn with you?"," Koczynski said. He heard the same answer over and over. "You're here to work," they all told him. "If you want to grow, do it in your spare time."

The young graduate ended up working as a journalist for a pan-European publication, where he was able to receive training. But again, his Oxford degree wasn't decisive in the media's decision to hire him. If Koczynski now enjoys a "European work culture", his income remains below the Warsaw average. His temporary work contract doesn't guarantee him any access to social security or retirement benefits.

"We don't know what you learned there"

Anna Zolkiewickz is only one year older. She earned a degree in linguistics from Oxford and speaks five languages — English, French, Spanish, German, and, of course, her native Polish. She came back to Poland with the goal of working in marketing. Visiting career fairs in Gdansk, in northern Poland, she hoped the word "Oxford" would echo among employers. Zolkiewickz was turned down at many stands.

"People pulled faces and said I should have studied marketing, law or finance, preferably in Poland," she said. "Marketing departments don't accept candidates from abroad." The 50 resumes she sent all got negative responses.

"We don’t know what you learned there after all," Zolkiewickz heard many times while trying to follow up on her applications. "Maybe you know nothing at all."

Three months later, she decided to try the London market. The recruitment process was similar for many marketing agencies — a mathematics test, then two interviews followed by an answer two weeks later. Rejections were frustrating, as they would always come with an explanation. "We would like to congratulate you on your education and achievements, but having 187 candidates, we chose those more experienced," she read once. Yet she was encouraged to call back and get a feedback about her performance at interviews.

Zolkiewickz eventually got three positive answers, and had the luxury to choose the best offer. Three years later, she is now in charge of a marketing department.

"We hire people with diverse educational backgrounds," Zolkiewickz said. Marketing graduates are obviously welcome, but she is convinced that they are not better prepared for the job than she was. Daily missions require the ability to think analytically and out of the box. This is something she learned at Oxford, where independent thinking is key.

Zolkiewickz feels very happy with her current situation. She however misses her relatives and would rather be closer to them. "Sometimes, I wonder," she said. "Why didn't I succeed in my own country?"

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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