City scene in Ljubljana, Slovenia

A Gift for Sharing Slovenia

Back to All Perspectives Stories
Nancy Joseph 12/01/2022 December 2022 Perspectives
Michael Biggins portrait
“It is breathtakingly beautiful and diverse,” Michael Biggins says of Slovenia. With a gift to the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, Biggins is helping strengthen UW connections in Slovenia. Photo by Juan Rodriguez.

Spend time with Michael Biggins and you’ll find yourself planning a trip to Slovenia. Biggins’ passion for the small central European country — which borders Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia — is infectious.

“It is breathtakingly beautiful and diverse,” says Biggins, Slavic and East European Studies Librarian at UW Libraries. “Alps, seaside, vineyards, castles, charming villages. It’s one of perhaps two crossroads in Europe where the Germanic, Slavic, and Romance worlds intersect, and it has produced an amazing number of creative geniuses.”

Biggins is strengthening the University of Washington’s ties with Slovenia with a gift to the UW Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures (SLL), where he is an affiliate professor. The gift will go toward the Roma Boniecka - Anna Cienciala Endowment for Slovene Studies, which supports a campus-wide faculty exchange between the UW and Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana (UL) and provides travel stipends for UW students doing research or language study in Slovenia. A long-term goal is to support instruction in Slovene language, literature, and culture.

"Slovenia is like fractals"

Though Biggins has no familial ties to Slovenia, he has been fascinated with central and eastern Europe since childhood. “I was a midwestern child of the Cold War, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. “From about age five, I wanted to know more about the USSR and that whole region of the world.”

To me, Slovenia is like fractals. It looks interesting to begin with, and then it opens up and opens up and just gets more interesting all the time.

Michael Biggins Slavic and East European Studies Librarian, UW Libraries; Affiliate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures
portrait of Michael Biggins

By the time Biggins was a doctoral student in Slavic languages and literature at the University of Kansas, he was fluent in Russian and German. He decided to add Slovenian to his language repertoire, studying with a visiting Fulbright Fellow from Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia). The more Biggins learned about Slovene language and culture, the more fascinated he became. At the end of the academic year, he traveled to Slovenia to attend a summer seminar at University of Ljubljana. The impact was profound.

“To me, Slovenia is like fractals,” Biggins says. “It looks interesting to begin with, and then it opens up and opens up and just gets more interesting all the time.”

Eleven years after that 1980 visit, Slovenia was the first republic of socialist Yugoslavia to become an independent state. By then Biggins had earned his PhD, taught Russian language and literature at the college level, and switched gears to pursue a master’s in library and information science. In 1994, he became the UW’s Slavic and East European Studies librarian; he currently oversees a collection of about 500,000 volumes. He also has taught advanced Russian and translation in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Through the years, students sometimes contacted Biggins about teaching Slovenian. But Slovenian was not offered at the UW, which he would explain each time someone asked — until one day he couldn’t bear to say “no” again. He began offering Slovenian language classes in 2008. That led some graduate students to pursue research that would otherwise not have been possible given the limited number of Slovenian books translated into English. (Biggins has translated about 25 book-length works of literature from Slovenian into English, but he laments the hundreds of other great books the rest of the world may never experience.)

An enduring faculty exchange

Not all UW connections with Slovenia require language proficiency. Since 1963, the UW and the University of Ljubljana have participated in an exchange — in English — with most visits lasting two to four weeks. During the visits, faculty pursue a research project in collaboration with colleagues from the host institution, deliver lectures, and moderate seminar sessions. The presidents of both universities formalized the exchange in 1978, with two or three faculty participating annually from each institution. To date, nearly 40 UW departments have been represented.

Young Michael Biggins with a backpack, with forest behind.
Biggins hiking in the Pohorje Mountains of northeastern Slovenia in June 1983.  Photo by Geoff Husič.

Biggins currently chairs the UW-University of Ljubljana Scholars Exchange Committee. There is no one more committed to the exchange program, as his current matching gift demonstrates. Years before making the gift, Biggins convinced a close friend, Roma Boniecka, to establish an endowment in support of the program.

Biggins met Boniecka when he was in graduate school. She taught Polish language, and Biggins — always eager to learn a new language — studied with her. That led to a friendship that endured for many decades. In her last years, Boniecka expressed to Biggins that she wanted to give him some money, an offer he repeatedly declined. And then he had an idea. “I told her the greatest gift she could give me would be to provide permanent support for the UW-University of Ljubljana exchange program and Slovene studies at the UW, and it would even be tax-deductible,” Biggins recalls. “And she replied, ‘Sure, where do I sign?’”

The Roma Boniecka - Anna Cienciala Endowment was established in 2016. When Boniecka died in 2019 and left a bequest for Biggins and his wife in her will, they decided to make some of those funds available to the endowment as well. Biggins credits his wife with proposing a matching gift to encourage others to add to the endowment.

The timing of the gift is particularly appropriate, as the UW-University of Ljubljana exchange will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023. This coming year also marks the beginning of a new student exchange with the University of Ljubljana, with up to 24 undergraduate and graduate students from UW and UL participating. 

Biggins, who also serves as Honorary Consul of Slovenia for Washington State, will not be among those traveling to central Europe soon. He has been to Slovenia 13 times, but his priority now is helping others discover the country that has fascinated him for decades.

“There will be an opportunity for me to return to Slovenia sometime when it will be really useful,” he says, “but at the moment, the most productive thing I can do is keep building the exchange program and Slovene studies at the UW. I’m happy to do that.”

Contribute to the Roma Boniecka - Anna Cienciala Endowment, or contact Kate Mortensen at kamort@uw.edu for more information.

More Stories

Markus Teuton playing guitar on stage

Celebrating Contemporary Indigenous Music

Markus Teuton, a musician and citizen of Cherokee Nation, explores contemporary Indigenous music through his academic work and as host of “Indigenous Jazz,” a radio show.

Sana Shetty with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.

Learning Hard Truths Through Internships

Sana Shetty, interested in human rights law, has a more nuanced understanding of potential careers thanks to internships.

portrait photo of Tisbe Rinehart on the UW campus

Getting Personal About Wilderness

UW senior Tisbe Rinehart, a wilderness guide for UW adventures, attended a wilderness therapy program as a teen — a difficult experience she explores in her CHID senior thesis.

Explore Stories Across Arts & Sciences Departments