VERMILLION, S.D. -- Joe Svec’s academic journey has been filled with twists and turns, ups and downs but through it all, the Brookings, S.D., native hasn’t been afraid to change lanes. His path to The University of South Dakota was a slightly different route than the one most students take, but his commitment and perseverance paid off with a grant from the Fulbright Program, the flagship international education exchange program sponsored by the United States government.
Prior to becoming a student at USD, Svec planned to attend the University of Minnesota. He even moved to Minneapolis and began working two jobs to earn money for tuition. Work became a priority while education, once the forerunner for his move to the Twin Cities, was now at the end of the line. After splitting time between two different jobs he didn’t particularly care for, Svec re-thought things and returned to South Dakota.
"I was spending 70 hours a week working at two jobs I really didn’t like," recalled Svec, a history and political science major who will graduate this May from The U. "When I had free time, I found myself doing academic things in nature, like reading or researching things, so I thought to myself, 'why am I not in school?' I was ready to steer myself in a different direction."
His unique road to USD actually began several years ago. As a 5 year-old orphan living in South Korea, Svec’s world was turned upside down, literally, when he suddenly found himself on an airplane bound for the United States. The good news, he had been adopted but as a young child, the experience was overwhelming and he had no idea what to expect.
"It was a surreal and terrifying experience," he admitted. "It was my first time on a plane and I was thrust in a completely new environment. Yeah, it was a little scary."
Adopted by Harvey and Harriet Svec, both of whom are members of the faculty of South Dakota State University, Svec learned at an early age that education will always be important but he credits his parents for allowing him to make decisions critical to his academic future. He also says his strong desire to work hard and do things the right way also comes from his parents.
"The fact that they’re teachers at South Dakota State, they never pushed (academics)," he explained. "But I recognized education to be very important at an early age."
Originally enrolled as a physics major at USD, Svec’s plans – and major – changed when he took an American Foreign Policy in the 20th Century class taught by history professor Steven J. Bucklin, Ph.D.
"That inspired me," described Svec, who was just one of eight students from South Dakota chosen for the Washington Intern Pilot Program last summer. "I suddenly felt like I knew what I wanted to do."
Bucklin was similarly impressed with Svec’s willingness to learn as well as being the type of student who’s not afraid to ask questions.
"What makes him a success as a student, in my opinion, is that he is willing to question authority and to speak truth to power," Bucklin said. "Joe is quick to smile and never one to flaunt his knowledge. Instead, he shares his insights with his peers in such a way as not to intimidate someone who knows less than he does about a given subject."
It’s ironic that Svec’s Fulbright grant will take him back to South Korea for an English teaching assistantship this summer. It’s where his road to this academic honor began – as a 5 year-old boy on a plane bound for a better opportunity. What once seemed like road blocks, even when he was working 70 hours a week at two dead end jobs in Minneapolis, now is a road paved with opportunities.
"I’m 90 percent enthusiastic, 10 percent apprehensive," he said with a smile, "but any international experience is never a bad thing and while I’m there, I know I will be doing something to enhance my opportunities for the future."
The future is bright for Svec, who says he’s considering law school after graduation as he hones in on a career in Foreign Service, perhaps as a diplomat working at an embassy in Asia. Ultimately, he hopes to be an ambassador.
"I’m really happy with my choice," Svec said of his decision to attend USD. "I felt like I received a lot more personal attention here, established more personal relationships."
Sponsored by the United States Department of State, the Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to increase a mutual understanding between people of the United States and other countries, through the exchange of persons, knowledge and skills. The Fulbright Program also provides funding for students, scholars and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching and teaching in elementary, and secondary schools.
A photograph of Svec is available for download at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/Joe_Svec.jpg.