When she got the big news, Aga Skrodzka was in her garage mixing organic fertilizer for her hydrangeas.
An email on her smart phone had arrived from Poland, notifying Skrodzka that she had been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholar fellowship.
Skrodzka, an associate professor of film and media studies, and recent associate chair in the Clemson English Department, will spend the 2019 spring semester in Warsaw, researching and teaching.
“I think I might have jumped up and down when I read the email,” Skrodzka said, “and I immediately shared it with my family.”
Skrodzka is one of 800 U.S. scholars who will teach, conduct research and provide expertise abroad for the 2018-19 academic year through the Fulbright program.
Skrodzka’s research will focus on images of Eastern European immigrant women and children in narratives about sex trafficking.
As a part of her five-month fellowship, Skrodzka will also teach a visual media class at the sprawling urban campus of Warsaw University, Poland’s largest university.
With her students, Skrodzka will explore issues of migration, trafficking, and the sex industry, using film, TV, news coverage, advertising, graphic novels, poster campaigns and other forms of media for analysis.
“This project explores how the bodies of immigrant women and children, and their images disseminated on different media platforms, continue to serve as a physical and symbolic battleground for various cultural, economic, and political agents,” Skrodzka said.
The fellowship project marks a journey home for Skrodzka, who was born in Bialystok, Poland. She’ll be joined in Warsaw by her husband and 7-year-old son.
“This is a return to my roots after building my career here in the U.S.,” said Skrodzka, who came to Clemson 11 years ago after earning her Ph.D. in cultural studies and comparative literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
“I’ve always kept a lively personal connection with my home country, and this is a unique opportunity to establish new scholarly ties,” she said.
Skrodzka will use Warsaw as a base for field research in neighboring countries, among them Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Germany, whose archives will provide the missing pieces for her next book.
“I’ve done 50 percent of my research for this project already but my findings were limited by my physical distance from Eastern Europe but also a discursive distance – simply not having access to the most recent conversations generated by Eastern Europeans about Eastern Europeans who might be affected by the sex industry and trafficking,” Skrodzka said.
Skrodzka sees her project as adding to a rising discourse that approaches these issues from the standpoint of labor rights and worker protection laws.
Seeing beyond boundaries
The Fulbright award will also take Skrodzka back to the university where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Philology with a concentration in American Studies.
In her late teens, Skrodzka decided to pursue American Studies at the University of Warsaw because in post-Wall Poland that concentration seemed “cutting-edge and progressive,” she said.
That, in turn, inspired Skrodzka to travel to New York City for the first time when she was 20 years old.
Arriving in New York, she was smitten, she said.
“It was all that I expected it to be, an amazing, energetic place that had lots of culture, education and diversity,” Skrodzka said. “I still remember the moment I arrived in Manhattan with its skyscrapers, broad avenues, and cosmopolitan crowds. After that trip, I determined to return to New York to pursue graduate education.”
Two years later, she did return to earn her Ph.D.
Her parents first sparked her interest in global travel and culture, and that has informed her teaching in the Clemson World Cinema program, she said.
“I grew up behind the Iron Curtain and my parents were land surveyors, and they believed their children should know three things in life: geographic coordinates, cartography and topography,” Skrodzka said. “Once they knew that, they felt their children would never be lost in the world. They taught me to look at things like the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall as barriers that don’t matter, that all spaces are open and all human beings share the same rights, including freedom of movement.”
“I love going to new places and I think it’s a credit to my parents that I’m always comfortable where I am,” she said.
Earning a Fulbright
The Fulbright fellowship is extremely competitive, with recipients selected based on their academic and professional achievement as well as their record of service and leadership in their fields.
Skrodzka earned the award after her first application.
“I’m happy to say the first time worked,” she said, with a laugh. “I did not expect it to work right away because of the competitive nature of this fellowship. When I filed my application in July (2017), I figured this would be my trial run. It was quite a surprise, and a happy one.”
The Fulbright application process is grueling: Skrodzka spent most of that month putting together her Fulbright proposal.
The application process calls for meticulous planning and a thorough understanding of the program’s mission of educational diplomacy.
“I was quite lucky to have senior scholars in the field who were able to mentor me on the process of the Fulbright application,” Skrodzka said. “Their advice and encouragement were invaluable.”
At Clemson, Skrodzka offers courses in the theory and history of film, Eastern European and Soviet cinema, gender and sexuality. She also co-directs the Cinema/Games Colloquium – a critical discussion forum for doctoral students in the Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design program. Her first monograph “Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe” (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) addresses the transition from communism to capitalism in Eastern European cinema.
Skrodzka has published in such journals as Third Text, Film Quarterly, Transnational Cinemas, and Studies in Eastern European Cinema. Skrodzka is now in the process of co-editeding a volume on communist visual cultures with 33 international contributors, “The Oxford Handbook of Communist Visual Cultures,” scheduled to be published in 2019 by Oxford University Press.
The Fulbright Program, funded by Congress and the U.S. Department of State, is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. It operates in more than 160 countries and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and people of other countries. Since 1946, the program has given more than 380,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and scientists the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.
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