Professor returns to her roots

April 23, 2012

Computer science Professor, Viera Proulx, traveled to the Slovak Republic for a Fulbright funded sabbatical, reconnecting with old friends along the way.

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.”