Her Royal Highness Sylvia, Queen of Polonia

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Students at the University of Chicago accomplish many great things, but few become royalty. Sylvia Prokopowicz is the exception. By day Sylvia is a third-year English major, by night a Polish Scouting instructor, and last Saturday she had the honor of queen of the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade, leading Polish schoolchildren, fraternalists, and businessmen and -women through Grant Park. I talked to Sylvia about her reign, and about being a part of both the University of Chicago and the Chicago Polish community.

Michael Carwile:
What is the Constitution Day Parade like?

Sylvia Prokopowicz:
All Polish people go every single year. There are Polish schools and Polish clubs that march. I don't think I missed one. Well, maybe when I was studying abroad.

What does it take to become queen of the parade?

SP: There are dance practices, photo sessions, and then there's voting day. The competition involves three different dances, each with its own outfit, to show how you carry yourself. There's a speech, in Polish - the whole competition is in Polish - you have to have a talent, and they ask you a question. I was asked what I would do to get Polish youth involved in the Polish community in Chicago.

MC: And what did you say?

SP: First I said I really liked this question, because this is what I do. I am an instructor in Polish Scouting, I lead Girl Guides in the 11 - 16 year old age group. Polish Scouting is the Polish equivalent of the girl and boy scouts, and it was brought to the United States by people emigrating from Poland at different times during the twentieth century, who wanted to maintain ties with Poland until they went back - except a lot of them never went back. It's like the girl scouts, there are badges, in dancing, singing, Polish history. I was involved since I was five, though I dropped off somewhat during my first two years of college.
The focus is on service, to help people and to be a visible presence in the community. We sing at mass, we do a lot of singing. We sing at retirement homes, and it's really great for those people to hear their native language. And what's great I think is for them to hear young people singing in it.

MC: Did you think you would win?

SP: I didn't even think I had gotten into the top five. I was sure I had messed up my talent. Towards the end of the night, the ceremony got especially nerve-wracking - every time we thought the announcer would say who won, there were gifts to hand out and speeches to make. Every five minutes minutes the announcer would stop to read off a message from this or that union or the bank of such-and-such. The last moments were very drawn out for me. And that night, whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see were camera lenses.

MC: So you have to tell me about your talent.

SP: I showed my paintings. What was supposed to happen was that my dad and my brother would walk them around the room, but they got there late and nothing went like it was supposed to. Sometimes when I was trying to explain a painting, they were holding the wrong one, and there was one abstract painting that my Dad held upside down. Everything seems much worse at a moment like that, and at that moment it seemed to me that all the other contestants were much more put together than I was.

MC: So how did you feel when you won?

I was so surprised and so happy. I think it was the surprise that really made it for me. But I was proud of it, it's an honor to head the parade and I was proud to be a role model for the girls. It's an instinct for young girls, I think, to want to be queens and princesses, and when I went up to them after the parade they were so excited.

Did anything happen afterward the competition?

SP: Well, the event ended at two. Afterwards there was a lot of telling me what I had to do when, do this, do that, you know, bureaucracy.

MC: Besides appearing in the parade did you have any other duties as queen?

SP: There was a meeting with the Mayor at the Cultural Center on Friday, with the leaders of Polonia, the Polish community in Chicago. I had to go to a Polish American Police Association Banquet and a lot of other events like that, where I just stood with people and got my picture taken. It's an isolating thing to be this kind of person - I spent so much time curling my hair and getting ready and then having these really very quick interactions. I see what it would be like to be a person who does this all the time. I took a ton of pictures - I believe that was some sort of service.

MC: How was the parade?

SP: I don't know, I didn't see most of it. It was cool to be in the spotlight, though. It felt like the first step in something. I definitely want to keep working in the Polish community in Chicago. After the parade, I was so tired that I fell asleep at the Millennium Park Concert. It was in honor of someone. Chopin I think, and of course the victims of the Katyn massacre [of 1940] and the recent plane crash [which killed the president of Poland and other Polish dignitaries].

MC: What is it like to be a member both of the University of Chicago community and the Chicago Polish community?

SP: Well, it doesn't overlap too much. A lot of what I learn here, I feel I can take over to the Polish community. There aren't a lot of people there whose goals are to go into academics, but I want to inspire the next generation to do so. On the other side of it, I can show Polish culture to my friends. I cook for them. The Polish community in Chicago really feels like a family, and I'm glad I have them, because life here can feel isolating. We are a very elite place.

MC: Are there any parts of the Polish Community in Chicago you would recommend to people who know nothing about it?

SP: The Chopin Theater. It shows European avant guard, sometimes Polish things. It's this small, laid-back place with old furniture - sometimes there's wine after the shows. And Polish churches. They're beautiful and ornate because they're often based on medieval churches in Poland. If there's a big church in Chicago, it was probably built by Polish people.

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Tod Woodward said:

aww she sounds like a sweetheart :-)

Sam said:

It's funny how she wasn't even sure if the parade was in honor of Chopin (it was, by the way). You think the "queen" would know. Well, those 15 minutes are over.

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