Convocation, Students, History

Convocation Profile: Jakub Mscichowski, History

June 07, 2017
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Jakub Mscichowski is driven by a curiosity about how people experience the world; in his research he asks questions about the ways that people’s lives are determined, both consciously and not, by history. Mscichowski, a convocating History major, is interested in recovering voices and experiences that tend to get drowned out by larger narratives. He has a particular focus on the subjective experiences of people as they have lived through social and political change in China, and he plans to pursue a Master’s degree in History at UBC in Fall 2017, to study local leaders who rejected state policies to help their communities during China’s Great Leap Famine of 1958-1962.

Mscichowski says that much of his undergraduate experience has been dedicated to preparing for research in China. He spent five months in Taipei studying Mandarin, supported by a Taipei Economic and Cultural Office Huayu Scholarship for Chinese Language Study 2015-2016, and he plans to return for independent study during the summer of 2017. In 2014 his essay, “From Avalokitesvara to Guanyin and the Maria Kannon: Charting the Roles of Syncretism in East Asian Christianities,” won the World History Association Undergraduate Student Paper Prize, as well as the William L. Cleveland Essay Prize. In 2015 he won the William L. Cleveland prize again, this time with the essay “Muslims in China or Chinese Muslims: Shifting Identities in Early-Modern Chinese Islam, 1368-1877.”

Mscichowski inTaipei. He will resume his studies, in Beijing, in the summer of 2017.

Like many undergraduates, Mscichowski’s scholarly pursuits were not always so focused, although he says he’s always had strong interests in history and narrative: “From a young age I was a fairly voracious reader, and I spent a huge part of my childhood immersing myself in whatever stories, legends, and myths I could get my hands on. I gravitated to film in high school, and then to English partway through my undergraduate studies. I became interested in narrative and the role it plays in our lives, which prompted an interest in how we understand our own pasts, experiences, and existences. How many different and potentially competing narratives give shape to our sense of place and identity? Where do those narratives come from?”

Associate Professor Jeremy Brown’s History course on modern China provided Mscichowski some answers. He says China’s recent past provides “an excellent place to ask questions about the ways that historical narratives impact people, since it has witnessed several revolutions, numerous political movements, and a conscious reevaluation of national identity and history.” It is also, Mscichowski says, often misunderstood: “many discussions about China’s historical narratives tend to generalize about its people and their experiences, but China is a large and incredibly diverse country, with many different people who express different opinions about different things.”

One such narrative is the historical record of China’s Great Leap Famine. Many historians, Mscichowski says, emphasize the abuses of local leaders throughout the famine. His own research, though, unearthed cases of local leaders making sacrifices to benefit their communities. This prompted him to question the absence of a diversity of voices within the historical record. And, as Mscichowski points out, because most people who experienced the famine are nearing end-of-life, it’s important to recover those voices now. “Otherwise, the diversity of responses to this tragic moment in China’s past will remain largely unacknowledged.”

Taiwan. Photo: submitted

Mscichowski says he is motivated by the “sheer joy” he experiences when studying the past and learning about people, and he hopes he’s shared this as a tutor with the Friends of Simon program, which he joined in Fall of 2013. In the program, Mscichowski works with elementary, middle, and high school students around Burnaby and Coquitlam. He says, “I have a passion for education and teaching, and I hope that I can translate that passion into work that helps others relate to the unfamiliar parts of the world in a more positive way. It’s a cliché, but there is nothing like seeing a student’s face when the concept you’ve been explaining finally clicks!”

The program has also helped him connect how young people’s lives are impacted by histories outside their own subjective experience: “I’ve learned much about the realities that prevent many students from reaching their potential. Kids can’t always leave the consequences of poverty, language and cultural barriers at the door when coming to school, and it’s essential to keep those factors in mind.”

Mscichowski will spend a month working on his Mandarin in Beijing this August, before starting his History MA at UBC in September 2017. Last term he took a graduate-level course to prepare, and says he enjoyed discussing issues that were important to him with people who were excited about the same things. “I look forward to two more years of in-depth discussion about all things history!  Beyond that, I feel very grateful to have stumbled on an interest that requires me to travel and have experiences in other parts of the world.”

Mscichowski offers this advice to current undergraduates: “University can be a very stressful and overwhelming time. I think it’s important to always keep in mind why your chosen subject gives you joy.  Not only will you find ways to justify the unpleasant things, but you’ll also find yourself actually wanting to engage in the work, which, I think, is critical to succeeding. Also, study a language and travel! Meeting people with life experiences and worldviews different from your own is humbling and eye-opening. Whatever your subject of study, those experiences can only do you good.”

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