Photos courtesy of Tomasz Sroka
Commuters may seem to live in a world detached from the campus of Springfield College, going home at the end of every day, but to senior Tomasz Sroka, Holyoke, Mass. is a much closer commute than his birthplace in Lezajsk, Poland.
Sroka spent his first six to seven years living the simple life, surrounded by fields of wheat and herds of cows, chickens and pigs.
“It was a really different life. My parents were farmers, so it’s absolutely as different from here as it could be,” Sroka said. “It was kind of nice. It was far more peaceful.”
The Srokas grew wheat and corn on their property to sell, in addition to raising animals as a source of food. They also grew a vegetable garden by their house.
Although Sroka was young, he recalls helping out on the farm despite not handling very much of the workload.
“I don’t know how much I helped. I probably got in the way more,” Sroka jokingly said.
In their home in Lezajsk, which is located in the southeastern province of Podkarpackie Voivodeship, the most advanced technology was a television. The Computer Science and Mathematics double- major never saw a computer until arriving in the United States.
“It was such a big change from my life in Poland,” Sroka said. “When I first saw computers here, it was so advanced and so out of nowhere. I’ve always been intrigued by them [ever since].”
Sroka and his family moved to America after being invited by Sroka’s uncle, who also lives in Holyoke. Sroka’s family was not bad off, but their farm was stagnant, making just enough to support them. Their life was simple, but it was also more physically demanding. His uncle (Sroka’s father’s brother) saw how they were living and wanted to make them aware of the opportunities in the U.S.
Sroka and his family had to obtain a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Poland to get approved so that they could move to the U.S. They also applied for green cards as soon as they arrived in order to become permanent residents, which is a long and complicated process.
To become a U.S. citizen, an individual must be at least 18 years of age and have lived in the U.S. for over five years without leaving the country for more than 30 months in that time. A form and fee of $680 must be paid to the Department of Homeland Security, which is followed by an appointment to have fingerprints recorded.
Next, any hopeful American citizen must answer 10 out of a list of 100 possible questions about U.S. history or the current government system, and they are also tested on their ability to read and write English.
Finally, after passing all of these requirements, an individual gets to attend their citizenship ceremony, where they are declared a citizen and their green card is taken away. Unfortunately, if at any point an individual is declined, he/she must restart the entire process. Sroka was careful to complete the process the first time around and earned his citizenship in September 2011 after applying for it in June.
Sroka initially immigrated to America via a nine-hour flight. A month after arriving in Massachusetts, Sroka was inserted into first grade in a completely foreign environment at Mater Dolorosa School (K-8), in Holyoke, Mass.
“I didn’t know any English at all, like a single word,” Sroka said.
Luckily for the overwhelmed Pole, two of his classmates spoke Polish, which drastically smoothed his transition. After working with a teacher to learn English and struggling through his first year, Sroka began to open up to the English-speaking kids in his class. By third grade, he was comfortable and fit right in, but he still misses his simpler life on the farm from time to time.
“We fit in a lot, but I definitely miss it [Poland],” Sroka said. “Here everyone’s just rushing to get everything done, going from one place to the next place, always in a hurry, while there it’s a bit more laid back.”
Sroka has visited Poland three times since his family’s departure, mostly to visit his mom’s side or attend family weddings. He most recently visited four years ago.
Sroka chose to attend Springfield College while at Holyoke High School after talking to his guidance counselor. He enjoyed living in close proximity, but even more so, he loved the intimate setting.
“That’s the best part. I know all of my professors. They know me by name and they remember me. I can always go and talk to them about anything I need,” Sroka said.
Despite being accustomed to American life at SC, Sroka still maintains many signs of his birthplace. He speaks fluent Polish and still enjoys Polish food over American.
Among his favorite dishes are pierogies, golumpki (cabbage rolls or stuffed peppers), kapusta (cabbage with the option of including mushrooms and onions) and lazanki (pasta dish), all homemade of course.
“The store-bought ones [pierogies] are garbage man. It’s like [eating] cardboard,” Sroka said.
After he graduates, Sroka hopes to get a job in his field, but he would also like to return to Poland to visit occasionally. The native Pole still has a love for his homeland despite possessing limited memories.
“I’m even considering moving back eventually, most likely to a bigger city, however,” Sroka said.