If SU basketball player Marek Dolezaj was the only Slovakian you knew on the Syracuse campus, that’s about to change.
Dominika Semaňáková is a Fulbright Scholar studying Audio Arts in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Newhouse School. Born in Vlkovce, a village of fewer than 500 people in northeastern Slovakia, Semaňáková grew up singing in the choir and playing the piano. She was the oldest of six children and all her siblings played a musical instrument.
“The music was always a part of my life since I [can] remember,” she said.
Part of this long-lasting influence was embedded in Slovak folklore culture. To some Slovakians, folklore was an art or ancient Slovak ritual to be remembered. To Semaňáková, “It was part of my real life,” she said, “I was living it basically.”
She recalled her dad singing Slovak folk songs as lullabies before she fell asleep. At the end of each winter, people in her village would make a gigantic human-size doll and go around town singing folk songs. The doll was an effigy of Morena, the Slavic Goddess of Winter and Death, and the townsfolk would burn the doll or drown it in the river as a way of saying farewell to the season and welcoming spring.
The only place to study musicology in Slovakia was Bratislava, the capital, and Semaňáková graduated from Comenius University in the city as a musicology major in both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
She then went on to work at the National Center of Culture and Further Education. As a Special Worker for Nonprofessional Vocal and Instrumental Music —“it’s a very long name that no one understands”—she provided consultancy to smaller organizations and regions on Slovakian music and helped organize national events for choirs and orchestras.
Though she wanted to work in the music industry, she knew she had to further her education abroad and gain knowledge in economics and the law — subjects related to the music field that she felt unfamiliar with. She was still working in the special worker position a week before she left for America to continue her education, at which point she still had no visa, no accommodation, and no flight tickets.
That was the start of Semaňáková’s tumultuous journey to the States.
She arrived in Syracuse on the first of July only to find out the airline left her luggage in New York City. She had booked an Airbnb for the first four days and when she arrived, the place was so dirty she couldn’t shower for the start of her first day at school. Orientation started the day after arrival, and she went to the airport that day before 6 A.M. to pick up her carry-on baggage, the only luggage that had arrived. She then went back to her Airbnb to change and left for school after 7 A.M.
“Nothing goes as I expect,” said Semaňáková. But despite the bad luck, SU’s welcome was “heartwarming,” she added. During orientation, she heard the school call out all the countries the students were from, including her own, and with help from newly-acquainted classmates, she soon found a place to live in.
This was the first time that Semaňáková left her country for such a long period, and the graduate program in Audio Arts had its challenges. For one class, Semaňáková was given all the different vocal, guitar and drum parts of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and was tasked to mix them as close to the original as possible.
“If Freddie Mercury would hear my version, I think he would kill me,” she joked.
Studying in America in and of itself provided Semaňáková with obstacles to overcome and opportunities to grow. She said she’s still nervous speaking in class, and the warning sign “danger danger public speaking in English danger danger” lights up in her head every time. But the professors have helped her gain courage and self-confidence by letting her practice English.
She has also found Americans to be, generally, more confident than Slovakians. She said for example, Americans would say, “I’m good at this and this, and I think for that reason I can do that.” And If they didn’t know something, they would have an “I’ll learn it on the job” mentality. Semaňáková said that Slovakians like herself may phrase it more diffidently like, “So well, I have experience in this and this, but I don’t know if I’m qualified for this.”
In some ways we can learn from Americans, said Semaňáková.
Now halfway through her 14-month program, Semaňáková said that she misses her language. As far as speaking Slovak on campus goes, she’s heard of a Slovak player on the basketball team and a woman in Syracuse whose parents are from Slovakia, but her real chances to speak really only come when she calls her parents or friends in Slovakia.
“I love Slovakia, it’s my country, it’s my home,” Semaňáková said. She says her time in America has made her feel more Slovak than ever.
Semaňáková will graduate in May and go on to do an internship till the end of August as part of the program, but her current visa ends in July. Semaňáková is used to life throwing her curveballs, though, and she is used to making contingency plans. What she does know for certain is that she wants to go back to Slovakia after her studies.
“It’s part of my soul, it’s where I belong.”
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.