How it all began: The vision of Stephen Mizwa
Born to a peasant Polish family in Rakszawa, Mizwa migrated to the United States at the age of 17 on a German steamship, the SS Princess Irene. Without knowing English, he disembarked at Ellis Island and headed to Northampton, Mass, where Polish immigrants helped him to find employment. Sounds familiar? It is probably an ordinary story of most of our Polish relatives.
Szczepan Mierzwa, known to Americans as Stephen Mizwa, worked during the day building wooden boxes, peeling potatoes, and washing dishes while studying at night. He earned a scholarship to Amherst College and later completed a master's degree at Harvard University. In 1922, Mizwa became an Associate Professor of Economics at Drake University. During his academic career, Mizwa met Dr. Henry Noble MacCracken who shared his passion to also create a cultural exchange program between Poland and the United States. With the 150th anniversary of Kosciuszko's arrival to America, Mizwa sought to create a "living memorial to Tadeusz Kosciuszko". His goal was for future generations of Poles to study in the U.S. and discover the nation for whose freedom Kosciuszko fought. He also desired Americans to learn more about Poland, the motherland of both heroes.
One of his first purchases was a portable typewriter to type letters requesting contributions for the Polish American Scholarship Committee. The first donation was $5 (click here to find out how you can support the Foundation nowadays) He later said, "the principles of Economics did not teach me how to ask people for money for which they would not receive anything in return except a promise that their donations would help young people." Stephen sacrificed his doctoral studies at Harvard University and his professorship to focus on educating Poles. He wrote about himself, "I have a perseverance of a Polish peasant, the enthusiasm of a fanatic, and the belief that sooner or later, $1 million would be raised as an endowment fund." Indeed it has happened, the first scholarship brought nine students from Poland to study at American universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, and also sent an American professor to teach at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
To this day his legacy continues and it is realized at 15 East 65th Street in New York as well as across the U.S. and in Poland, named the Kosciuszko Foundation. His humble life and inspiring story continue to resonate with the current mission of the Foundation. Since 1925, the KF has been continuously raising funds to grant financial aid, encouraging the exchange of professors, scholars, and lecturers between Poland and the United States.
Today, on November 12th, the founder and father of the Kosciuszko Foundation is celebrating his 129th birthday. We would like to remind you of his story to commemorate his achievements and inspire future generations of Polish-Americans.