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Alumni Stories: Marcin Choiński
"It’s very hard when you have no idea what to do next. It seems to me that graduating is easier for people who have a plan. They tend not to feel lost. But on the other hand, there is great value in being lost. The moment you find what you want to do, you really appreciate it."
Name and surname: Marcin Choiński
Place of residence: Krakow, Poland
Position: Foundation Director
Degree subject at the Jagiellonian University: Polish studies
In high school you did an advanced placement programme in biology and chemistry. However, you went on to study Polish. Why this particular subject?
In my secondary school years, I thought of becoming an actor. This appalled my parents and teachers a little, because I was studying biology and chemistry and was supposed to be a doctor. In the fourth year of secondary school I started preparing extensively for the exam at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Cracow, but at the same time I was also looking for an alternative. I applied to study Polish studies and was accepted. I also applied for biology, because I’d done my finals in biology and I was accepted. I also took exams at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. At the beginning, it went quite well, I almost reached the last stage which was the exam in dance. A mazurka routine finished me off. And the examination board failed me. The mazurka routine ended my acting career. So I chose the Jagiellonian University and Polish studies. I was always interested in Polish literature. During the first year of my studies, I completely forgot about drama school and I stayed at the University.
What is your best memory of studying at the Jagiellonian University?
There is definitely a moment when in the first year we were given a compulsory reading list. I knew we would get such a list, but I thought there would be, say, two, three maybe four times as many items as in high school. Meanwhile, as I recall, we got about 600 titles for the year. An incredible amount, and there was still a supplementary reading list at the end. It was a shock. I thought “my God, childhood is over, something completely different is going to happen here.”
Descriptive grammar was also the horror of the first year. At that time about 70% of students failed the first time round. We were the first class to take the exam at the new campus. I rode the bus and thought I didn’t have the slightest chance. We wrote the exam and after two weeks there was a queue of about 200 people in Gołębia Street, waiting for the results. One by one, people were leaving, having found out they’d failed. After two hours of standing in the queue, already resigned to the fact that I failed, I entered the room where the professor was sitting. He looks at his notes, looks at me and gives me a D. I’d never been so happy before. It was the hardest exam in the entire course.
How did your career progress after graduation?
I have to go back to when I was 7 - 8 years old. Back then, I dreamt of being a writer. Of course, later I thought I would be a footballer or a musician, but in the end it was writing that won out. And that, in a way, also determined my final choice of studies. Because I thought that if I did Polish studies, I would be a writer. And I still want to be a writer. I even make some attempts in this direction. This is a continuing theme in my life.
But you didn’t become a writer after university.
Towards the end of my studies, I realized something was coming to an end and something had to be done next. I didn’t really know what, because it was a bit different then. In the third or fourth year, we didn't even think about where we were going to work. The priority was to pass all tests and exams. And after graduation, my friend and I went to England. We came back after 9 months. With some money in my account, I started thinking: what now? I decided that I would like to invent something, to organise something. I enrolled in a post-graduate course in Public Relations because I wanted to learn how to persuade journalists to write about topics that I would suggest, about selected brands, business activities, etc. I wanted to have an impact on journalists, simply to work as a PR person. But it soon turned out that everything changed so quickly in the industry, the field was overtaken by the Internet/social media and my postgraduate studies became obsolete. But I still thought that this was what made me tick the most and I wanted to make a name for myself in this industry.
One of the stages was a short adventure with Cracow Trade Fairs, where I worked on organising book fairs. It was my first encounter with big events. But after 3 months, I started to look for something related to promotional and information campaigns. Working on events wasn’t really what appealed to me.
But before I got into marketing, after working at the Fairs, I thought I would get a job in a school and teach. And so it happened. For three years, in a secondary school, I taught about Polish and European literature and culture. Unfortunately, I found that while school work was very interesting, it wasn’t my dream path. In retrospect, the first five years after graduation were my search for what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.
After three years at school I tested my strengths in a completely different industry. My father and I set up a company that dealt with photovoltaic installations. Unfortunately, as is often the case in business, times took a turn for the worse and we had to re-brand.
Finally, something happened that changed my professional life. But not right away. I found an ad on one of the websites, saying that Caritas in Cracow was looking for a fundraiser. I saw the scope of responsibilities and decided that it really had something to do with marketing. I also liked the fact that by working in an NGO I don’t work only for someone else’s profit, but the main purpose is that you help someone in a worse situation. In Caritas, I learned the basics of fundraising. I did courses, training, etc. I spent two years there. It was a very interesting time. I started working in 2015, a year before World Youth Day in Cracow. It was a huge event. I initiated two things at Caritas that I am very proud of. The first, back in 2015, was a cross-country run. I organised it together with a company from Wrocław. Around 2,000 people took part. We did it in support of a little girl who was born with a genetic defect in her legs. Part of the entry fee was earmarked for her operation in the USA. We also did various additional fundraising activities on social media. We also treated this run as a prelude to World Youth Day. Another thing was a very large conference organised together with Caritas Warsaw and Caritas Internationalis during WYD in Cracow. It was attended by Caritas workers and volunteers from different countries. The speakers talked about the ins and outs of working at Caritas in different parts of the world. At Caritas, I also learnt how to cooperate with big business patrons who were partners in many projects. And during this time I slowly realized that this is what I was looking for. I finally felt what I wanted to do. Even today, when the word fundraising is used, many people don’t know what it is. And then I learnt its meaning and felt that this is it! On the one hand, I am fulfilling myself as a communicator with business partners, and on the other hand, I am not a cog in the machine which serves only to make money. Unfortunately, after WYD, Caritas started to return to its regular daily work. I started to miss international cooperation. Caritas Cracow acted locally. Of course, this is extremely important work, but it occurred to me that I would like to participate in something bigger, to meet people from different cultures.
After Caritas, I ended up in television. I worked as a journalist and marketer. I combined these two functions. I also learnt many things there. First of all, that working with the media and working in the media are two completely different things. It’s one thing to work for an advertising agency and prepare material to inspire a journalist to write about what we want, and quite another to be a journalist who has to choose from the many materials received the one that a publisher will accept for publication or broadcast. Not to mention that working in the TV marketing department is completely different from, for example, working in the marketing department of a company or a marketing agency. And again I realized that I was not on the side I wanted to be on. I was supposed to inspire journalists, but in the meantime I was doing something completely different.
After less than two years I returned to fundraising. I was hired by the Polish Medical Mission. The organisation ran very large projects and gave me a huge opportunity to develop. For example, we helped Syrian refugees in Jordan. We ran a hospital in one of the biggest refugee camps, and we organised fundraising for prostheses for Syrian children who had lost limbs in air raids. I had the opportunity to be there, and I watched a lot of footage of children who had received excellent quality prostheses and were able to live again. Their joy, the joy of their families, is something wonderful. At Caritas, it dawned on me that helping others was what I wanted to do, and at the Polish Medical Mission this idea turned into a reality.
What is your current job? What are you doing now?
Last September, I was offered the opportunity to take on the overall running of a small foundation called AKEDA. I became its director. This foundation works for the African people. At the moment, we are implementing a large project in the Central African Republic, called the African Music School. Together with Polish missionaries we are building up the first music school in this country. The school has been operating for 5 years. So far the classes have taken place in a monastery building; last year we started constructing the school building. Our main activity is a campaign whose main theme is Instruments, Not Weapons. The whole idea came from Brother Benedict Pączka, who wants to draw children away from rebel groups through music. Unfortunately, there has been another rebellion in the country since mid-December last year. In our centre at the Capuchin monastery there are about 5000 asylum seekers. The rebels tempt them, especially the teenagers, with food, the possibility of belonging to a group and so on. Meanwhile, we want to show that it’s possible to belong to a different group, one that is linked to culture, music rather than war. And that this is good, as opposed to running around with guns.
Many musicians, professional and amateur, have embraced the idea of this school. My job is to keep inspiring them so that they are willing to join in the idea of building the school. But it’s not just about the construction itself. At the end of November, we completed a fundraising campaign to feed the children who attend the classes. They were often hungry and we wanted them to eat a warm meal at least once a day. And we raised funds to secure these meals for a year.
Now, in a situation of rebellion, we are running collections for food and sanitary supplies for the asylum seekers staying in the monastery.
I also work with journalists. I conduct PR activities so that the media write about us and what we do. But I also deal with a whole set of other activities aimed at raising funds for the tasks we have planned.
Did the education you received at university help you to get to where you are now?
Of course. My job is 90% about creating stories, storytelling. This creation begins with writing a press release, but then a lot of other texts are written, videos and promotional spots are created. And I think that previous contact with literary texts certainly gives me the opportunity to work through them creatively. Very often I come up with ideas that are related to some texts read during my studies, ideas that I would not have come up with if I had not come across these texts before. Reading pays off. Obviously, I don’t just copy literary theories, but the fact that I once studied certain topics helps me to think creatively, to create certain solutions that I wouldn't be able to create if I hadn't studied, for example, structuralism, deconstructionism, if I hadn't encountered the theory of story, the structure of myth. If I hadn’t had these experiences, I probably wouldn’t be writing the stories I'm writing now, or they wouldn't be as good.
What are your biggest challenges/plans?
At the moment, the biggest challenge is to bring together all the initiatives related to the African Music School project over the years. This is a grassroots activity originating with a Polish missionary, who started promoting it through his friends and the music world. Over the course of five years, many different initiatives have sprung up in which people collect money or instruments. In addition to money, we collect musical instruments and three times a year we send them to Africa. There have been many events, many fund-raisers, e.g. in music schools in Poland. We want to bring together all the initiatives, all the people, to coordinate the activities and make them even better. I think that will happen this year.
What tips do you have for students who are just entering the job market?
It’s very hard when you have no idea what to do next. It seems to me that graduating is easier for people who have a plan. They tend not to feel lost. But on the other hand, there is great value in being lost. The moment you find what you want to do, you really appreciate it. It’s certainly not the best idea to think only about money. Many times, after some years on a job I didn’t like, I realized: this isn’t it, I can’t do it. That’s why you have to look for your path and then you can be sure that you won’t burn out.
How do you envision the Jagiellonian University’s collaboration with graduates?
I think it’s a very interesting proposal that graduates should do something for students. Perhaps if I’d heard a story at the end of my studies about the possibility of working for NGOs, my search would have been shortened. This was not the case. And such meetings between graduates and people who are just entering the job market are of great value. Certainly, networking is important. The more networking, the better. Certainly, creating a group or groups of graduates who would like to exchange experiences and contacts, and support each other in various types of activities would be much needed.