Oildale to Krakow by way of Chico
Chico State grad’s journey to the top of the academic world
Patrick Vaughan, a 1990 history graduate from Chico State University who later earned a Ph.D. in History from West Virginia University, holds a highly unusual job: He is the only expatriate U.S. professor who teaches in English full time at 630-year-old Jagiellonian University, located in Krakow, Poland and one of the most prestigious schools in Europe.An urgent companion activity is his research and writing of the official biography—publication expected next year—of Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter and, next to the late Pope John Paul II, the most revered Polish figure in the strongly Catholic nation. The Democratic counterpart of Republican Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski has been a leading foreign policy formulator, analyst, author and statesman for 40 years and has advised, to one extent or another, every president since John F. Kennedy. He foresaw with precision the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the U.S.S.R.
Vaughan is now one of 3,100 faculty members at the famed university—attended by Copernicus and Pope John Paul II—700 of them professors and 2,400 of them assistant professors and teaching assistants responsible for the education of some 28,000 students from throughout Poland and much of Europe who gained admittance via competitive tests.
Starting this fall with a three-year contract, Vaughan is in the unique position of receiving as an American an appointment at age 40 to the rank of full professor of history upon entry to the university. He said his pay is “comfortable” and comparable to what he would earn at a large public university in the United States.
“It’s a pretty unusual opportunity, especially for someone as young as I am. Jobs in teaching are hard to come by as are jobs in other fields,” Vaughan said. “I feel fortunate to be here.”
Robert Blobaum, chair of the history department at West Virginia University and a leading scholar and author on Poland, recruited Vaughan and directed his Ph.D. study and dissertation on Brzezinski. “I know of no other American scholars who hold full-time appointments at leading academic institutions in Poland. Usually they are there in a visiting capacity,” Blobaum said.
The American’s position would be considered a plum at the great majority of universities in the United States. He teaches three classes, each involving one 90-minute lecture per week, and is responsible for three office hours per week, primarily by appointment. He teaches a class in American history of the 20th century, which includes a seminar and advisement of the students’ M.A. theses; a class that involves students who are enrolled in a popular European exchange program for undergraduates; and a class on the Cold War. Last year Vaughn pioneered the Cold War class as a guest instructor, won plaudits for it, and will now teach it as a popular staple of the curriculum.
How did an American professor arrive at the pinnacle of success at a world-class foreign university?
The journey began in Oildale, a small, rough Standard Oil town near Bakersfield that’s also the birthplace of country singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
“People in Los Angeles made fun of Bakersfield, and folks in Bakersfield made fun of Oildale,” he said. Most of his friends were second-generation descendants from the Dust Bowl, and from them he picked up a thick Southern accent.
Vaughan’s mother died in 1979 when he was 14. The event saddened his father, who worked for Standard Oil as a “landman” dealing with the company’s extensive property rights in California, enough to prompt a move not only out of Oildale but out of the oil business; he went to work at a new geothermal energy field in Northern California.
Although he hated the move to Santa Rosa because it meant leaving close friends, Vaughan now looks back at the event as one of the best things that ever happened to him. His accent begin to fade, he matured as a star high school basketball player, and he met Matt Olmstead, also unhappy about relocating to a new school. They quickly became best and lasting friends who later roomed together at Chico State University. Today Olmstead is an established TV writer in Hollywood.
Upon graduation from high school, Olmstead and several other friends headed for Chico State, but Vaughan opted for serious basketball at the community college level in Southern California until he became convinced early on that at 6-foot, 3 inches he wasn’t destined for the NBA. He followed his friends to Chico State where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1990.
But it was in the fourth grade that Vaughan became very interested in Poland when his teacher read to the class a book titled Escape From Warsaw about the city under Nazi occupation during World War II. His interest turned to fascination when he subsequently read several short novels and various short stories set in Poland.
At age 15 in 1980, Vaughan followed the actions of Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement, which forced the Polish government to become the first in Eastern Europe to recognize an independent national labor group—40 separate trade unions—without connection to the Communist Party.
“This mass workers’ movement challenged the Soviet rule over Poland and proceeded to change the face of the 20th century,” Vaughan said. Later, as a student at Chico State in the late-'80s, he found himself captivated by freedom-related events unfolding in Eastern Europe.
He took a class from Charles Harvey, a now-retired Chico State professor who impressed him as a superb teacher. Harvey mentioned Brzezinski’s thought and influence frequently “no matter what the topic,” and Vaughan became intrigued. He read more about this foreign policy icon whose ideas endure and decided he was the one visionary who understood the Cold War, how to fight it through promoting human rights rather than confrontation, and how it would end.
In 1989 communism fell in Poland, and in 1990 that nation led the movement for freedom from communism in Eastern Europe by electing Walesa president, the first such free election in that region, and the Soviet empire began to crumble, thus bringing the Cold War to an end. Magnetized by this event and the euphoria generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vaughan traveled that year to Poland by way of Berlin and East Germany. While abroad, he made the decision to embark on graduate study that focused on Poland.
In 1999 Vaughan wrote an incisive Brzezinski-related article, “Beyond Benign Neglect” in the Polish Review, a prestigious scholarly publication. The article explored how Brzezinski, at the time President Carter’s national security adviser, helped formulate a peaceful engagement policy toward Poland and other Eastern European countries during the Polish (Solidarity) crisis, thus weaning them away from the Soviet Union.
The article, which brought the Ph.D. candidate and Brzezinski together personally, earned him the visionary statesman’s respect because he said it reflected his views better than anything he had seen. Brzezinski offered Vaughan access to his personal archives and pertinent sections of his diary as sources if the American would write his official biography. Vaughan gladly accepted the offer.
The article also won for Vaughan a coveted award: the John L. Snell Memorial Prize, bestowed annually by the Southern Historical Association for the outstanding original graduate student research paper on European History. The prize, which had usually gone to such high-prestige schools as Duke, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, etc. helped the Ph.D. candidate win a Fulbright Scholarship to Poland in 2000 as well as land a job as a professor at the Polish Academia Pedagogiczna in Krakow, a smaller but excellent publicly supported university.
At the academy the American professor taught classes in American government, civilization, and history plus several graduate seminars. Unlike the traditional European university style of simply lecturing, Vaughan approached his communicative task with passion, told the students inside stories and anecdotes often infused with humor, and asked them for their opinions to draw them into the presentation.
The expatriate professor used these American-style teaching techniques in 2004 when as a part-time instructor at Jagiellonian University he created and presented a new class with the title “An American Perspective on the Cold War.” He soon found himself lecturing to standing room only sessions with many students present simply for interest, not credit.
One Ph.D. candidate, Wojciech Michnik, noted Vaughan’s teaching techniques and said a number of students were so impressed by their American teacher that they did something unprecedented: They lobbied the head of the Institute for American Studies to hire Vaughan onto the regular faculty. Although the students’ influence could scarcely be looked upon as controlling, Vaughan believes his success with the class in terms of student popularity provided the entering wedge for his new position.
The American professor has studied Polish, a difficult language, reads it fairly well, and can speak it well enough to make simple points if he must. He regularly lectures in English just as he would in an American classroom and finds he rarely needs to clarify what he says. At the same time he finds himself a close observer of the country to which he feels close ties.
“The students have a much better grasp of American history than most Americans and are bright, interested, and respectful, which makes my job easier. They have been brought up in the old system where the teacher is absolutely the boss. I tend to give them more if I know they care, and they do,” Vaughan said. “It’s sort of how I imagined teaching in America would have been like in the 1950s.”
The college-age people he has taught have studied English most of their lives and have better vocabularies and mastery of grammar and sentence mechanics than most Americans their age. In fact, “their written work is generally flawless,” Vaughan said, adding that most (students) appreciate the chances they have compared to their parents (under communism and during the 1980s martial law crackdown by the Soviets following the Solidarity crisis).
He noted that many Chico State freshmen think continuing their education is a right—sort of like an extended 13th grade—"but it’s not like that here. Students take a test after junior high school and another after high school. Those who don’t pass are limited to a trade or unskilled and manual labor.”
Vaughan recalled an incident from his days at the Academia that made him sad:
“One father took the department chair aside and offered him two pigs if his daughter could be enrolled.”
By contrast, he noted that respect is no longer the rule with many youngsters coming up in the earlier grades.
“I understand teachers are having a lot of discipline problems—caps and baggy pants sort of thing—to an extent they simply cannot believe,” Vaughan said. “Most of (the teachers) were raised under the old system and attribute the changes to cultural infusion from the West—the ‘anti-authority/who cares’ attitude pervasive on MTV these days.” In fact, kids beg English teachers to translate hip-hop lyrics from MTV.
Vaughan thinks the differences in priorities and culture between 30-and-up Poles and younger people is “simply extraordinary,” adding that the very recent death of Pope John Paul II, “a Pole who had been sort of a bedrock for Polish nationality, at least for the older generation,” will speed the transition process.
Overall, TV reality shows, Jerry Springer, bombed sitcoms, and other cultural imports such as loud, rich, condescending, poorly behaved American tourists are shocking to older Poles and provide a less than desirable influence through an unreal impression of America and Americans to younger Polish adults.
“Most Poles get a steady diet of American TV that really doesn’t paint a good picture of the U.S.,” Vaughn continued. “My students are not so taken in by this, but I often get the impression that average Poles think our houses are made up of witty comedians standing around in kitchens yet are always wary of the diabolical criminals they see in McGyver.”
While many Poles would like to become more westernized, the American professor said others resist the incursion of foreign influence, and he recently saw a spray-painted sign on a wall that translated into “Poland for Poles.” However, he considers the message not racist but rather a protest against such things as the recent construction of a Sheraton Hotel very close to Wawel Castle, “a Polish landmark on the scale of Buckingham Palace.” Although unpopular because it blocks the view of the castle for many, it stands as a symbol of inevitable changes.
In spite of his high standing at Jagiellonian University, Vaughan is uncertain about the future. He has a serious Polish girlfriend and could easily settle into the life of a permanent expatriate.
“I was looking at work in Washington, D.C. since I’m sort of involved in foreign policy issues (with the Brzezinski biography) and have some nice connections,” Vaughan explained, “but now with my prestigious position and three-year contract, I’m putting that on hold.”
His upper echelon American political contacts that have arisen through working on the biography include Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, retired General Alexander Haig, and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, among others.
Such contacts would prove important if the biography turns out to be a financial success—critical acceptance is also important—because they would enhance an even deeper entry into the political publishing world. Very recently Vaughan received word that Bertlesmann Publishing, a huge Berlin-based international firm, will print the book in Polish and is also “very interested” in doing the book in English. Random House, a large U.S. publisher, is Bartlesmann’s U.S. outlet.
“At this point I just don’t know what’s in the future,” Vaughan said, “but it’s great to have an amazing job and a promising major manuscript, as well as other options.”