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'Make Democracy Better'

Former president of Poland inspires BSU students 

Abigail Bulman, ’24, has long looked up to Lech Wałęsa, so much so that his picture adorns her family’s mantle.

It wasn’t until she became a Bridgewater State student that Abigail got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to converse with the renowned former Polish president.

“For me, it was like meeting Santa,” said Abigail, a political science major whose family, like many Eastern Europeans, honors Wałęsa. “People hold him in such high regard that they put him next to family members’ photos.”

A pro-democracy dissident and union organizer, Wałęsa answered questions from about 20 students before giving a talk to more than 1,000 people during his recent visit to BSU.

He led the Polish Solidarity movement, which played a key role in ending communist control. In 1990, Wałęsa became the country’s first democratically elected president in more than 60 years. He oversaw Poland's transition from communism to a free-market liberal democracy.

“Like so many of you, President Wałęsa came from humble beginnings,” BSU President Frederick W. Clark Jr., ’83, told students, recounting how Wałęsa once worked as a shipyard electrician. “No one better exemplifies the idea that one person can change the world than President Wałęsa.”

Clark announced the establishment of an endowed scholarship in honor of Wałęsa that will support first-generation undergraduate students with financial need who have a parent working in the skilled trades.

Wałęsa, whose visit was underwritten by BSU benefactors Bruce ’68, and Patricia (Quinn), ’67, Bartlett, emphasized that the United States must be a leader in global affairs.

“Who can do it if America doesn’t want to do it?” he said through a translator.

At the more intimate gathering with students, Wałęsa described how the democracy movement in Poland once seemed impossible. But he and his fellow Polish citizens persevered.

“I would like your generation to make democracy better,” he said in urging term limits and a reduced role of money in politics.

Wałęsa also addressed his motivation for becoming the leader of Poland.

“I became a president, but I didn’t want to be a president,” he said. “The point was to destroy communism.”

Student journalists Madyson Esquivel, ’26, and Hannah Murphy, ’25, were honored to ask questions of a leader who showed them the immense impact one individual can have.

“Speaking to him emphasized how our engagement with democracy is important,” said Hannah, a political science and English major pursuing a philosophy, politics and economics minor. “Even if it feels like our lives are quite small, our involvement in the grand scheme is very important."

For history major Patrick McCue, ’24, meeting Walesa shone a new light on topics he studies in the classroom.

“You learn a lot about history with books and articles,” Patrick said. “To actually meet someone who made history in quite an impactful way means a lot.”

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