The Polish Connection: International exchange for the public good

Eugene and Martha Burnstein. Photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

Gene and Martha Burnstein

Despite his Polish ancestry, retired ISR researcher Eugene Burnstein had little connection to or nostalgia for the Eastern European country. That all changed when he came to the University of Michigan as a doctoral student in 1954 and met Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc. “He was my first real connection with Poland,” Burnstein says, with a chuckle.

A decade later, Burnstein joined ISR’s research faculty as an associate with the Research Center for Group Dynamics. Through his partnership with Zajonc, Burnstein traveled to Warsaw, where he got to know the Polish culture and people. When the University of Warsaw’s Institute for Social Studies (ISS) launched a summer school in the late 1990’s, Eugene began going almost every year to teach, accompanied by his wife, Martha.

As his ties to Poland strengthened, Burnstein began encouraging Polish students to come to ISR. “It’s really important for them to get a chance to study outside of Poland,” he says. Most years Burnstein scraped together enough money for one or two Polish students to come over, with the support of a few ISR colleagues. But the annual scramble for funds and the unpredictability of the opportunity struck him as problematic. “It’s not formal and there’s always a struggle—do we have enough money?”

So Burnstein and his wife decided to change that. 50 years after Burnstein started teaching at U-M, the Eugene and Martha Burnstein University of Warsaw Social Science Scholars Exchange Fund began to bring Polish students to Michigan to study at one of ISR’s two summer programs.

Creating the fund just felt right to the Burnsteins. The international exchange is good for both sides, he says. Besides, “I like the idea of it. I have some affection for that part of the world.”

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