The opportunities offered by St. Lawrence University are unparalleled, especially for students looking to pursue their own unique educational interests or independent projects. During the summer of 2018, I travelled overseas to Slovakia to complete an ethnographic research project about the fall of Communism and its devastating effects. A portion of this project dealt with the shifts in educational institutions as a result of these political changes. Nearly one fourth of the people I interviewed for this section expressed concern for current failure of Slovak Universities to provide adequate higher education, and how this would ultimately affect the country. I immediately began looking further into these claims. Recent research suggests that there is indeed a trend for students in Slovakia to leave the country to pursue better opportunities for higher education. In fact, nearly 15 percent of secondary schools graduates are leaving to study abroad, and “nearly 41 percent of respondents said that if they could choose again, they would apply for a foreign university” (spectator.sme.sk). The real question became: Why?
Thanks to the generosity of the Sol Feinstone benefactors, I was able to return to Slovakia during the summer of 2019 to expand on my previous project. The focus for this extension was on the alarming percentage of university students who choose not to return to Slovakia after studying abroad. I spent three weeks shadowing a professor at Slovenská Technická Univerzita (STU) in Bratislava, Slovakia, interviewing students and professors in an attempt to figure out this phenomenon. Only a month before departing for this project, I experienced incredible luck when I was also able secure a short internship under a woman who had previously worked on several government initiatives to solve these exact problems.
Although three weeks is only a short amount of time, I learned so much about educational systems and the political strategies surrounding them. I learned that the emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular country into another, coined ‘the brain drain,’ has been a recurring global phenomenon since the major leaps taken in science and technology following World War One. Only in recent decades, however, has skilled migration become a serious topic of concern for many academics and policymakers in Europe. Going further, I learned that to reverse the effects of skilled migration and, therefore, to achieve a better position within this global competition, European countries must attempt to retain the younger populations within their country. University-aged students, many of whom are looking to enter the workforce, need to be the primary target of these efforts.
In Slovakia, the emergence of government initiatives to attract students back from abroad is a great start. The ideal solution, of course, would be a major improvement in the academic resources and campus life of higher education institutions across the country. Many students appear to be attracted to well-funded facilities and equipment, especially when it impacts their ability to compete in their professional futures. This solution, however, would require significant policy changes and funding shifts at a national level. Thus, although the majority of students may still choose to pursue higher education abroad, Slovakia will still benefit immensely from improved efforts to bring these students back once they enter the workforce.
On a personal level, conducting this research project changed professional trajectory for the better. I had never previously considered ethnographic research or journalism as a career opportunity, but am now pursuing employment opportunities where writing is the main focus. Additionally, the interactive web page that I have built over the course of these two projects has given me a digital portfolio to reference and send to potential employers. This website documents my travels through Slovakia with a series of translated interviews, a timeline of the political history of Slovakia, and several articles regarding the educational institutions and personal experiences. Perhaps most importantly, I have been able to expand my professional network across seas and open doors for myself there that previously did not exist. This project has equipped me with the meaningful connections and resources that I didn’t even know I needed, but am so grateful to have as I move forward into my future after St. Lawrence.