For many MATC students, the fall of Communism is a distant concept, perhaps something they learned about in a history class. But for MATC student Jenny Staab, it's an integral part of her life experience. A native of Monroe, Wis., Staab spent two decades living in Eastern Europe, teaching eager residents the English language and Western customs.
Staab, her sister Theresa, and a friend answered the call for English tutors in Poland and the Ukraine in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. They first settled in Lublin, Poland.
"It was fascinating to be there when huge changes were going on," Staab said. "The people knew very little English and very little about U.S. culture. Everyone wanted to learn Western ways and the English language."
Experienced Feel of Living Under Communist Rule
Change came slowly to Eastern Europe, Staab said. "We got a feel for what it was like to live under Communist rule. The lack of color was startling. In the U.S., we're used to billboards, signs, advertising everywhere," she said. "We saw nothing like that. The nearby store was called Food Store #9. Everyone had the same furniture, the same kind of apartments. The structures that the Soviets had built for apartments were like rabbit cages. They were square, colorless, cement buildings."
Staab described the air of caution that surrounded the Eastern Europeans with whom they interacted. "It was very quiet everywhere. Citizens took care because they thought others were listening to what they said and reporting back to authorities. People were assigned to watch who came to see you and what you brought into your home. In the Ukraine, residents would take their garbage out and dump it in a large communal pile. You didn't want to leave it in a bag, we were told, because then others could look and know what you threw out, what you had," Staab said.
The atmosphere was more relaxed in Poland than the Ukraine, because the Catholic Church was able to counterbalance the great power wielded by the government, according to Staab. In the Ukraine, however, that counterbalance was lacking, so the atmosphere was more oppressive and the poverty and corruption were more widespread.
The Staab sisters and their friend taught English to students in medical schools and in private schools. Because of the great demand for English language instruction, only the most advanced students were allowed to major in English. The competition was fierce, so many people hired tutors to increase their chances of being accepted as English majors.
Staab (lower right) and her student government colleagues
pose for a photo during a Halloween gathering.
Launched Soup Kitchen/Children's Support System
After a short return to the U.S., Jenny's sister Theresa settled in L'wow, L'viv in the Ukraine. Hungry children came to her door regularly asking for candy. When she investigated, she learned they had very little food. She also met many who were sick, abused and some who were being sold as prostitutes. Theresa began hands-on efforts to feed and help the children, while Jenny began searching for volunteers and funds to help the cause. With the help of foundations, individual donors and volunteers, a full-fledged soup kitchen and support system for the children was launched. It is now run by Ukrainians and one Slovak.
Over the years, Jenny also taught English in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 2011, she decided it was time to return home to Wisconsin and "settle down in a regular job." She also wanted to spend time with her mother and eight siblings and to continue her formal education.
Interested in a career in medical administration, Staab investigated programs at several colleges. She said she was drawn to attending MATC by the helpful and down-to-earth approach of the staff, citing examples of Student Services personnel mingling with students in lines to troubleshoot unexpected problems they might be having.
Staab enrolled in MATC's Medical Administrative Specialist program in the fall of 2011, having first taken a couple online classes in the summer, and later taking a combination of online as well as traditional classes at the West Allis and Milwaukee campuses.
"MATC board members are very concerned about students' success, and they really want to hear what students think." -- Jenny Staab
MATC Teachers, Board Concerned with Student Success
The idea of returning to school after so many years was a bit daunting for Staab. "I was nervous about beginning school," she said. "But I really enjoy it. I like that MATC has students of all ages and backgrounds here. I don't feel like the odd one out. The teachers really want to see the students succeed and are very understanding of people who are trying to balance school with families and jobs. I also like that the college is spread out into four campuses. It's a good atmosphere because it's not so crowded and students receive lots of individual attention."
Last fall, she was recruited to join the student government and now serves as the secretary for the West Allis Campus student group and on a committee to plan campus events. She also was hired as a student assistant in the West Allis Campus Office of Student Life.
In addition, Staab was selected as the student representative to MATC's District Board of Directors, attending monthly board meetings and reporting on student activities and initiatives. "I was a little nervous about attending board meetings at first," she said. "But then I realized, we're all just here together, trying to make things work out well at the college."
Staab said that she is particularly impressed with the amount of effort board members and staff put forth to adjust curriculum to fit the need of employers as the job market changes. "MATC board members are very concerned about students' success, and they really want to hear what the students think," she said.
Staab's rich experiences abroad, combined with her MATC education and service to the college, have all played important roles for the next steps in her life and career.
Staab addresses the crowd at an MATC Centennial event held at the West Allis Campus in November 2011.
She serves as a representative for the West Allis Campus branch of MATC's student government.