Jonathan Ramsey at a train station in Poland.

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Exploring roads less traveled

Thursday, February 14, 2019

When Jonathan Ramsey decided to study abroad in Poland during his last semester at Northeastern Illinois University, he had no idea of the impact it would have on his life.

“To be frank, it was fun, it was exciting, but I had no plans to stay in Poland,” Ramsey said. “I didn’t really like it. The language is very difficult. The weather wasn’t very good. It was kind of grim. I thought, ‘OK. I’m here for now, but I’m never going to come back.’”

Life’s plans are never that cut and dried. In his last month of his study abroad program, Ramsey met the woman who is now his wife and he ultimately became a permanent resident of Poland.

Ramsey has had a variety of jobs since making his move in 2010. He taught English in high schools. He started a hostel that has been operating for more than five years. He’s a headhunter and recruiter for large real estate companies that are building developments in Poland. He is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

Ramsey’s latest film, “Smog Wars,” highlights the smog problem in Poland, a country that has some of the most polluted air in Europe.

“They’ve had smog in Poland for decades, but only now people are starting to talk about it,” Ramsey said.

The film aired on Polish national television and was part of several film festivals, including the New Earth International Film Festival in Krakow, Poland, where the film won third place.

“My producer has two kids, one of them has asthma,” Ramsey said. “I have a daughter. She’s 2 years old. We decided we would like the air quality of Poland to be better for our kids. So, we just decided to take it upon ourselves to make this movie in our free time as way of raising awareness.”

Ramsey never attended film school, but he always had an interest in the field. One day he bought a camera and microphone and just started making movies.

“I have no formal film training,” Ramsey said. “I have no connections to the film business. I just kind of do it. It’s my own weird personal artistic expression. Some people take photos. Some people make music. What I do is I make these personal documentary films about life in Poland. It’s just something that I fell into.”

His next project is already in the works: a documentary connected to Polish society’s views on climate change.

Ramsey grew up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and was homeschooled. In 2004, he earned Northeastern’s Presidential Scholarship, which covered the cost of tuition and books. He double majored in Philosophy and Economics and completed all of his coursework in three and a half years.

“Northeastern was a very important bridge for me,” Ramsey said. “My parents were very religious. I lived in a commune; we didn’t have any money. Coming out of a background like that and going to Northeastern was a very important bridge in my life. It gave me a lot of real-world experience that ultimately set me on the path that I’m on now.”

Similar to how Ramsey fell into filmmaking, he fell into Northeastern’s Philosophy department. Initially he was an Applied Mathematics major. Ramsey had no intention of double-majoring, but soon found that many of the people he was befriending were not in the Math department, but in Philosophy.

Philosophy Professors John Casey and Dan Milsky had just started as faculty members at Northeastern when Ramsey was a student and forged a close bond with him.

“He was 17, a year younger than most people starting,” Casey said. “He took my Critical Thinking class. … He was a really smart guy, but he’d never had a class like that before. Despite being really advanced in mathematics—much more advanced than I could ever dream of being—he’d never had a basic critical thinking course or course in argumentation.”

Ramsey took Milsky’s course in Ethics that same year.

“I think what excited him was being exposed to a lot of things he hadn’t been exposed to before, a lot of controversial things, a lot of things a classical religious upbringing won’t necessarily discuss,” Milsky said. “All that became very exciting to him.”

Neither Casey nor Milsky is surprised by Ramsey’s success.

“Part of studying philosophy is having this skill at having conversations about deep questions in a way that’s comprehensible to people, and in a way that’s interesting and informative,” Casey said.

Milsky added that the benefits to studying philosophy are often greater than many realize.

“When we talk to corporate guys, they always say they appreciate philosophy majors because their writing and analytic skills, reading skills, critical analysis skills, those all translate well to all different kinds of careers,” Milsky said. “At the end of the day, those are the skills that allow you to succeed in life, being able to navigate a plurality of different situations, environments, people, and understanding the value of pluralism: multiple perspectives, different conceptual frameworks. Those are all the skills that allow you to flourish.”

Ramsey is grateful for his experiences at Northeastern and credits his time at the University for making him a more well-rounded person.

“Northeastern is a place for working-class, normal people from all over the Chicago area, and there’s a lot of really amazing stories and amazing people who come from rather humble backgrounds,” Ramsey said. “Northeastern is the kind of school where people who really want to do something and make a big change in their life - that’s the school that they choose. You can get a good education for not a lot of money, and you can be exposed to a lot of people from different backgrounds. I think that gave me a really good, grounded perspective that has helped me in my time living abroad.”

Watch the trailer for “Smog Wars” below:

SMOG WARS - A Documentary Film About Air Pollution in Poland - English Version from Jonathan Ramsey on Vimeo.