Last fall Viera Proulx returned to her home country, the Slovak Republic, to begin a Fulbright-funded sabbatical at Comenius University in Bratislava.
Proulx’s journey forged important academic collaborations, but it also had the unexpected effect of reconnecting her with friends she had not seen since since the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Proulx, a professor in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science, said the work taking place at Comenius dovetailed with her research, which focuses on developing methods for teaching computer programming to beginners in a systematic way.
“I was intrigued by what they do with children in the Slovak Republic,” she said. “Every kindergarten classroom has a computer in it.”
But, she explained, the educational system is struggling and mathematics has been eliminated from the high-school graduation exam. “The department has had a hard time attracting students,” Proulx said. “But they are retraining teachers and offering nice projects to improve performance among students in fifth grade through high school.”
Proulx helped design questions for a nationwide informatics competition for middle- and high-school students. In exchange, she received ideas for improving her own teaching curricula at Northeastern.
She also delivered seminar talks at universities in Bratislava, Kosice and Prague and was a keynote speaker at the International Conference on Informatics in Secondary Schools: Evolution and Perspectives, which was held in Bratislava in October.
The last time Proulx lived in the country, she was 21 years old. She spent a summer working in England and had no plans to leave Czechoslovakia. “I was in London with two suitcases when the Russians came in and my aunt said, ‘you can come to the United States now.’”
The Czechoslovakian government allowed Proulx to study in the U.S. for two years, but that didn’t give her enough time to earn a degree. “I didn’t think if I went back I could finish the school there or they would give me any decent job to work on because I’d been in the U.S. for too long,” she said. “And so,” she added, “I didn’t go back.”
For 10 years, until she became a U.S. citizen, Proulx evaded a 15-month jail sentence for abandoning her country. The Czechoslovakian government kept close watch on incoming letters from overseas, Proulx said, so she cut ties with all her friends.
“You are a politically suspicious person if you have a friend in a capitalist country,” she explained. “It can cost you jobs, cost you promotion, cause harassment.”
After so many years, Proulx believed she would never see her friends again. But a high-school classmate who had learned of Proulx’s sabbatical tracked her down and invited her on a day hike in the Carpathian Mountains.
“It was just spectacular all day,” Proulx said. “But reconnecting with someone I hadn’t talked to in 43 years was amazing.”