Spring semester is accumulating speed with students and faculty members immersing themselves in their studies. During these busy and uncertain times, it is important to pause and remember each other’s humanity.
Part of what makes Millersville a unique learning community is the dedicated staff members who share their areas of expertise with students. However, professors are human too; this is a point often taken for granted because it is easy to see professors in an impersonal light as archives of knowledge. Dr. Katarzyna Jakubiak, professor of English, shared some details about both her professional and personal life outside of the classroom.
Jakubiak has been with Millersville University for almost fourteen years. Born and raised in Poland, she moved to the United States in 1997 to complete her graduate studies in English at Northern Iowa University. She continued on to earn a Ph.D. in English from Illinois State University.
In Poland, Jakubiak resided in a cosmopolitan area, and she experienced some culture shocks upon transitioning to the U.S. suburbs. “The lack of walking culture” is something that bothers her, says Jakubiak. The city of Częstochowa, Poland where she grew up consisted of many shops and small businesses within walking distance. “I love downtown Lancaster,” says Jakubiak.
Jakubiak’s area of specialization is in African diaspora. Inspired by Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry while she was at Northern Iowa University, Jakubiak became interested in the African diaspora experience. “At the time I was a beginning translator, and I was looking for new voices to translate into Polish,” says Jakubiak. Komunyakaa’s strong use of imagery left a lasting impression on Jakubiak, and she wrote her thesis for her master’s program on his work. “My professor at Northern Iowa was actually a former student of Yusef Komunyakaa’s, and he encouraged me to write my master’s thesis on his poetry, and that’s how it started,” says Jakubiak.
From there, she started exploring the context and history of African American poetry. “I became very engaged in that. That just stayed with me,” says Jakubiak.
Although there are feminist aspects of the literature taught by Jakubiak, she does not directly teach feminist theory. “My courses do include elements of feminist theory, but I don’t think that’s dominant,” says Jakubiak. She does not consider herself an expert in feminist theory, but she does align herself with the desire for women equality.
“I think it’s important to have women voices in literature courses because they were neglected for so long, so it’s just kind of natural. And I’m a woman. The issues that they raise in their writing interest me,” says Jakubiak. The feminist aspects of her class mostly have to do with the intersection of race and gender. “I’m interested in intersectional feminism because it pays attention to the diversity of female experiences,” says Jakubiak. As a professor of English, she has chosen to use literature in particular as a vehicle to open up meaningful dialogues about race and intersectionality.
Literature “definitely helps you develop a really deep empathy. When you read literature by people from many different backgrounds, you just become familiar with their experiences. You get to hear their stories,” says Jakubiak. Her favorite course that she instructs is “Ethnic American Literature” where the novels pertain to a mixture of African American, Native American, and Asian American experiences.
“Literature helps you become immersed in these stories, gives you complex ideas to think about, and sometimes challenges your comfort zones,” says Jakubiak. She teaches literature because it is “essential for people to grow.”
Despite how passionate Jakubiak is about her professional life, like most professors, she did not always know she would teach at the university level. “I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a little kid I was writing and I was telling everyone ‘I’m going to be a writer,'” says Jakubiak. Unfortunately, in her home country opportunities to make a career out of writing were not abundant when she started out. Initially, she studied to become a teacher of English as a second language at the high school level in Poland. However, when she graduated from her university in Poland, she decided to pursue further studies in the United States.
“I was so hungry for more,” says Jakubiak.
Although writing is not her main occupation, Jakubiak still writes in her personal time. She writes mostly in Polish because it is her native language, but she has translated some of her works into English. One of her translated pieces is a short story she began writing when she first came to the U.S. titled, “Made of Sugar.”
“Made of Sugar” is fictional, but it is based on the loss of her father’s bakery during Poland’s economic transition from communism to capitalism in 1989. “There are all different characters in the story, but the bakery is the thread that goes throughout the story,” says Jakubiak. Suburban society in Northern Iowa with its large shopping malls, grocery stores, and with many of the existing small businesses downtown being boarded up caused Jakubiak to consider whether Poland could look similar in the future.
“I thought it was ironic that once communism ends and it’s supposed to be this golden age for private owners, suddenly these corporations come and make their life difficult,” says Jakubiak.
Alongside political and economic commentary, the story largely focuses on the value of memory. Jakubiak weaves the power of photographs throughout her narrative. Her story recently won the Rebecca Mitchell Taramuto Short Fiction Prize.
When she is not writing short stories or teaching classes, Jakubiak likes to hike, listen to music.
When she lived in Poland, Jakubiak enjoyed long, scenic hiking trails with hostels along the way that allow people to stretch their hikes across days. “You take a backpack, you go on these trails, and there are hostels there so you can go into the mountains and spend a week there,” says Jakubiak. Pre-Covid, she visited Poland every year. Her favorite local Lancaster hiking spot is the familiar Chickie’s Rock Overlook where she enjoys taking her two children on walks and bike rides. “You can see this really great view of the Susquehanna,” says Jakubiak.
Jakubiak appreciates various genres of music; her favorites include Indie Rock and Polish Jazz instrumental music. “When I work on grading student papers, I like to listen to music that doesn’t have words,” says Jakubiak. One of her favorite Polish Jazz artists is Tomasz Stańko. She also listens to classic American Jazz musicians, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Alongside her affinity for hiking and multigenre music, it is no surprise that Jakubiak is a literary enthusiast both inside and outside of the classroom.
“I’m really inspired by James Baldwin. I love his essays and his fiction. I have a candle with his picture,” says Jakubiak. “I love the passion that he has for social justice in his essays,” adds Jakubiak. Gayle Jones is another of her favorite authors.
Jakubiak’s favorite literary work written by Jones is a novel about the male, female relationship and gender violence titled, Corregidora. “It is just this beautifully narrated story about a black woman’s experience, but it can apply to any woman,” says Jakubiak.
Corregidora is an “intimate read” in which “you almost feel like you’re sitting in someone’s house and they’re telling you a story,” says Jakubiak.
One of the greatest advantages of attending a campus full of so many real-life, diverse stories is the ability to hear those stories from each other and be changed by them in some way. Sometimes this change is simply being able to walk away from a conversation knowing something new about someone. As college students, it is important to get to know our textbooks to achieve good grades, but there is also a lot to be learned by getting to know those who teach us.