Get to Know a Grantee - Spring Scholar Mini Interviews

By Maureen Heydt 

The Fulbright Czech Republic program welcomed several new US Scholars for the 2017 spring semester. The Scholars are teaching at universities throughout Prague and the Czech Republic. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Professor Stanley Thompson 


Professor Stanley Thompson
Professor Stanley Thompson of Ohio State University is serving this semester as a US Fulbright Scholar to the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, Czech Republic. Professor Thompson’s discipline is economics, and in particular agricultural economics, and he is coordinating a wide array of activities at his host institution for his Fulbright stay. Below, he discusses his work this semester, how he thinks it will affect his teaching on return to OSU, and what the Fulbright mission means to him. 

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  • U.S. Position: Professor, Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Economics and Management, Czech University of Life Sciences, Prague
  • Project: Agricultural Policy Analysis: Econometric Model Building and Policy Evaluation
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Economics/Agricultural Economics

What work are you doing this semester at the Czech University of Life Sciences?
I have full responsibility for two classes, Applied Econometrics and Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Both of these are attended by MS/Ph.D. students. In addition, I have guest-lectured in a bachelor-level policy course. Shortly after I arrived, I gave a Department of Economics research seminar on the topic “Capitalization of the SPS into Farmland Rental Prices under the 2013 CAP Reform.” Over twenty attended the seminar, and this was a great way to introduce myself to the entire department early in my stay. I will also give an invited seminar on April 11th at the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University.

I also have two collaborative research projects with faculty in Economics. First, a paper with Jiri Mach for presentation at the 2017 Agrarian Perspectives conference in Prague, happening in August. Secondly, with Lukas Cechura, I am conducting an econometric investigation of the abolishment of milk quotas on the Czech dairy industry. The latter is targeted for a top-tier scientific journal. In addition, so far in my stay I have twice served as an external reviewer for scientific journals.

Why do you think international education and exchanges are important for people to experience?
You never really understand a country and its people until you have lived with them. Not just in the confines of the university, but in their homes and villages. And, they don’t fully understand you and your county until you share your life and first-hand experiences with them. They are very curious about what it is like to live and work in the US, and your experiences and background never fail to enlighten their understanding. The US is not exactly like the media or Hollywood portrays it!

And how do you think your semester here in Prague will effect, or influence your teaching back at Ohio State University?
I have always tried hard to ‘put myself in the shoes’ of the student, especially those of different cultural backgrounds and experiences. This was even more challenging here in Prague where all of your students are different from you! This added awareness will strongly influence my teaching upon return to Ohio State.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
While my Czech students have told me many times that they have learned a lot from my lectures, I am 100 percent certain that I have learned more from them. Much of this learning goes beyond the subject matter of the course into other dimensions of life in the US and the Czech Republic. There is a clear synergy of mutual understanding!

Professor Jennifer Harding 


Professor Jennifer Harding
Prague’s Charles University is hosting a new US Fulbright Scholar this semester, Professor Jennifer Harding, an Associate Professor from the Department of English at Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania. Professor Harding first fell in love with Prague on a previous trip through the capital, and is delighted to be working this semester in the Faculty of Arts at Charles. Here, she discusses the courses she is teaching this semester, as well as why international education and exchanges and the Fulbright mission are important to her. 

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  • U.S. Position: Associate Professor, Department of English, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, PA
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague
  • Project: Interdisciplinary Connections in American Literature
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Literature/American Literature

What work are you doing this semester at Charles University?
This semester I am teaching two courses, ‘African American Women's Literature’ and ‘American Literature Civil War - WWII.’ The first one is a Masters' level course that I designed, and is similar to a course I offer regularly at my home institution. In the course, the students are reading a slave narrative, studying poets from Phillis Wheatley to Elizabeth Alexander, and reading classic novels by black women including Passing and The Color Purple. So far, we've discussed topics that include endurance, racial identity, and struggles for power.

The other course is a standard undergraduate course offered by Charles University, and I am teaching some of the standard texts, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and As I Lay Dying. We've had many interesting discussions about American Realism, and the use of colloquial dialects, regional themes, and distinctive narrators.

I am also offering lectures at Charles University, and throughout the Czech Republic on American literature and figurative language, which is the subject of my recent book, Similes, Puns, and Counterfactuals in Literary Narrative. By the end of the semester, I will have traveled to Ostrava, Ústí nad Labem, Brno, and Pilsen to give lectures. I will also give a lecture to my home department at Charles University in May.

And why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
I had visited Prague before and knew I loved it. I really wanted to teach American literature, and the Czech Republic offered the opportunity to do this with two teaching positions in American Studies. Altogether, it seemed like a great fit for me and my family, who are spending the semester here with me.

Why do you think international education and exchanges are important for people to experience?
The chance to have open discussions provides a forum for comparing cultural differences and similarities. Studying a literary text is a perfect way to do this, because literary texts are all, on some level, about the human condition and the types of things we all experience, like relationships and emotions and the desire to tell stories. But works of literature are also culturally situated, so they can enhance cultural awareness and sharing.

For example, my students read a slave narrative about a woman who stays in hiding for seven years to escape a sexually abusive master. This text provided an opportunity for me to teach the students about the slave system and the sexual powerlessness of enslaved women. But we also compared this situation to situations in other countries in which people had been hidden for significant lengths of time, such as Jews during the Holocaust. This provided a wider opportunity to consider what motivates people to take the risk to hide someone, what it must be like to live in fear of being discovered, and how people can have the emotional endurance to remain in hiding for years and years. I've learned a lot from my students, who are mostly Czech, but also from countries including Korea, Belgium, Germany, and Scotland.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
This is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. I have already met so many interesting people, and have had so many amazing discussions, especially in my classes. I hope my students are learning a lot from my perspective and expertise as well.

There are many authors and texts who are like great friends to me. It is a pleasure to introduce Czech students to American authors like Sojourner Truth, Charles Chesnutt, and William Faulkner.

Professor Jeff Frolik 


Professor Jeff Frolik
Professor Jeff Frolik of the University of Vermont is serving this semester as a US Fulbright Scholar to Czech Technical University, in Prague, Czech Republic. Professor Frolik serves as Professor and Fulbright Distinguished Chair to the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, and is involved in a multitude of projects. Here, he discusses these endeavors, along with why he believes international education and exchanges are important for all people to experience, and what the Fulbright mission means to him.

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  • U.S. Position: Professor and Chair, Department of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Czech Technical University, Prague
  • Project: Channel Characterization and Antennas for Future Wireless Systems
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Engineering/Communications Engineering

What work are you doing this semester at Czech Technical University?
I’m doing a variety of things. For teaching, I have two classes. One is for Master students in Electrical Engineering, and is related to how wireless signals travel in various environments. This is a new variation on a course I’ve taught several times in the States; so it’s nice to revisit how I present this material. The second class is a scientific writing course for Ph.D. students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. My goal is that by the end of that class, students will be ready to submit their research results to a conference or journal. I’m also meeting faculty throughout Electrical Engineering to learn about the curriculum and research, and to see if student exchanges might be possible between UVM and ČVUT. Finally, I’m doing some research in the Department of Electromagnetic Fields, where I am advising a bachelor student working on his thesis, and working with a couple of the research engineers conducting channel measurements.

And how do you think your semester here in Prague will effect or influence your teaching back at the University of Vermont?
I’m teaching material I’m very familiar with, but from a different perspective, and that has been quite refreshing. Hopefully, this experience will encourage me to revisit my well-worn class notes for my UVM classes.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
I think it is important for people to have all sorts of experiences, including ones that put them in unfamiliar environments. It has been very interesting being here when there’s so much change going on in the States. The Czech faculty, who well remember communism, have interesting perspectives on what is happening; ones I would not have heard back in the States. So, I think the main benefit of such exchanges is that you don’t really know what is going to happen, but it’s bound to be eye opening.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
Because of the mission, being here is certainly unique as compared to interactions that would be had if you were traveling abroad as a tourist, for business, or even for a sabbatical. In those scenarios, I would say one’s view is to take care of your own business be it recreation, job tasks, or one’s research, respectively. I view my position differently, and am trying to understand how I might contribute in some way beyond writing a research paper or teaching a class. I don’t know if I’ll be successful, but that is my mindset.

Professor Russell Goodman 


Professor Russell Goodman
American Professor Russell Goodman, Ph.D. is serving this semester as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic. A Professor Emeritus back home at the University of New Mexico, Professor Goodman specializes in philosophy, and is teaching two courses in Olomouc centered on American philosophy. Read below to find out how living in Olomouc differs from living in Albuquerque, why international education exchanges are important, and what the Fulbright mission means to Professor Goodman. 

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  • U.S. Position: Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of New Mexico, NM
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Arts, Palacký University, Olomouc
  • Project: Philosophy before Pragmatism
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Philosophy/History of American Philosophy, Pragmatism, Wittgenstein

What work are you doing this semester at Palacký University?
I’m teaching two courses, one called ‘American Philosophy before Pragmatism’ (based on my 2015 book of that title), covering Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. The other course, more expansive, is called ‘Voices of American Philosophy.’ It includes some of the pragmatists, as well as the contemporary philosophers Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond. I’m also working on some new essays on Emerson, and have given papers here to the Philosophy department and the American literature program.

How is living in Olomouc, Czech Republic different from living in Albuquerque, New Mexico?
It’s colder on the whole! I really like it. It’s a great place to walk, with lots of interesting places and little nooks. My wife and I are relying on public transportation entirely, something we never do (do airplanes count?) in New Mexico. It’s a great tram system here and we’ve traveled all over the Czech Republic.

People are more restrained, but really friendly and considerate. You encounter more people if you’re not always driving around in your car. I like watching Czech families talk to and with their children in the park or tram; and note the comparative absence of electronic gadgets for the kids. The architecture is of course fantastic. I like the colors of the buildings, the carvings and ornamentation, the older winding streets up the hill to the university area.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
William James wrote an essay that I’ve been teaching called “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” It’s about our blindness to the reality of life for others—including animals. Some people may prefer not to know too much about others, and other ways of life, and that’s fine. There’s a limit to this, of course. But I do think, as James suggests, that learning about others (and others’ learning about us) offers us all some lessons in understanding, to respect other ways of life as equally satisfactory to our own, and to see our common humanity, how much of the American way of life and the Czech way of life are mutually comprehensible.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
It’s an honor to have the chance to present some ideas and ways of thinking that are natural for me as an American scholar; I cherish the opportunity to be in the classroom with the dedicated students who are working with me, and to live in a country I’ve always admired.

Professor Schuyler Foerster


Professor Schuyler Foerster
American Professor Schuyler Foerster, Ph.D. is teaching Political Science this semester at Masaryk University as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. Foerster is the former Brent Scowcroft Professor for National Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and is currently a Visiting Professor to Colorado College, both located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Professor Foerster is teaching three courses this semester, and conducting a number of lectures throughout the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. Below, Professor Foerster details his work at Masaryk, the differences and similarities between the various institutions he has taught at, and why the Fulbright Program and other international education exchange programs “are more important now than ever before.”

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  • U.S. Position: Former Brent Scowcroft Professor for National Security Studies, US Air Force Academy; Visiting Professor, Colorado College, and Principal, CGST Solutions
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno
  • Project: Strengthening Education on 21st Century Global and Regional Security Challenges, U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, and the Role of NATO in Europe
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Political Science/Security Studies, Strategic Studies, U.S. Foreign & Security Policy, European Politics

What work are you doing this semester at Masaryk University?
My work has principally been teaching. Three courses in varying formats during the semester: US Foreign and Security Policy, NATO and European Security, and a Seminar on Managing International Conflict. Within Masaryk itself, I have also lectured in other courses in the Strategic and Security Studies program and participated on a conference panel.

Outside the university, I have done lectures and media appearances in Slovakia (Bratislava, Košice, and Prešov) through the American Embassy in Bratislava; presented at the America Center in Prague; presented at a conference at Metropolitan University in Prague; and lecturing at the University of Lodz and the America Center in Lodz, plus meetings in Warsaw.

How is your host institution, Masaryk University, different from your home institution, the United States Air Force Academy?
The USAF Academy is my former home institution, since I left there in May 2016. I am now a Visiting Professor at Colorado College, a small liberal arts college.

The differences from the Academy are substantial, owing to the fact that the latter is a military academy as well as an undergraduate institution. But Masaryk is not entirely different from Colorado College (CC). Both of these are undergraduate institutions, whereas my classes in Masaryk are a mix of graduate and undergraduate students. Also about a third of my students at Masaryk are from other countries, drawing from the Erasmus and other programs, which makes for interesting discussions on foreign policy issues.

The biggest pedagogical difference is that students at Masaryk are not as accustomed to an interactive classroom environment, although they seem to prefer it. We have had excellent discussions, plus we have had the opportunity to engage in classroom simulations to give students an experiential sense of the difficulties of making policy in a crisis. These prove to be very useful teaching tools, but not ones that are common at Masaryk or, apparently, elsewhere in universities in this part of the world.

In one respect, students are the same the world over — if they are hungry to learn and willing to do the work, teaching is a most fulfilling experience. And I have found many students who fit that description. It has been a delight to work with them.

And why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
They are more important now than ever before. Most conflicts in this world stem from communities of people who know little about others who are different from they, which often engenders fear, promotes stereotypes, and blocks productive human interaction. The more we interact with people who are different, speak differently, believe differently, look different, the more we realize our common humanity. In truth, when we work with those who are different from us, think differently, and see the world differently, we gain a better understanding of the world around us, see things differently ourselves, and find ourselves more creative.

This realization is best accomplished by “doing” it. It is a lesson grounded in experience, when one has to adapt to a world dominated by another language, culture, etc. Then we realize that we and those like “us” are not the center of the universe, but one important part among many others. An important lesson.

And lastly, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
Just that … an opportunity to encourage an exchange of ideas and views, to build transnational networks of colleagues, to see the world differently, and to get out of one’s “comfort zone” to experience another person’s or community’s reality. This and similar programs are the single most important contributor to peace that I can imagine.

Get to Know a Grantee - Raheal Mengisteab

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Raheal Mengisteab
Raheal Mengisteab has been serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Gymnázium Jiřího Wolkera in Prostějov, Czech Republic. A first generation American of Eritrean descent and an alumna of the prestigious Teach for America program, Raheal has devoted herself to her school this year, where she works to actively engage and dialogue with students, colleagues, and community members about the similarities and differences between life in the United States and the Czech Republic. Here, Raheal discusses what her life as an ETA in Prostějov has been like for her these past ten months.

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  • Hometown: San Diego, California
  • College, Major/Minor: California State University, Dominguez Hills and San Diego State University, Communications/Marketing, Master’s in Education
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Jiřího Wolkera, Prostějov
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Czech Food: Smažený sýr
  • Favorite Quote: "Turn your wounds into wisdom." –Oprah Winfrey

Hello! Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, and what you have been doing in the time before Fulbright?
Hello! I come from San Diego, California by way of Eritrea. I am a first generation American, and am proudly the daughter of two Eritrean refugees who were fortunate to seek asylum in America’s finest city after fleeing their war torn home. During undergrad, I studied Communications and Marketing, and then went on to graduate school to study Education while simultaneously teaching in San Diego via Teach for America (TFA) as a Corps Member. My interests include social justice, diplomacy, civic engagement through service, mentorship, leadership, and the creative fields.

And what are you passionate about?
I would say that my passions vary from social justice issues to education reform, and traveling. Traveling is my favorite form of education. As a global citizen, I think it’s really important that we go out and see the world and learn about different cultures and people. I’m also really passionate about many different creative fields, from music to communications and journalism. I love making sure that I practice my civil engagements by staying up to date on current affairs, and I also love reading blogs.

Why did you choose to apply specifically to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I initially first traveled to Prague while on study abroad in Italy. I fell in love with the aesthetics of the city, but I think what made me walk down the streets and tell myself, that if I ever lived in Europe again it would be Prague, was the Czech people that I encountered during that trip. I really believe in the power of storytelling, and I really learned that during that trip, specifically. I was staying at a Czech-owned hostel, so I got to actually meet Czech people, and a few of them were telling me about their experiences in education. During that time, I knew I was going into TFA to become a classroom teacher for the next two years, and so I was telling them about the reason why I was going into that work, and about the changes that I thought needed to be made in the American education system. Then they were telling me about how different it was compared to their own experiences in the education system in the Czech Republic. So when I applied for Fulbright, I thought back to that moment of the stories that the Czech people told me during that visit to Prague, and I was like, that’s where I need to go. I really wanted to see what it was like in practice.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
One of my mentors knows how much I love traveling, and she knows how important international relations is to me, and so she recommended that I look into Fulbright. I did my research, and I realized this is the perfect program for me, that would grant me the opportunity to not only see a different country and to see it from a classroom perspective, and but also from a diplomatic view, through this cultural exchange of being able to help others see Americans in a new light. I think it’s really common for, especially young people, to stereotype what Americans sound, act, and look like based off American films. I don’t think it’s really fair, because of how big America is, and I think that unfortunately the way the media industries work, it doesn’t accurately reflect most of the young people in America; so I was really excited to apply for the program.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I prepared more on just moving to the Czech Republic, as opposed to trying to figure out what my life would be like as an ETA. I remember trying to find blogs, there weren’t many blogs at that point, I know it’s changing now thankfully, and so because I couldn’t read much, I think I focused more so on just trying to understand the country I was moving to. I did a lot of research on the political state of the country and I did some readings on different Czech educators who influenced the education system. I definitely dove into the history of the country, because I didn’t know much prior to coming, and I wanted to make sure I knew the people and the country before I set foot in it.

And what is the town you’re living in this year like?
Prostějov is a beautiful town! Being from San Diego, which is I think the sixth largest county in America, I felt like it was a really small town initially, but my students would always check me and make sure that I said it was actually a medium-sized town. There’s about 50,000-70,000 people that live here, and it’s really, really beautiful. It’s pretty warm, and we’re really close to Olomouc and Brno as well, so it’s well located. They say it’s the heart of Moravia. They have their own dialect of Czech that they’re really proud of, and there’s a big young population of students here. There are about 14 secondary schools in the city. So there are definitely a lot of young people, which is nice, because I really believe in the youth, and so being around that many young people was really refreshing. It’s nice, I like it. I like the fact that I’m getting to know Moravia. 

And what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
The school I’m at is, I would say, a pretty elite school, because the students pretty much all speak really good English, including the first year students. They are all very smart. A lot of the Maturita [graduating high school] students didn’t have to take entrance exams for university, that’s how smart they are. The school has really amazing teachers, and the fact that the students are so smart is obviously a reflection of the great leadership of the school and the teachers.

The students’ English levels are pretty high; they all take the official Cambridge English exam at the end of the year, and most of them usually pass it. It took me a while at first, because I came here thinking I’m going to teach English, but I realized I could use it to my advantage, that because I don’t have to focus so much on the language, I can help them form mature opinions on issues that actually matter, that some students weren’t used to talking about. A lot of my lessons were focused on that. They’re not used to critically thinking about these issues.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have two weekly conversation clubs. One with my Maturita students where we dive into the subjects they are going to be tested on in their exams and the second is open to all students. The second club is more focused on diving into issues in both America and Czech Republic related to race, class, and gender. This is an extremely safe space where students are able to talk about any preconceived notions they have and we unpack them collectively.

What do you like about teaching English?
What I love about teaching English is the fact that we are providing our students with what almost feels like a key to life. With the English language becoming completely globalized, our students not only have to learn English because it is compulsory, but they actually need to learn it in order to successfully communicate and compete with students around the world.

And what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I would say the most challenging part is challenging your own mindset and perspective. I think is really easy to feel like an outsider, and if you constantly think about it and you constantly internalize that, then it’ll effect the way that you are with people and the way that you interact. So understanding that although sometimes society makes you feel like differences are bad things, there is strength in understanding and owning those differences. That’s probably the most challenging thing, understanding that and then moving forward with it. I think it’s important to process it in the beginning, but not internalize it, so that you can actually find ways to find beauties in the differences. Once you get in with Czechs, you’re like family, so despite whether or not you look like family, I think once you’re in, you’re in. So just owning the differences and being brave.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think that you grow the most when you are pushed outside of your comfort zone, and so the most rewarding part of living and working abroad is being able to see how well you can do alone and how comfortable you can become when you’re outside of your comfort zone. And also being able to expand your identity. I feel like Czech Republic has now become a part of me. This has become a part of my story, and my heart feels warm being able to talk about this experience.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
One of my favorite things I experienced so far has been the Maturita ball. Seeing such a beautiful ceremony that is truly an incomparable event in the States was heartwarming. I was expecting it to be prom, but it’s different. Here, every student gets a sash, and at our prom, there was only a king and queen. Everyone is recognized at their prom here, and it was just a really beautiful sight. There was so much to love about it. I would say that was and still is the highlight so far.

What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
The teachers are giving me a lot more autonomy on what I can do with students in the classroom, so I’m super excited to see how far I can take conversations within the last month. There’s an even stronger sense of urgency for me to dive into issues that matter that I’ve had to push aside in the classroom, because we’ve been so focused on staying within the curriculum. There’s also a lot of fun events at our school coming up that I’m excited about, and just summer time! I’m excited to see Prostějov during the summer and to see everyone just glow.

Why do you think international education and exchanges are important?
It’s important because we’re more alike than we are different, and I think the only way you can really learn that is through education and through an exchange of different cultures and nations. I think if anything, thinking back to my last two years in the classroom in San Diego and my last nine months in my classroom here in Czech Republic, there are so many more similarities within my students than there are differences. I would’ve never expected that, I really thought I was going to be teaching students that were completely different, but there are so many similarities! It’s important, because when we look at all the issues going on in the world, I think it’s a time where we should focus more on our similarities- and some of our differences, because that’s how you learn and grow, but when we think about values and morals, I think through these exchanges that’s the only way you can realize that ultimately we may be doing things differently, but the underlying values and morals are a lot more similar than they are different.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
The Fulbright mission means to me this idea of exchanging cultures and challenging preconceived notions people have of each other’s cultures in the rawest and most authentic way. Through Fulbright, I’ve been able to share my own personal story, which is very different from the next American’s story. Fulbright is a gateway between nations that may think they are more different than they are alike. I know my students here think America is this place that is nothing like Czech Republic, and until I started telling them stories about my own high school experience, or the students that I taught before, and they realized they are actually more alike than they are different, and Fulbright does just that. It permits this ability to help us challenge each other and our thinking, to open our minds, and ultimately to become more accepting and more tolerant.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I don’t think my life is ever going to be the same! I grew up in a big family with people around me all the time and I have a twin sister, so I wasn’t used to being alone, and I’m also from California, so I’m used to being around people who tend to have this progressive, liberal mindset. Coming to the Czech Republic, where that wasn’t always the case, I was able to really take a step back, and listen, learn, and try to understand. I think it’s something that a lot of the times in American schools, we tend to want to talk more than we want to listen, just because it’s this natural competitive environment, and so I’ve been able to sit back and learn how to actively listen, and have a desire to understand why people think things, and why people are the way they are, even if they have opposing views. I had to learn how to listen and understand in a way that wasn’t undermining or devaluing other people’s opinions. I will take those skills and apply it to whatever I do next.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I am currently exploring all of my options. I am a lifelong learner, so I definitely will continue education in some way, shape, or form, I’m just in the process of determining the right program. Timing is really everything; I think I’ve spent more time trying to be present here, so I didn’t get to figure it out quite yet, but with time I will.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
I would completely say to go for it! I know ten months initially seems like a long time, but it goes by so quick, and you wouldn’t imagine how much one can grow within ten months. The Fulbright truly puts you in a room full of people who are not only likeminded, but are equally as passionate and committed to this idea of connectedness. You don’t find the type of people you meet in Fulbright very often, so I definitely encourage people to apply and to just go for it. Have no expectations, because I think expectations can kind of diminish the experience. So, if you come, come with an open mind and try to leave all expectations behind, and try to be very present. Read the blogs, reach out, and ask questions.

And how are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I’m in a really happy place! The weather is warming up and my students are great. My Maturita students are celebrating being done with their exams. I’m in a really good place. A part of me is anxious, because I don’t know what’s next, but I also know that I’m going to continue to just be as present as possible, and to enjoy the last waves.

If you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be?

Raheal Mengisteab in Prague


Jedete do USA? Zařiďte si prohlídku americké vysoké školy!

Jedete přes léto do Spojených států? Pak se vám nabízí možnost navštívit kampusy amerických univerzit. Většina vysokých škol totiž nabízí časté a pravidelné oficiální prohlídky. Víc o tom, co to "campus tour" je, jak je organizovaná a jak ji zařídit, si můžete přečíst v článku našeho letního amerického stážisty Dallase Negaarda, který nejenže mnoho prohlídek škol absolvoval, když si vybíral vysokou, ale sám po své domovské škole Hampden-Sydney College návštěvníky prováděl. 

To most students around the world, the college application process can seem grueling and endless. At least that’s how it felt for me when I went through it. The difficulty of the process is significantly heightened for students who are trying to study abroad. On top of having to take the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, etc, students have to then figure out where it is they would like to apply and possibly attend. However, for international students and especially those in the Czech Republic, the next part of the process may seem foreign to them (no pun intended). Campus tours of colleges and universities play a serious role in the decision making process of many American students looking at higher education. Although these hyper-spirited tours are normal to those of us in the states, they are most likely unheard of to students in the Czech Republic. However, for you students in the Czech Republic who want to study in the U.S., it’s only right that you have the opportunity to understand this integral part of the college application process. As a former high school student, I went through this process a number of years ago and I now see it through a new lense as a campus tour guide at my own college. Through this article, I hope to answer the most likely questions about campus tours, their usefulness and how this relates to Czech students wanting to study in the U.S.

Possibly the most important question about campus tours is quite simply, what are they? Campus tours are an opportunity that many American students take to explore the college or university of their interest. The tour gives the students (and parents) and opportunity to not just see the physical campus of the school, but learn about the atmosphere, spirit, educational opportunities as well as the ins and outs of the college. In many cases, the tour works similarly to if you were looking into buying a car. Just as a salesmen would take you around the car and tell you all the great things about it, a tour guide will do the same thing with the university and its campus. The campus tour is not just there to familiarize you with the school but to really sell the college and all it has to offer to you. Similarly to how a car salesmen would show you not just the outside of the car but the interior and all it has to offer, a campus will likely show you many buildings and inner workings of the schools. Campus tours serve as an additional way for colleges to try and show why they stand out from other schools. With this in mind, there are many factors that go into a campus tour.

Hampden-Sydney College Offers Also a Virtual Tour, http://bit.ly/2rJSoaB

Campus tours are more often than not given by a current student or recent graduate of the school. However, every college or university tour can and will look different depending on how the school chooses to run them. In the cases that the tour guides are current students or alumni, they serve as a unique resource for prospective students to hear about the university experience from someone who has or is currently living in it. The tour guides at most colleges will be very energetic and excited to share about their university and why you should choose that school. They serve not only a resource for knowledge about the college, but as direct way of “hyping” up the experience and appeal of the school. Student campus tour guides have the opportunity to express why they chose their college over the others when going through the application process, while admissions workers who may be giving the tour have the ability to express what is needed to make into the school if you apply. Regardless of who is giving the tour, the guides are all there to show what the school has to offer and that there is a place for you there.

The term campus tour is pretty general in that it doesn't say where the tour will go, that’s because every tour at every school will naturally look different. Most tours will never take you every corner of the campus, they will rather serve as a brief summary or postcard view of the highlights of campus. Although each college and each college tour is unique, they all have some things in common. From my past experience attending college tours and my current experience giving them, I can gather that there are a few basics that most campus tours cover. Campus tours will typically show you the more popular aspects of campus like the library, dining hall, main academic buildings and the main gathering area for students like a quad or student center. College tours are also likely to show off some newer building on campus or current construction projects that prospective students will get to enjoy in future years. Apart from just seeing these things, tours will usually taker student inside some of the attractions to see what it feels like to sit in a typical class room and eat in the dining hall. Prospective students will spend most of their time in the places that the university is most proud of, for some that may be a new technical science center or an artisan dining hall for example. Students will also most likely have a chance see the inside of a student dorm so they can get a feel for what their freshman year could look like. Rankings are a big deal to many Americans so most colleges are likely to share the areas where they have received good marks like “best dining hall” or “2nd best dorms in the North East”, for example. Although these are all typical things that a college tour will encompass, tours can still look different depending on the kind of school you choose to tour.

One of the main factors that contributes to the structure of a college tour is the size of the college that you visit. If you tour a large public state school that has 30,000 students, you are most likely only going to be able to see a small fraction of the campus and what it has to offer. However, smaller schools and private schools are more likely to have a personal tour and dedicate a significant amount of time to seeing the campus and answering your questions. The makeup of your tour can also change depending on whether or not the campus is located in a city and is spread out or if it is in a more centralized suburban or rural area. The overall schedule of the visit can also change depending on the structure of the tour. Most colleges around the US have “open houses” in which many prospective students come to campus on the same day and take group tours. These tours may vary in size and some may be restricted to just students while parents receive another tour or some may be conducted with the parents and family of the prospective student. Open houses also usually have additional activities outside of the tour that enable the prospective student to learn more about the university and if they think it’s the right fit for them. These activities can range from a panel discussion from current students to a video presentation and much more. Campus visits are not, however, limited to open house days or this structure.

Campus visits and tours and the options they provide can seem overwhelming but they provide a great resource and experience for students trying to take the next step in the education. For Czech or other international students who wish to experience American college campus life, their options are wider than just pre-planned open houses. Most universities offer group and personal tours throughout the academic year and summer. Although open houses have the benefit of organized and prepared events, going on other tours may offer the chance for students to see more of the campus or spend more time asking questions of their guide. In addition to open houses or personal tours, many colleges may also offer students the chance to sit in on a class so they can get a taste for educational lifestyle of the school. In many cases, prospective students are given the opportunity to sit in a class that is related to their desired field of study if they have one. A much more uncommon way of visiting a college campus is doing an “overnight stay”. Overnights stays, when they are offered, are typically done at smaller, private schools and give the prospective student a chance to stay in a college dorm for a night be fully immersed in the life of the school. These overnight stays also usually include a campus tour and many other events that give you an in-depth look into the school. Despite all of the options that have been discussed, it is important to remember that each school is unique and may have many other options for visits of their own. Most information on campus visits can be found on the school's website or by calling the admissions office.

Hampden-Sydney College Campus, source: Facebook

Despite all of this information, one question remains to be fully answered is why is it important. To many international and Czech students, they may simply have the goal of wanting to study in the U.S. However, colleges are so different and unique in America that they each require specific attention. College campus tours are incredibly beneficial to your college search because they offer you much than a book or a webpage can. Going on a college visit not only gives you new insight into the school, but also makes it much easier for you to decide which colleges you do or don’t like. During my last two years of high school I definitely went on a few tours that made me realize I would never want to go to those schools, but some tours also opened my eyes to new options at other schools. There is nothing wrong with looking into the big rankings of colleges and universities, however, those rankings can’t tell you if you will enjoy that school or if it is the right fit for you. By using the term “right fit”, I mean that every college has the opportunity to give you something but only the ones that are the “right fit” will give you the opportunity to enjoy yourself in college while giving you the education you desire. For example, Dartmouth may have the academic program you are interested in but maybe spending 4 years of your life in small town, rural New Hampshire isn’t your style. I believe that the overall experience you receive in college is an integral part of your years of education and how you will move into the real world. Therefore, putting yourself in a place where you can grow educationally while enjoying your time socially is equally important to your overall college experience.

With this in mind, go out and explore colleges when and if you can. Although most Czech students may be an ocean way, if you have the chance to take a vacation or spend time in the U.S., take advantage of it. Do your research into the places that interest you and go see them for yourselves. No one wants to make the investment of buying a car without seeing it, so if you have the chance don’t do the same thing with you education. Exploring and searching for your best educational opportunities in college is an incredibly important part in the process, but that isn’t to say that your college search ends there. Visiting college campuses offers you with the unique opportunity to explore your options for higher education and plays an important role in deciding where you want to spend the next 4 years of your life!


Get to Know a Grantee - Dr. Jack Hellerstedt

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jack Hellerstedt
Jack Hellerstedt, a postdoctoral researcher at Monash University by way of the University of Maryland, is serving this year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to the Institute of Physics at the Czech Academy of Science in Prague. Jack is working in a lab as part of the Jelinek Group, where he conducts research related to the photographing of molecules. Close to the end of his grant year now, Jack discusses his research, which has led him to work across three continents, as well as what his research entails, and what his Fulbright experiences in Prague have been like. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Science, Monash University, Australia
  • Czech Affiliation: Institute of Physics, Czech Academy of Science, Prague
  • Project: Two-Dimensional Quantum Spin Liquids in Organometallic Molecular Frameworks Studied by Scanning Tunneling Microscopy
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Physics/Semiconductor Surface Physics
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy, University of Maryland, 2015
  • Favorite Czech phrase: “Pražská kavárna”
  • Favorite quote: "Keep cool, but care."-V. by Thomas Pynchon

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from Minnesota, I was raised in the Twin Cities. I went to elementary school in Minneapolis, and then high school in St. Paul, and I like to think that I can say I’m from the Twin Cities in the ‘twin’ sense of the word. I did my undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I did physics and math. Life’s been easy in that sense, because I’ve always really known that I enjoy doing what I do now. And then I went to the University of Maryland, where I talked my way into having a research assistantship with Michael Fuhrer. I lived in D.C. for two years, and then he [Michael Fuhrer] called a meeting one day, and he said, “Okay, I’m moving to Australia, and anyone who wants to help move the lab with me to Australia can come with,” and how many chances do you get to do that? So that’s how the next three years I spent in Australia. Then I got this opportunity, so now I’m here.

And what are your hobbies?
In D.C. it was really cool, because out in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. where the university is, they have a dedicated tap dance studio in Tacoma Park. It took me a while living there to stumble upon this, and that was a lot of fun, so I do miss that.

Here in Prague, there are a couple bouldering places. I like it, because it’s sort of like the thinking man’s exercise. There’s the strength component to it, but you also work problems and piece together the solution of how to move from point A to point B, which is a nice way to unglue from a computer.

And when you were looking at Fulbright, why did you choose the Czech Republic to apply to, specifically?
I did a three-month research program in Japan, and so I was on their mailing list. Pavel Jelinek, the guy I work for here at the Institute, which has a lot of relationships with various Japanese institutions, was advertising this postdoc positon, and I got an email in my inbox by proxy. I thought, ‘this looks interesting,’ so I looked him up on the internet and I sent him an email. He had done a Fulbright in Arizona, so he was aware of the program, and he was like, “well, okay, you’re American, why not apply?” So, I cooked up the research proposal, sent it, and now here I am.

And so what work are you doing this year at the Czech Academy of Science?
So they are experts at taking picture of molecules. The big claim to fame here is that they have a very good theoretical understanding of how to achieve the ‘physics’ of achieving sub-molecular resolution. So, you can see a molecule and it’s a bright spot. Then you do physics secrets and then you are able to actually resolve the bond structure. So it’s like from chemistry class you draw what a molecule looks like, and then this is what they actually look like. You can think of this as a camera that can take that picture, instead of just drawing the picture. This is something I’m interested in, and they have this expertise, so that’s how I came up with this idea of here’s a good place to do this kind of project.

Is language ever a problem in the lab?
Everyone speaks English, and the second most widely spoken language is actually Spanish, which was a surprise. They have strong connections in Spain. I’m the token American, and we have Ukrainians and couple of Spanish postdocs, a Spanish Ph.D. student, and there’s another Erasmus student from Spain, so it’s a very international lab.

And what has been the most rewarding part of this experience for you so far?
The guys I’m working with really enjoy what they’re doing, so just to be in an environment where it’s a pleasure, and it [doesn’t feel like] work. I think that’s a real perk in science is, it’s not a job, it’s a pleasure. And these guys in particular, because at the end of the day in science, you have to ask for money to do stuff and as soon as there’s that dynamic, it becomes political. I famously don’t have time for that, and these guys also I think are more interested in doing science and understanding things. Everyone is quite switched on about what they’re working on, and it’s great.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
To spend a meaningful amount of time to actually get some perspective on how people live in a different place is how you get perspective. You just have to do it, and deal with the daily how do I feed myself etc., and now I’m in this totally different environment and solve all these mundane human problems. Then you solve them and you come up with a different set of solutions on how to live given a different environment, and it’s like, ‘oh, this is different.’ Here’s what’s better, here’s what’s worse, but until you do that it’s just – I can have some opinions about some place, but until you actually go and do it, you don’t have any sort of experience.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
This has been a real pleasure to be here and do this. The [Fulbright] English Teaching Assistants is a thing I didn’t know existed, and I live in Prague and work with people who speak English, and the name of the game in physics is to be aware of what’s happening in the larger community and it’s very internationalized in that sense, but to go teach English in some place, that’s a real challenge. This hasn’t been a challenge; this has been a pleasure.

I see, especially now, that since everyday it’s like a game to see how much more horrifying headlines can get, and it sort of makes you understand history a little bit more, and everybody’s putting up the literal walls, and what is nationalism in the ugly sense, it’s this fear of the other, and to sort of come full circle, I think Fulbright has immense value in sending Americans, people with faces and names and stories to interact in that human way, to humanize all of these abstracts. If you can put a face and name and a story on these larger nationalistic ideas, I think that is definitely a force for making everybody be nice to each other more.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’m going to stick around; I’m going to keep working for Pavel here. The science train just continues on uninterrupted.

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
Why would you not apply? Putting together this proposal was actually fun, I enjoyed this one. Get an idea, and then take it. For Americans, it’s like, here’s a very generous gift from Congress to fling yourself out into the world and get some perspective on something. So come up with what you want to do. I think the Fulbright isn’t the ends, it’s the means. That’s how I came to be doing this.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Got to plug the Fulbright Commission, because they have made it a real treat to be here. This is really nice, these are people who are invested in me being successful in whatever it is I’m doing here, they are very responsive and helpful. I mean, bureaucracy is inevitable and sometimes you’re in situations where the bureaucratic machinery needs to be overcome in in the pursuit of what you’re trying to do and then in other circumstances, these are people who are trying to help you be successful, and that’s always fantastic.

Molecule manipulation images taken during Jack Hellerstedt’s time at the nanosurf lab.


Get to Know a Grantee - Megan Rodawold

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Megan Rodawold
Megan Rodawold is a 23 year-old American, serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic. Megan, a graduate of Grand Valley State University, is spending the year living in the small Czech town of Trutnov, located in the Eastern Bohemia region. For her Fulbright grant, Megan is actually serving as an ETA to two secondary schools this year! Read below to find out how she manages teaching at two schools, and why she loves living in the Czech Republic as a Fulbrighter.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Aurora, Illinois
  • Education: Grand Valley State University, Writing/International Relations, Applied Linguistics
  • School in Czech Republic: OŠ zdravotnická a Střední zdravotnická, Trutnov, and Obchodní akademie, Trutnov
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Czech word: sníh (snow)
  • Favorite quote: “The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” -Dr. Seuss

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I grew up in a city about 45 minutes west of Chicago, and I went to college in Michigan at Grand Valley University. I started as a nursing major, and I think I changed my major maybe five or six times, before ending up as a writing major.

And what are you passionate about?
I would say two things. The first one would be communication, hands down. I really like reading, writing, learning languages, and talking to other people. Stories are one of my favorite things ever! Whether it’s what you’re reading, or what you hear from talking to other people. I’m kind of a word-nerd, so I really like listening to other people. My second thing would be food! I really love food, trying different things, messing around with ingredients and recipes, and learning about different traditions from different places. I love it!

Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright grant to the Czech Republic, specifically?
It was for a lot of different reasons. I knew I wanted to be in central Europe, because I was really fascinated with this idea of so many countries being really close together, geographically and politically. The Czech Republic in particular, I thought was really interesting, mostly because of its history, and how many changes it has gone through.

Had you been to the Czech Republic before?
No, I hadn’t! I had some friends whose family had come from Czechoslovakia, but me personally, besides visiting Mexico on vacation, I had never been outside the US before this.

And were you nervous to move to a country that you’d never been to before?
I was terrified! [laughs]

But how did it work out, how do you feel now?
I am so glad I did it! It is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s been amazing. I’m so glad it did it!

That’s so great to hear! And how did you prepare for your Fulbright grant?
I went to the library by my house, and I checked out every single book they had on the Czech Republic! Most of them were children’s picture books, but the information and the pictures were good! Besides the library books, I read a lot of travel guides, and spent a lot of time on Google images, and I bought a Czech textbook to try and learn Czech.

What is the town you’re living in this year like?
Trutnov has about over 30,000 people, and it’s in the Eastern Bohemia region. Trutnov is all snuggled up against the Krkonoše mountains, so the scenery and the nature are phenomenal. It’s absolutely beautiful. Most of the places in the town are either walking up or downhill, so that’s been a workout. My favorite place in the town is probably the town park, because it looks down at the city center and the main square, and it has a fantastic view of the mountains. I love it!

It sounds beautiful! And you actually work at two schools this year. What are they like?
Yes, one of the schools is a business academy, and I’m mainly teaching the third and fourth year students. One of the cool things about this school, is that they have this class that’s like a ‘practical company’ class, where they practice running a company! They come up with products and do the marketing and advertising for it. It’s really cool, and it’s really impressive to see what they’ve come up with.

And the second school is a medical secondary school, and there I teach all four grade levels. It’s a little bit different than the business academy, as students are split into two tracks. There’s general studies, and then there’s a track for nursing assistants. They have a pretty specialized curriculum since most of them are going onto medical professions. They also do a lot of hospital training, which is really impressive to be in high school, and have real hands-on experience.

What is it like to teach at two schools at the same time? How do you manage it?
It can be tricky. The hardest days are probably when I teach at both schools, because it feels very disconnected, switching between colleagues and which classes do I have, and making sure I have all of my materials, but I really like the variety.

I’m sure there’s always so much going on, that you don’t get bored with this kind of schedule!
Definitely not! It was hard to get used to, to be honest.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I do an English discussion class with teachers on Wednesday afternoons, and it’s pretty cool. It’s nice to see them outside of class, and I get to know them better, as people beyond the classroom too, so that’s been cool. In the winter, it’s not so much a project, but I went ice skating every week with a group of girls from one of my schools. I also did a personal project, where I’ve been putting together a collection of recipes from some of the Czech food I’ve had!

That’s such a great idea!
Yeah, I love it. I’ve gotten to do a lot of cooking with some of my colleagues and students’ families. It’s delicious, and really good for learning Czech. I have recipes so far for svíčková, garlic soup, goulash, Czech bread, and some Christmas sweets, like vanilla rolls. I love it so much! Hopefully, I’ll be able to replicate them at home!

And what do you like about teaching English?
I like being another resource for the students. It’s been really cool to watch them interact with me and with each other, and to just get more confident with English as the year’s gone on. I really like learning with them, and also from them, at the same time that I’m teaching. 

What would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I definitely would say it’s how isolated you sometimes feel, for a lot of different reasons, like the language, of course. No matter how much you might have practiced Czech, if you didn’t already have a pretty good handle on it, it’s really hard to pick up at first, and to use it at the speed that everyone does, so you end up feeling left out of conversations sometimes. It was hard to get used to not being near friends and family too, and because of the time difference, you really are on your own a lot when you’re not with your colleagues and your students, so it can be pretty lonely at first.

And has that gotten better the longer you’ve been there?
Yeah, definitely! Definitely!

And on the other side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
That’s a hard question! I think for me the most rewarding part has been how much I’ve learned. Which is kind of funny, because I came here to teach, but I’ve seriously learned so much about the Czech Republic, politics in Europe, different education systems, public transport and how to use it, and food! There’s just been so much to learn here!

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
There’s been a lot really great experiences, but I think my favorite would have to be the Maturita ball [Czech equivalent of prom and gradation, all in one]. I went to two, because I had one for each school, and it was so much fun! Everyone looked great, and we all danced, and it was such a good time!

Sounds wonderful! And now, you’re more than halfway through your grant. What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
Just springtime in general, because all the way since August, all of my Czech friends have been telling me that springtime here is just really beautiful, so I’m excited to see it. I’m going to do a lot of hiking, see some castles, and spend as much time as I can, enjoying this country, its people, and the time I have left.

Why do you think international education and exchanges are important for people to experience?
My answer is kind of contradictory, because I think one of the reasons it’s most important is because it shows you how big the world is, but also how small it is. Big in the way that there’s so much you can learn from the countries, cultures, and people, but small, because we already have so much in common, that you don’t really realize how much until you go to a different country. That kind of duality is cool!

Definitely! And with that, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think the simplest way I can describe it would be to say, it’s having the opportunity to discover new ideas and gain these perspectives that you would never have considered. I think it’s impossible to leave a Fulbright the same as you were before.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
That’s a fantastic question! I don’t really know to be honest. There’s so many things that I want to do that it’s hard to narrow it down, but I think this summer I’m heading back to Chicago, to spend time with my family and friends, and I think immediately after that, I really want to kick it up a notch with language and my language abilities. I want to keep learning Czech, get back into Spanish, and I want to get better at it and use it more, and maybe pick up another language. Other than that though, I don’t know!

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
Do it! Absolutely do it! It’s terrifying, and it’s exhilarating, and it is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, and it is 100 percent worth every second.

And if you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be?

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Just to say thank you to everyone who is involved with Fulbright, and who helps make it run. It’s been amazing since the moment I opened the confirmation email, and I can’t imagine not having done it. And a special shout out to the Czech Fulbright Commission! They’ve been phenomenal, and immensely supportive at every single turn!

Megan Rodawold with her students


Get to Know a Grantee - Thomas Lepke

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Thomas Lepke
Thomas Lepke is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to a secondary school located in the small town of Velešín, Czech Republic. Velešín, population 4,000, is now home to Thomas and his wife Geena, as they work to integrate into their community by building relationships that they hope will last a lifetime. Thomas, an alum of the prestigious Teach for America program, is teaching English at a technical school, where he also runs an English Club. His club has coordinated events with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Prague, including facilitating an Iraqi youth dialogue, where students in both the Czech Republic and Iraq were able to communicate with each other via Skype. Read below to find out more about what living in a small, southern Bohemian town for a year has been like for Thomas and his wife. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Lakewood, Colorado
  • Education: University of Colorado, Boulder - BS, Business Administration, Arizona State University - Masters of Education
  • School in Czech Republic: Střední odborná škola strojní a elektrotechnická, Velešín
  • Age: 27
  • Favorite Czech word: na zdraví (cheers)
  • Favorite Czech food: česneková polévka (garlic soup)
  • Favorite quote: “The shadow proves the sunshine”- Switchfoot/ “Follow your feet”-Heath Ledger, ‘A Knight’s Tale’

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself? Where are you from, what you studied, and what you have been doing in the time before Fulbright?

I graduated in 2008, and after graduation, I volunteered for a program called the World Race, where I went to 11 countries in 11 months, and volunteered in each country with different non-profits or faith-based organizations. After that, I interned in Senator Michael Bennet’s office in Washington, D.C. There, I did some tutoring with a non-profit, and decided I loved teaching, and I wanted to become a teacher. I signed up for Teach for America, and I did that for two years in Phoenix, Arizona. During my time in the corps, I got married to my wife Geena, and one of our life goals was to travel and live overseas. We are really passionate about nations and international education, so Fulbright was a great option to fulfill our dreams to experience more of the world and to have a better international perspective.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about a lot of things. First of all, about people, and that’s one reason why I really want to become a teacher. I believe that there are a lot of students out there that have really broken homes, and to be a force for good in their lives is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things I think you can do with your life. That’s why I got into education. I’m really passionate about living my life to the fullest every single day. I’m always learning new things. A couple of my favorite things to do is, I play the Scottish highland bagpipes, I absolutely love that, and I love experiencing new places. I love rock climbing, mountain biking, and spending time with my wife. I’m also really passionate about men, and one of my big things is, I think guys have a really great opportunity in this day and age to be really great, honorable, integritous men, and so I am passionate about being a husband and also just being a person, a teacher, and a mentor to my students.

Why did you want to come to the Czech Republic specifically for your Fulbright grant?
One of the first things that got me interested was some of my ancestors came from the Czech Republic, and actually one of them, the only thing he brought with him to the U.S. was his Bible, which is pretty interesting. We still have that Bible today, it’s in Czech, and so it’s really cool. Then we started thinking about where would we want to live for a year, and the Czech Republic is very central. I also wanted a professional focus as well, with comparing educational systems to that of America’s. The Czech Republic has more of a decentralized model, and I was interested in that. It’s interesting to see how it works in another culture. I also love bagpiping, and I wanted to check out the Bohemian bagpipes. There’s an amazing bagpipe festival in Strakonice, and I’ve started taking lessons, too!

And even the local beer in Strakonice is called Strakonicky Dudák, meaning Bagpiper! That’s great you’re taking bagpipe lessons! And what is the town you are living in this year like?
Velešín is an amazing town. The town is 4,000 people, and it’s essentially an agricultural hub to all the smaller, little villages in the surrounding area, and it’s 30 minutes outside of the main city of České Budějovice. We live in the school, and across the street is a giant factory or company where they make a lot of aero-space and mechanical parts. They work with Boeing and Honeywell and some of these other American companies. Many of our students will actually go work or have internships there.

Yes, what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
There’s about 200 students. It’s a technical school, so they focus on electricity, electrical engineering, and computer science or networking databases. The school is made up of one wing that has three floors, and the alternative building is full of machines that are maybe 100 years old! They’re pretty old, and the students work on these machines to start learning hands-on technical skills.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
We run an English club, and we’ve been able to do a lot of exciting things with them! Two of my favorite things are actually, we worked with the State Department to have an Iraqi youth dialogue, which was really fun. We Skyped with students in Iraq, had a conversation, and I think our students were pretty receptive to that. We also had a diplomat come, and talk to them about all sorts of things, like the education system of America, what it means to be an American, and that was really fun.

Right now we’re working with Charitas, a charity run here by the Catholic Church. We are working with students or children from the Roma community, and one of things we’re going to try to do is start to integrate some of our Czech students to come help us. We’re trying to get permission and see how that will work, but that’s one thing we’re looking into right now, which would be cool, and help build some bridges.

What are some of your other out of school activities?
We did a 10-week ballroom dance class. We’ve been able to travel to a pretty good amount of the Czech Republic, and we go on fun trips with our colleagues. We’ve done everything from mushroom hunting, to rugby games, to going on a Škoda bus trip throughout the Czech Republic, and sleeping in abandoned castles, which was really exciting! We’ve been able to go to soccer games, to all the festivals throughout the year. We’ve been able to integrate ourselves, so we’re always busy. We always have a ton to do, and we’ve also been trying to hang out with people, longer term, more one-on-one, and really just investing in the community.

What was it like relocating as a couple to another country?
Yeah you know, my wife and I are really adventurous, so it was not an issue at all. Before we came here, we walked across Spain on The Camino de Santiago, and when it was time to do our Fulbright, our legs were sore and our feet had blisters, and we were tired, but we were just happy to be here. We really take every experience as an experience you can only get once, and it’s been great being together and having my best friend here. We’ve been able to experience this all together, and I think that’s one unique thing about being married, I’ve been able to share it with somebody every single day. That’s one thing that not all ETAs get, because they are usually the only American in their town. They don’t always get to share it with someone, but I have a built in partner all time, which is really nice.

And what do you like about teaching English?
English is such a fun language. When you’re overseas, you’re trying to teach others about America, your culture, and your identity, and I think you end up learning more about America, your culture, and your identity by trying to teach it to others. You really get a chance to reflect. It’s so special when you see students have that lightbulb moment in their heads, and seeing from the beginning of the year to the end what students can really do. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to do that.

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
We don’t have a car. We struggled with this just because we do live in a small town, which means the last bus to our town is at 8 o’clock on Saturday night. It does run a little sporadically, so if you want to go somewhere, you really have to plan. You forget how nice it is to have the luxury of transportation, and to be able to go where you want, when you want to.

And what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Building relationships with people. We built a lot of relationships that I feel like will be with us for a long, long time in our lives. Every day is an adventure. It’s really what you want to make it, and we’ve been able to have an adventure every single day we have been here and that’s the best thing.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
Some of the most memorable moments have been times students take us out, which is always so much fun. One of our friends, Tomáš, took us out to a frozen waterfall, or we went walking with another student Vojta through Český Krumlov, which is his hometown, this amazing destination, and he was showing us all the local places to go. I think those moments are some of the most rich and totally memorable. It’s nice to go out, and explore new restaurants, go out to concerts and theater. It’s wonderful. And the Christmas markets are so magical; they are really something to experience in life.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
I think it’s really important. People often search for information that confirms their own biases, and if you look at today’s political climate, you can see how people have just dug into the trenches, and the rhetoric that’s spoken is only confirming biases or beliefs that people already hold. And we really have to be careful about this, because it is dangerous, it’s absolutely dangerous. We need to be able to hear other ideas, and take that into account, and figure out what truth really is, and I really believe international education does that for us.

Geena and I were able to have a lot of great conversations with students about racism here in the Czech Republic, and I feel like we’ve been able to break down a lot of barriers. It’s been really fascinating to see with students. I think people-to-people is one of the strongest education tools that we have, culture-to-culture, and that’s why I really promote international education and exchanges.

And with that, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think the Fulbright mission is something to be embodied. It’s something to take the tradition, and let it be a part of you for the rest of your life, to be open to other people, to accept other people. You should accept people, but be critical of ideas, right? So, I think the Fulbright has been such a great experience, because it’s given me the ability to really come face to face with another culture, and another group of people who think totally differently from me, and it’s been an amazing experience.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think one thing that my year has taught me is Velešín is a slow town, and I’ve really been busy. I’ve filled my days up 100 percent, to where I go, go, go, and I don’t give myself any time for reflection, and I’m so thankful for this year, because I don’t want to go through life that busy. I want to go through life well balanced, and I think it’s unhealthy to be that busy all the time. I know it’s very common for people to overwork themselves, but I don’t think that makes good people. I don’t think that makes good life, and so one thing I’m going to really take with me back home, is to remember to always find a balance wherever I am. To wake up, enjoy a cup of tea, look at the sunrise in the morning, smell the forest, and remember all the amazing gifts I’ve been given and privileged to have in this life, and then figure out how do I share that with others. The reflection piece is huge, and I never want to give that up.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from one job, which if I get it, I’ll be working on the Hill in education policy. If not, probably going to move back to Denver and work in education. And in politics, I’m going to be moving more into the political realm.

Good to hear! And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
Yeah, just be really open and honest with your application and what you want. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, and Fulbright, don’t do it for the name or for the prestige, because it’s a year of your life. If you’re just doing it for a name, there’s a lot of ways that you can spend your life and don’t just do it for that. Do it because you’re passionate, because you’re intrigued, because you want to interact with students, you want to teach, and you want to explore other cultures, and then I think you’ll be in a great spot.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?
Blissful. Everything has been great. I honestly have no complaints, I’m really happy. It feels like a golden year, and we don’t get those every year, so I’m really just holding it and grasping it, and I’m sad to see it go. This has been a great opportunity, and one that I would definitely repeat.

If you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be?

Thomas Lepke, with his wife, Geena.