Published September 12, 2018
A funny thing happened to Sean Kaczmarek, UB’s most recent Marshall Scholar, who received an honor many believe is the country’s most prestigious academic scholarship.
His two years in London studying at some of the world’s most respected higher institutions — and all those accompanying adventures — gave him an appreciation and awareness of life beyond Buffalo, something he would have missed if he hadn’t decided to branch out from that comfort zone of his Buffalo life.
He had a quick, but memorable, face-to-face encounter with Queen Elizabeth II.
He found the burial site of a great uncle killed in Italy during World War II, which led to an abiding realization of his role in his extended family, a moment that still resonates inside him.
He toured pubs and distilleries in the Scottish Highlands, driving a car flanked by “these incredible snow-capped mountains, seeing this amazing landscape and things I had never seen.”
Just as important, he had an academic experience he had always dreamed of. Highly motivated fellow Marshall Scholars from around the U.S. surrounded him, all “ready to go out and study and tackle that problem” in whatever their fields, he says.
He now has ideas, insights, contacts, visions of possibilities and new information from what sometimes sounded like a cacophony of brilliant, assertive Type A personalities that he never would have had if he had played it safe.
So the funny thing is, many of his best Marshall experiences were only possible because he was willing to fight through the apprehension that made him think twice before accepting his scholarship.
“To literally move to another country for two years in a place I’ve never been with people I didn’t know — that caused some nervousness in me,” says Kaczmarek, still only 24. “A lot of me at the time thought, ‘Oh, if I wanted to work in education, shouldn’t I just teach right away, or shouldn’t I try to stay in the U.S.? Why would I go to the U.K.?’
“Again, I never had really left (Buffalo) or been too far away, so the idea of moving away for two years was a bit overwhelming at first.”
That’s no surprise to Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships, who has taken on the responsibility of identifying UB students with fellowship potential. Her office guides these promising students through the painstakingly complex process of winning these prestigious honors.
As in Kaczmarek’s case, these honors can change the arc of their lives. But sometimes it means convincing these students their talents and intellect are competitive, and then coaxing them to embrace the uncertainty.
“We know how life-changing these opportunities are for students,” says Colucci. “I knew Sean would benefit personally and professionally from this opportunity. Pushing students outside their comfort zones and how they see themselves is life-changing. I don’t want UB students to miss out on these amazing fellowships. They deserve to be there, too.”
Kaczmarek’s Marshall Scholarship lasted just under two years, from September 2016 until the end of July 2018. He spent both years at University College London, enrolled in two separate one-year master’s programs. The first year he studied for a degree in social policy and social research in UCL’s Institute of Education.
He had access to a library completely dedicated to education. His teachers were world-renowned professors in public policy on education. His thesis adviser worked in a center dedicated to governments’ public policy on education, his exact career path.
“To be around these people who had jobs in the No. 1 place in the world to study what I wanted to teach, looking back, I am extremely glad I went,” he says.
The second year Kaczmarek studied in UCL’s psychology department, working toward a master’s degree in behavioral change.
“It’s studying human decision-making, how we make decisions,” he says.
“If you think of it in a broader scale, how do you get a society to recycle more, or make their lives greener? Really, it’s how to make people choose better things for themselves in society. You can solve nearly every social issue if you can help people make better decisions.”
When applied to education, this behavioral-changing model is rife with opportunity, Kaczmarek explains. How do you reach indifferent students? How do you motivate teachers to go into the classroom as engaged and prepared as they can be?
He always has had the big picture in mind. And his Marshall studies spoke to that in a big way.
“That really interested me,” he says. “What in this system needs to change to get students to do better academically?”
Kaczmarek still retains a conservative image that belies his politics and values. But compared to 2015, when he was a Marshall finalist, he’s different. In 2015, except for a few weeks in China, he had spent all his life 10 streets away from the house where his family lived after moving from Poland.
“My family doesn’t move,” he says. “And I think I had been so inundated with Buffalo things that I needed to get out. There is more to this world than Buffalo.”
His last two years changed that, for sure. During Kaczmarek’s first year, he lived at Goodenough College in Bloomsbury (the royal family is a patron of the college). In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II opened William Goodenough House — one of two main buildings. So on Dec. 1, 2016, (he remembers the date) the queen returned to celebrate the buildings’ 60th anniversary. And Kaczmarek and another Marshall scholar named Duncan happened to be in a room in Goodenough she was expected to visit.
The encounter took about 30 seconds. There was a little conversation, and then she moved on to greet others. Brief as it was, the two scholars came away with a “wow” moment.
The British government funds the Marshall Scholarships, and the queen came of age during the Marshall Plan, the massive economic aid package the U.S. used in rebuilding Western European economies after World War II. So when the queen was making the Goodenough House rounds and came to Kaczmarek, she seemed familiar with the program.
“Oh, you’re Marshall Scholars,” the queen told Kaczmarek and his friend, brightening in sincere interest. “And you’re both in London.”
“Yes, we’re both in London, Your Majesty,” Kaczmarek said. They were told to call her “Your Majesty.”
“Oh, I hope you are enjoying your stay,” she told them.
“Yes, we’re definitely enjoying it,” Kaczmarek answered. “Thank you.”
And that was about it. Nevertheless, it was enough. He remembers the buildup. He’s going to meet the monarch who has unified the country for the past 60 years. And then when they met, Kaczmarek reminded himself she was a person before anything else.
“She seemed nice,” Kaczmarek says. “I would not have guessed she was this important person without knowing it and seeing her. She was striking up a conversation with everybody, which is often not what you hear about the royal family. But knowing who she was after she left and watching her continue to walk around the room, I remember Duncan and I were like, ‘We literally just met one of the most important people in the entire world.’”
Meeting the queen isn’t even Kaczmarek’s favorite Marshall story. That one occurred in Florence, Italy. He flew there last October to visit a friend he had met during his first year in London. His family had known Kaczmarek’s great-uncle had died in action in Italy during World War II, and the family believed his remains had been buried in a mass grave somewhere in Tuscany. But when Kaczmarek was home in West Seneca last summer, he discovered there are two American military cemeteries in Florence.
“You could look up any name to see if they were there. And I found out my great-uncle actually had an individual grave there,” he says. “And my dad had no idea. Nobody really knew.”
So when Kaczmarek visited his friend in Florence last October, he went to see his great-uncle’s grave.
“I’m standing in front of his grave, and it says Raymond Urbanski on it,” Kaczmarek recalls. “And I’m thinking, this is weird. I’m looking at my grandmother’s brother who my dad had never met. My great-aunt and his sister, the only sibling still alive, remembers him from a young age and remembers the officer coming up to their house to tell her parents he was killed in action.
“My family couldn’t go to Europe. And I was there almost 75 years to the day he died, coincidentally. And I remember just standing there thinking, ‘This is my family. Nobody knew this existed.’”
“This is going to sound cliché,” Kaczmarek says, “but it was very powerful because my grandmother is not alive. None of my grandparents are. This was a connection in my family of someone who had died in World War II, and for 75 years nobody had seen this grave. And it’s ‘Here I am, finally coming home after 75 years to see this person in my family that nobody knew.’”
It was Kaczmarek’s favorite moment of the trip.
“It felt like a connection to my grandmother, the past and my family. That was a time when they didn’t finish high school. They didn’t work anything but union or manufacturing jobs, if they came back from the war. So I was thinking about what changed between that generation and mine. Here I am getting this graduate education in Europe, and the privilege of that.
On Sept. 6, Kaczmarek saw his first students as a teacher at Buffalo P.S. 45 International School as part of Buffalo’s Teach for America, which gets him into the classroom sooner than a traditional graduate program, in a place where he is really needed. He is still passionate about big-picture educational policy issues. But teaching in a classroom is just as exciting.
“I think people who develop policy who don’t have that classroom experience are missing key information, especially if they are working in K-12,” Kaczmarek says. He’ll be teaching English as a second language to students grouped by proficiency, rather than age.
He expects to be nervous. “You have to realize you are responsible for these students’ learning,” he told UBNow during an interview last month.
So it’s a great opportunity for Kaczmarek to do lasting good, an opportunity that comes at a price. “Almost what makes me nervous is what makes me excited,” he says.
That could just as easily describe his Marshall Scholar experience. See it as just another sign that his decision to leave his Buffalo comfort zone paid off in a big way, first for himself and now for the city where he feels more connected than ever.