Exchange student has impressive academic, athletic college experience
ST. JOSEPH — Mateusz “Matt” Gibiec, a Rotary Club exchange student from Poland who spent his senior year at St. Joseph High School, left for college four years ago carrying with him the hopes and good wishes of the community.
He has more than justified that confidence, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Lawrence Technological University with a 3.96 grade point average, excelling on the school’s soccer team and becoming a campus leader.
His parents, Janusz and Joanna, made their first trip to America this month to attend their son’s graduation.
“It’s been five years since Matt landed in Chicago and we are all so proud of him and happy for his parents,” said Jackie Huie, whose family hosted Gibiec as an exchange student and supported his dream to attend college in America. “No moment was more joyful than to see Matt hug his mom after receiving his college diploma.”
“Matt has been a shining example on the field and off the field with his work ethic and competitive nature,” said Will Dyer, his coach at the Southfield school who secured a full scholarship for Gibiec in 2014. “He is one of the smartest players I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching.”
It took a lot of hard work, said Gibiec, 21, who is staying this summer with the Huies in their St. Joseph home.
“It wasn’t easy, to be honest,” said Gibiec of his impressive record. Like other college students, he juggled class work, sports, internships and other student activities, pulling all-nighters to prepare for tests and presentations. At the same time, he endured the separation from his parents and the country and culture he grew up in.
Getting to the starting line for Gibiec wasn’t easy, either. After hearing about the Rotary Youth Exchange program from a cousin in Poland, Matt was put in touch with Deb Trapikas, with the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club, applied and received a spot. He attended classes at St. Joe High, played soccer and took classes at Lake Michigan College, earning his GED.
He fell in love with the country, the Huies and a host of other friends, and decided he wanted to attend college in the U.S.
“America is the land of opportunity. There are many more possibilities than in Europe,” he said.
Attending a university here meant securing his legal immigration status to be able to remain in the U.S., scrambling to complete his college prep work and finding a school where he could continue to play soccer and study engineering, as well as one that could provide the necessary financial support.
Many people pitched in with preparing the groundwork, including high school guidance counselor, Tracy Wagner.
“Every time Matt heard someone say, ‘That’s just not possible, or that’s not how we do things’, he was persistent in finding a way to make things happen anyway,” Wagner said.
And, of course, the Huies were in his corner all the way and became his visa sponsors.
“I owe them,” said Gibiec of the Huies and their children, who became his second family. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay back, but let me tell you, I’ll definitely try.”
They helped him find Lawrence University, near Detroit, where Dyer pledged to provide a $10,000-a-year scholarship after Gibiec’s walk-on soccer tryout.
It was the first time that Jackie Huie was aware that a Rotary exchange student was able to remain in the U.S. to attend college – especially with a full scholarship.
The freshman, who had been playing soccer since age 4, started 15 games as a forward in his first season for the Blue Devils, which is not typical for a first-year player. He scored his first collegiate goal Aug. 30 and went on to earn the Newcomer of the Year award.
In his sophomore year, he was named a First-Team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America, Lawrence’s first student-athlete to receive that honor. In his senior season, he was named to the organization’s Second-Team All-American roster, also a first.
The year before Gibiec’s arrival the soccer squad was 2-16. In his first year, they went 19-2-2 as Dyer built a more competitive team. In Gibiec’s senior year, they made it to the championship tournament and lost in the finals by one goal.
For two summers he played with the White Eagles, a league made up mostly of athletes from Poland, which gave him an opportunity to meet with people from his home country.
“It felt great to wear a jersey with the white eagle,” the symbol of Poland, Gibiec said.
Around all of this was the minor task of earning a degree, which he pursued with a similar laser focus.
He felt prepared academically as he began his college work, but had to quickly learn time management skills. Along with his classes and sports, he was a vice president of student government for two years, and in his senior year helped found and lead the Philanthropy Council, created to strengthen ties between students and the school before and after graduation.
“It was a busy time, but I like to say, being busy keeps you out of trouble,” Gibiec said.
After his freshman year he had an internship with Johnson-Rauhoff, the St. Joseph graphics company headed by Jackie Huie, where he worked in information technology and got his first exposure to the business world.
Additional internships included an 11-month stint with ImageSoft, a software company, and with Isuzu Technical Center of America, a two-year assignment where he worked on automotive computer controls full-time during the summer break and 20 hours a week during the academic year.
As his senior project, he was part of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Formula international race car competition, in which teams from around the world design, build and race their own vehicles. As one of 30 Lawrence team members, Gibiec was assigned the task of engineering the computer dashboard controls.
The team from Lawrence, a small school, went up against squads from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, MIT, and teams from Asia and Europe sponsored by such giants as Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Out of 150 teams that raced at the Michigan International Speedway this month, Gibiec’s crew was named in the top 30 for their innovative vehicle.
All of his experiences convinced Gibiec to combine his technical skills with his people skills in his future career.
“I’m a people person,” he said. “I love to communicate. I’m comfortable making speeches and giving presentations. That’s my gig.”
He expects to apply all of those assets when he begins a job as a software consultant with Dynatrace beginning in August. He hopes to pursue a master’s in business administration in a couple of years.
From Poland with love
Despite this whirlwind of activity, Gibiec didn’t neglect his families, either here or in Poland. He communicated regularly with his parents via Skype, Facetime and other electronic media, and returned every year for Christmas. He said he spoke with his parents more often than some friends in Poland who live near their families.
And the Huies kept a room for him for weekend and summer stays, and an open line for advice and support, he said. He occasionally returned to update the Rotary Club on his progress.
During their month-long reunion here, Gibiec and his parents are traveling throughout Michigan, from a revitalized Detroit to Traverse City and Mackinac Island, along with a weekend to see a cousin who lives in Chicago.
The elder Gibiecs, who live in a mountainous area of southern Poland, are enjoying the view of Lake Michigan from the Boulevard Inn in St. Joseph.
“It’s great for them to wake up and look out the window and see the lake shore,” Gibiec said.
With Matt interpreting, his parents said they have missed him, and are very proud of what he has accomplished, particularly since he left home when he was only 17.
Their son apparently took to heart the advice they gave him before he left: “Be myself, associate with the best kind of people, and work hard – it pays off.”
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak