Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Mark A. Novotny, PhD

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mark A. Novotny
Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mississippi State University Mark A. Novotny, PhD, is serving this year as a Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University in Prague. Professor Novotny has cultivated a prominent career in physics that has seen him earn his PhD from Stanford University, teach and conduct research in four different U.S. universities, and work for two years at the IBM Scientific Center in Bergen, Norway as well. His contributions to the field of physics are great, including his discovery of a new nano-device that he has named quantum dragons. Here, Professor Novotny discusses his current research, the differences between his home and host institutions, and the importance of international education exchanges in today’s world.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

  • U.S. Position: Giles Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Mississippi State University, MS
  • Czech Affiliation: Distinguished Chair, Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague
  • Project: Studies in Quantum Systems, Including Quantum Materials and Quantum ComputingDiscipline/Specialization: Physics
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics, Stanford University, CA, 1978
  • Favorite Quote: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”- Albert Einstein
  • Favorite Czech Food: Potato dumplings

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?

I’m originally from Minnesota, and grew up on a farm in the northern part of the state. I was one of eight children, and I went to a small school, about 22 kids in the graduating class. Very rural. From there, I went to North Dakota State University as an undergraduate, majored in Physics, and have enjoyed doing that ever since. I spent four years there, and then went to graduate school at Stanford University in the Physics department, and worked mainly at the interface between mathematical physics and experimental physics. After finishing my PhD, I got a postdoc position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and was there for three years. There I moved to what is now called computational physics, but back then was frowned upon as not really a way of doing physics, because it wasn’t experiment and it wasn’t theory, and computers were so small, that you know, what can you do on them? So, after three years there, I moved to Northeastern University in Boston, was there for five years and again doing computational physics and teaching, and then I went to work for IBM up in the scientific center in Bergen, Norway, and enjoyed working for them for two years. I then moved to Florida State University, and was there for a dozen years as a research scientist doing computational physics, and then in 2001 moved to Mississippi State University as the department head, where I’m still the department head. I’ve tried to do research there, as well as administration, and the research is still on computational physics. I’m getting more and more into working on the quantum aspects of things, both in the computing side, and what I’m actually computing for, so both the machine that I’m using, and the atomic, materials, and engineering systems studied.

And what courses are you teaching this semester?

I’m teaching one course in quantum mechanics, but it’s a non-traditional quantum mechanics. It’s a graduate course, but there are some undergraduates and some postdocs that are sitting in as well, so it kind of spans the gamut.

What does your research focus on?
Right now, focusing on two different things, one is quantum computing. In particular, focusing on adiabatic quantum computing. There’s one company in the world that makes a quantum computer; if you write a check to them, they will sell you one, and they just announced one that has 2000 qbits, so in theory, these computers can do calculations that no classical computer can do, but theory and practice are still flirting with each other, shall we say. That’s one thing I’m working on, and the other thing I’m working on is I’m trying to find dragons. I’ve discovered this type of nanomaterials that I call quantum dragons. After all, if you discover them, you get to name them, and I thought it was a cool name. So, I spend a lot of my time looking for quantum dragons. I discovered some before I came here, and now I’ve learned a different mathematical path to find the same ones, and looking for more.

What are the quantum dragons you have discovered? What do they do, or what is their function?
A quantum dragon is a type of nano-device I discovered. The nano-device is composed of atoms (in the picture below the spheres), and the hopping of an electron between two atoms (the cylinders in the picture below). The nano-device can be of many different forms, or in the lingo of the field, can have a lot of disorder. When properly connected to input and output leads, the quantum dragon has complete transmission of incoming electrons for all energies of the incoming electron. In other words, every electron in the input lead goes to the output lead, none are reflected back into the input lead. This property makes quantum dragons have zero electrical resistance (in four-probe measurements). Electrical resistance is the reason your smartphone gets warm when you use it. Quantum dragons can be made in many different styles, some interesting in engineering, and others just fun to look at.

And what do you wish everyone understood about physics?
That it’s really the basis for all of our modern technology. If you talk about your cell phones and your computers and electronics, it’s all based on quantum mechanics. But it’s based on quantum mechanics at the classical level, and the new computers, the quantum computers, are going to be quantum mechanics at the quantum level, bringing even more power, and probably changing the society we live in some more.

I also read online that the time spanned by algorithms you have made for nanoparticle dynamics “is as many decades in time as the number of decades between the volume of a raindrop and all the water on Earth.”
Yes. So, you really have to come up with advanced mathematical methods to be able to calculate things in a way other than a brute force method. A brute force method only allows you to look at things in certain time ranges, very short time scales, but if you use advanced mathematical methods and embed those in your algorithms, then you can come up with things that are exact mathematically, that get you the same calculations, but you’re essentially doing it in a much smarter way.

How long does it take you generally to create one of these algorithms?

Usually, it’s a couple of years to get there ultimately. Often, you don’t really know what you’re setting out to accomplish, you’re just setting out to accomplish something, and then you find something. That’s how I found the quantum dragons. I wasn’t looking for them, because I didn’t think that they could exist when I looked for them, because it goes against some of the ideas of disorder in physics, and those kinds of things. And it was also that you put together three different, very hard things and together each of them is hard, but you put them together, and it makes something that is easy, which is very unusual in physics and mathematics.

So sometimes you just go off, and explore in the woods, and you find something. You’re just heading in a general direction, and when you get there, you say, wow, if I knew I was heading in this direction, I would have planned. But that’s the way research is. Actually, one of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is, and I’m probably paraphrasing, but it’s, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”

That’s very interesting! And how is your host institution, Charles University, different from your home institution, Mississippi State University?
Mississippi State University is a land grant university. About a 150 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that allowed states to create one university which was supposed to be an agricultural and mechanical university, so in every state you will find at least one land grant university. The land grant university is really charged to be responsible for the engineering aspects, which means the sciences, and also the agricultural aspects. The emphasis is really on the education of the engineering and the agricultural sides, as well as on the science and social sciences, and so on. And even though there are some small branch campuses, there’s one main campus. Which means that if I’m sitting in the Physics building at Mississippi State, I can walk across the street, and I’m in the Political Science building. Whereas here at Charles University, to go to a different faculty, a different department, it’s a half hour ride away; so that’s one of the big differences. The building I’m in here really holds the Faculty of Physics, which includes material science in particular, and quantum systems and theory related to those, but there are other aspects of this science that overlaps that’s done in completely different parts of Prague, even though they’re at the same university.

And how is living in Prague different from living in Mississippi?
Mississippi State University is in a little town called Starkville, so living in a little town is different from living in a big city. I’m really enjoying my time here, and being able to attend concerts and events. Just walking and seeing the architecture is amazing here as well, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
I think it’s much more dependent on the particular student. I’ve certainly met some students here that are extremely bright, extremely motivated, and hardworking, and they’re definitely going to succeed, and those students in the U.S. succeed as well. It takes U.S. students some time to find themselves, but since I’m teaching at the upper level here, I’d say the students at the upper level here are comparable to the students at the upper level in the U.S., because by that time they have already found themselves, and if they’re in a rigorous course of study like physics, then they are definitely motivated.

And do you think your semester here in Prague will effect or influence your teaching back at MSU? How so?
I think so, because here I prepared a brand new course in quantum mechanics. Typically, when people teach quantum mechanics, they start with the wave function, which is a mysterious thing that I would venture to guess that no physicist understands, but yet we use it all the time whenever we’re talking about atoms, or we’re talking about materials. I decided I was going to take a different tact, and try not to mention wave functions when I teach quantum mechanics. I didn’t know where this would end, because I lectured it every week, and every week I pushed it a little further. So, it will definitely influence the way that I teach quantum mechanics, and topics related to quantum mechanics when I return to the U.S.

Why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?

Well, first of all, you’ve seen my last name.

Yes, Novotny!
Yes, so about 150 years ago, my great-grandfather came from Mala Strana in Prague, and went to the U.S., so the genes have come back! And it’s a great university and I knew it was a beautiful city, and so as soon as I saw they were looking for a Distinguished Chair in Physics or Mathematics, I said, it sounds like me! It was a perfect fit.

That’s wonderful! And what is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
In my opinion, science is really an international endeavor. Everyone comes at it from their own perspective, because of their own background, but ultimately there’s a set of facts called nature that we’re all trying to understand, and to be able to meet with other people that are trying to understand nature, from different backgrounds, really allows you to get a better handle on what we are trying to understand in the sciences.

And relatedly, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
To me, the Fulbright mission is really meant to encourage interaction between countries. Certainly, hearing the stories of people here talking about what happened when the Iron Curtain was still up, and having visited both Hungary and East Berlin when the Curtain, the Wall, was still up, and just seeing how everything has changed and progressed, to me it really means that you want to have this connection between people from different countries to be able to lay a foundation to essentially advance humanity, as opposed to erecting Iron Curtains.

What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?

First of all, my overall impression of life in the Czech Republic is it’s an extremely nice culture. The mass transit is extremely functional, and something that I wish the U.S. would do more of. I think people have a nice balance between work and what that entails, and shall we say, living, enjoying life, family, those kinds of things. I very much appreciate seeing that. You see kids out with their parents all the time, in all weathers, which is very nice, being pulled on and off the trams. I think it’s a nice family atmosphere.

What has been the most rewarding for you so far during your Fulbright year?
I would say interacting with the faculty and students at Charles University, and discussing things with them. Mainly science, because we are scientists after all, but other things as well, and just getting to know new people, and seeing the culture as well.

Have you given talks at any other universities in Czech Republic, or in Europe?
I gave a talk at University of Lisbon; I was on my way to visit my son, so I stopped in. I’m scheduled to give a talk in Poland, and also a talk on mathematics of quantum computing at Charles University, but in a very different part of Prague. And at the beginning of the next semester, there’s a named lectureship I’ve been asked to give, so I’ll be giving that to essentially kick off the semester for the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. It’s to me, a real honor to be asked to do that.

That’s so exciting! And right now, you are halfway through your grant.
Hard to believe!

Yes, it goes so fast!

It does!

So what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

I would say it really took one semester to get to know people, talk with people, find common ground and common ideas, so I’m looking forward to bringing those to fruition, and hopefully submitting a paper, or two or three, with people here.

Have you been able to travel much in Czech Republic? Or, is there somewhere you would like to visit here?
There’s a lot of places I want to visit! I’ve visited some places; we met Steve and Ellen [Fellow Fulbright Scholar Steve Doig and his wife] in Brno, explored with them some, and saw some of the small villages. But we haven’t really gone towards the German border from Prague, and that’s a part of the Czech Republic I want to see.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright?
Just to apply! Because it’s extremely rewarding. Yes, there are hoops to jump through, and you may or may not be selected, but if you are selected, then it’s a great honor, and a great chance to give something back to your discipline, and really the two countries you’re in.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just feel fortunate for this opportunity, because I think it’s been fulfilling to me, and at the same time, I feel like I’m contributing to a better dialogue between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. To me, that’s really a large part of what the Fulbright grants are for, is to get people in sort of similar areas, but from different countries, different cultures, to talk to each other.


Ladislav Zikmund-Lender: Kalifornský sen

Od listopadu 2016 do června 2017 pobývám díky Fulbright-Masarykově stipendiu na kalifornské univerzitě v Berkeley. Co tu tedy dělám?

Bádám. Proto tu jsem. Kromě vytyčeného výzkumného cíle (kterým je rozšíření teoretických rámců pro zkoumání českých, slovenských a polských queer umělců, sběratelů, mecenášů a architektů hlavně v první polovině 20. století) jsem se jako člověk trénovaný v historických vědách přirozeně snažil najít nějaký historický vzor pro svou aktuální výjimečnou zkušenost. Zajímalo mě, jestli a jak lidé z českých zemí v minulosti reagovali na návštěvu Kalifornie a jak je to poznamenalo po návratu do Evropy a do Čech. Konkrétně mi šlo o lidi kolem architektury – samotné architekty nebo stavebníky. Nesmírně mě to chytlo a snad z toho bude nějaký další výstup, ale to zatím z pověrčivosti nebudu prozrazovat.

UC Berkeley

Zapojuji se. Důležitým cílem Fulbrightova programu je pro mě nejen jednosměrné vstřebávání Ameriky, ale „výměna:“ nejen si odsud odvést plno poznatků, zážitků a nových přátelství, ale také něco předat. Mám tu čest a radost přijmout pozvání na konferenci k 150. výročí narození Franka Lloyd Wrighta v Teliesinu ve Phoenixu, AZ, svůj výzkum budu prezentovat na domácí univerzitě v Berkeley a ještě jednám o přednášce v New Yorku. Je skvělé využít všechny tyto možnosti a nabídky k poznání nových míst, vytvoření nových kontaktů a taky k tomu připomenout náš periferní, ale vlastně už zase ne tak zaostalý kus světa, který je trochu mimo pozornost Američanů. V rámci univerzity funguje také řada studentských spolků, mezi jinými Humanities and Social Sciences Association, která sdružuje studenty humanitních věd a poskytuje různé formální i neformální platformy – třeba setkání k akademickému psaní, kde se vzájemně diskutují různé texty. Je to skvělá věc pro cvičení jazyka, stylistiky i způsobu akademické argumentace. Organizuje i různé večírky, není to jen suchá věda.

Studuji. Kromě výzkumu občas zajdu na přednášky a to zdaleka nejen ze svého oboru a zdaleka nejen na domácí univerzitě – skvělé přednášky organizuje třeba sanfranciská veřejná knihovna. Kromě konkrétního a přesně zacíleného výzkumu je to skvělá příležitost zjistit, jak se obor i vůbec vysokoškolské vzdělávání provozuje jinde. A je to v mnoha ohledech opravdu sakra rozdíl. Snažím se sledovat místní kulturu – výstavy, nové knihy (o tom více na mém blogu na webu o umění Artalk).

Jím. Mám to štěstí a zároveň smůlu, že bydlím na dohled od obchodního řetězce Whole Foods. A to věru není žádné Tesco. Po prvotních rozpacích nad některými základními potravinami – třeba najít druh chleba, na který máme vypěstovaný kulturní návyk, byl docela oříšek (všechny jsou buď nesnesitelně sladké, nebo nesnesitelně kyselé), majonéza nebo hořčice byly z počátku taky docela chuťovým překvapením. Když si tohle po pár dnech sedlo, staly se nákupy potravin hříšnými orgiemi. Protože jsem na západním pobřeží pacifiku, užívám si mořské plody, co to jde. Na clam chowder, polévku ze škeblí, jsem už docela expertem. V případě čerstvých smažených kalamárů (ne ty indiferentní kroužky, o kterých jsem až doteď nevěděl, nebo nechtěl vědět, z které části vlastně jsou, ale celá ta tělíčka se schránkou i chapadýlky) jsem prošel celým procesem od prvotního zhnusení až po nadšenou obsesi. Zvlášť návštěva přístavu v Monterey s uličkou rybích restaurací byla zatím nepřekonatelná.

Cestuji. Co to jde. Navštívil jsem LA, Santa Cruz, San Simeon, čeká mě cesta do New Yorku, Buffala a Phoenixu. Často je třeba volit levné řešení (couchsurfing se na rozdíl od Airbnb osvědčil), osmihodinová cesta autobusem do LA sice nebyla vrcholem luxusu, ale stálo to za to.

Golden Gate

Nakupuji. To by se dalo shrnout do populární komiksové epizody Sarah‘s Scribblers: Jídlo – jen to nejnutnější, drogérie – jen to levné, oblečení – občasné povyražení, ale jen to základní, knihy – dolary létají vzduchem. Za první dva měsíce je skóre 14 knih z antikvariátu, který stojí po cestě do kampusu. Už jsem musel změnit trasu a nechci myslet na to, jak tu knihovnu odvezu domů a jak to všechno proclím (účtenky si radši schovávám).

Angažuji se. Přijel jsem do Kalifornie pár týdnů po zvolení prezidenta Trumpa a zažil uvedení do úřadu jeho administrativy. Tedy spíš s tím spojené protesty (a protesty související s podporovatelem prezidenta Trumpa Mila Yinnopoulose), které byly velmi intenzivní. Angažovanost ve veřejném dění a ve veřejném protestu má bezpochyby v Americe daleko silnější tradici a daleko vyšší společenský status než u nás. Kromě podpory poklidných protestů (protiinauguračních protestů a Women’s March) jsem se rozhodl zapojit do dobrovolnické činnosti (protože kromě výzkumu je skvělé poznat i něco jiného a celý pobyt je příjemnou příležitostí vystoupit z komfortní zóny). Po vstupním tréninku začnu v nejbližších dnech dělat dobrovolnické směny v Pacific LGBT centru nedaleko kampusu v Berkeley, které se zabývá podpůrnými programy pro LGBTIQ+ osoby v nejrůznějších životních situacích.

A doufám, že ve zbývajících 4–5 měsících přibydou další odstavce.


Get to Know Grantee - Lianna Havel

By Maureen Heydt 
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lianna Havel
When it’s sunny outside, Lianna Havel can see Poland from her bedroom window in Broumov, Czech Republic. An alumna of the prestigious Teach for America program, through which she spent two years teaching in a low-income school in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lianna now serves as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Broumov, a town of 7,000 people. She also interestingly shares her surname with perhaps the most famous Czech person of the last century, the late President Václav Havel. Here in her Fulbright interview, Lianna describes what it’s like to have the most recognizable Czech surname as a foreigner in the Czech Republic, what the myriad difficulties and rewards of living and teaching abroad are, and her advice for anyone considering teaching abroad. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio 
  • University, Major/Minor: George Washington University, Political Communication/Film 
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Broumov 
  • Age: 24 
  •  Favorite Quote: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”- John Stewart Mills 
  • Favorite Czech food: Fried cheese

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Lianna Havel, and I grew up in Worthington, Ohio. I was born in Washington D.C., and returned back there for college where I attended the George Washington University. I majored in Political Communication, and minored in Film. After that, I participated in Teach for America, where I taught in a low-income school in New Orleans, Louisiana for the past two years, and now I’m here!

And what are you passionate about?
Things that are really important to me all have to do with words. I love communicating through teaching. Writing, I’m an active writer. I write every single day. I also really love theatre. I was a nerdy theatre kid. Film is really important to me, and I travel a lot.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
Well, I was lucky enough to study abroad in Prague during college, and I was aware that Fulbright places you in a small town, and not in a city. I was really intrigued by the possibility of getting to explore Czech life and Czech culture both in a city, and in a small town, to compare them. Also though, I really just found the people here to be lovely, and the culture is amazing.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I was the weird kid who knew since second grade where she wanted to go to college, and coming from that, I knew what I wanted to do after college, and what programs I wanted to participate in, so I was aware of Fulbright from a young age. My dad was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and he always wanted me to do that, or Fulbright. He put the idea in my head probably starting in early high school, maybe even middle school. I worked for it, and pursued it after college.

What is it like to have an incredibly recognizable Czech last name, and to share it with one of the most famous Czech people of the last century?
I mean, it’s really fun. When I first got here every time I saw my last name, which is a lot of places, I would take pictures of it, but after a while that got a little bit old. I really enjoy it as a conversation topic. Every time I have to share an ID someone will say, “are you Czech?” or “Do you know your last name is like the most important last name?”

Because he’s a popular figure, it’s really nice that people will warm up to me for something that’s not really my fault. They are just kind, and excited to talk to me. I’m sure that is true also for non-Havel last name people, but it’s true for me, and that’s how I experience it.

And do you have Czech heritage?
This is a great topic of debate in my family. My whole childhood, my dad said we’re named after the Havel river in Germany, but since I’ve come here, my dad has claimed all of sudden that I am of Czech ancestry, so I’m not entirely sure.

So what is the town you’re living in this year like?
Broumov is very small; I think it’s around 7,000. We’re right on Polish border; when it’s light out, I can see Poland out my window. There are the student-age people and their parents, and I am under the impression that there’s not a lot of people in between, or at least I’m having a hard time finding them. It’s very small, it’s very quiet, you can walk everywhere. We have this beautiful monastery. It’s very pretty, and I’ve walked to Poland. That was fun.

And how about the school that you’re working at this year?
Gymnazium Broumov is three stories tall; it’s in this very beautiful building. It’s not really a cliff per se, but it hangs out over a second part of the city, so it has a beautiful view of mountains in the distance, and there’s some really ornate designs in the stairwells. The teachers are kind and welcoming. I teach everybody, from the first year students who are twelve years old, to the nineteen year-olds who are about to do Maturita [Czech graduation exams for high school students]. It’s really neat to see the progression of English teaching knowledge for those eight years.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have a couple of things I’m doing. I have something called Welcome Lesson, just a day after school where I hang out, and if kids come by we talk about English, movies, politics, or travel- whatever we feel like discussing that day. One time, a kid helped me make a doctor’s appointment; it’s like a really useful all around thing to have. I also was talking Czech from students, so I’m trying to learn Czech. I’m not good at languages, but I’m trying. I went to the younger schools a couple of times to try to get them enthusiastic about English too, even though they’re not yet at the high level of the older students.

What do you like about teaching English?
I like that communication is a very important part of everything that we do in our lives, whether it be business interactions, or talking to a stranger on the street asking for directions. I think it’s really special to me to be able to share my language. There’s this idea that everyone should speak English, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but I do love my language, and to get to share it with other people, and let them catch onto little things that they didn’t catch onto when I would say them at the beginning of the year. It’s a really beautiful moment to watch that light turn on for people that don’t speak my language, who start to love the language that I love so much.  

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I think the most challenging thing for me has been weirdly coming to learn what small things matter so much to me that I don’t have access to. This is just an example, and probably sounds silly, but I have always known how important movies are to me. They’re like my comfort, when I’m sad, I want to watch movies, and when I’m happy, I watch movies. I analyze them, and the fact that the nearest cinema is over an hour away in another town, and they show one movie a day, and last month they didn’t show any movies I wanted to see, just not having access to that. Or, that I love Indian food, and there’s no Indian restaurants near me. Missing little things that you take for granted that give you comfort in your life, I think has probably been the hardest adjustment for me. It’s not loneliness, which I thought it would be.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Just having access to a whole world that you’ve never been a part of before. I’ve always lived in big cities, and I thought I was going to really struggle living in a small town, and I have at points, but I think finding in myself these strengths, and finding independence in myself has really helped me grow as a person in a way that I could not have achieved, had I not had this experience. And also getting to be a part of the culture.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
Well, this weekend I’m going on a ski trip with my school, and I’m so excited for the opportunity to get to see the students outside of the school environment, but still engage with them in English, and get to know them as people, and not just as students. I know from my past experiences as a teacher that is probably one of the most valuable things that can help enhance a classroom, but that hasn’t happened yet. Also, I’m bad at skiing, so they’ll get to make fun of me, which is exciting.

Definitely! You are about halfway through your grant right now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I’m really excited to get to the point where my Maturita students are about to take their test, because even in these past four months, I’ve seen immense growth in their English language skills, and to see them get ready for the test, and go in confidently with pride, is going to be something really beautiful, and I’m very much looking forward to that.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think that to me, the mission of Fulbright is to create connections among young people across the world to our country, and to the English language, so that they believe in America, and they are able to participate in a global society where, for good or bad, English is one of the main languages. And I think that in eight days [January 20th] when things change, it’s going to be really important for a lot of young people who are impacted by Fulbright, who have had ETAs come to their school, to know that not all Americans believe in hatred, and we put a positive image of a country into the world where sometimes there’s not a positive image of the United States.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
Personally, I’ve already seen immense growth in my independence and ability to be myself with myself, because I think a lot of times, I struggle to just be alone and be Lianna.

I think on a professional and educational level I’ve learned a lot about a part of the world I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I’ve had the great opportunity to travel. One of my goals in life is to be in the ‘100 Country Club,’ to have traveled to 100 countries, and I’ve made great strides in that. By the time I’m going to back to America, I’m going to stay in Europe for a month after, and I will probably have been to 50 countries by then. I think also this will hopefully open doors for me for the future.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I am currently applying to graduate schools, and hopefully I will be accepted somewhere, and I’ll go from there.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
I think that if you want to do this, be sure that you are willing to do the emotional, personal work. I think that most college graduates are probably capable of the work ethic, and the effort required to be successful as an English teacher in a small town, but it’s going to be challenging to live by yourself in a place where no one speaks your language and there’s no one your age, and if you’re not open to learning more about yourself, then it’s probably not something for you.

As far the actual teaching, I would just recommend looking up what is developmentally appropriate for people the age you’re going to be teaching, because I am very familiar with what is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten through fourth grade, because that’s what I taught in New Orleans. I think that it would’ve been helpful to me to study how to engage older minds, because I think at first, I really struggled with thinking, ‘I’m five years older than these kids, why would they listen to me?’ But that’s not true, they do listen to me, but I had to get over that hump.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for interviewing me! I’m really loving this so far. I’ve grown a lot personally, and I’ve learned so much about Czech culture, and it’s been a life-changing experience. I’m honored to be a part of the Fulbright ETA program.  

Lianna Havel, center, with students, on a school ski trip.


Get to Know a Grantee - Sonam James

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sonam James
Zlín is a picturesque, bustling Czech city, nestled in a valley deep in southeastern Moravia. The hometown of many famous Czech people, including Tomáš Baťa and of course, Ivana Trump, ex-wife of President-elect Donald Trump, Zlín is also home this year to Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Sonam James. As a political science major, Sonam was interested and bemused to learn about this political connection to her placement town. A native Texan, she is also passionate about different cultures and international relations, so much so that she even started a Model United Nations club at her school. Here, she talks about her Fulbright experience, and what it’s like to live in a town that’s having a political moment in the sun.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Montgomery, Texas
  • University/Major, Minor: Trinity University, TX/Political Science, Economics/Spanish
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Zlín
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: "Not all those who wander are lost." -J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Favorite Czech food: Schnitzel and potato salad

Hi! Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, what your interests are?

I’m from Montgomery, Texas. It was a small town when I was growing up; there wasn’t much to do. There wasn’t any diversity. I was probably the only diversity there, so at a young age I was really interested in travelling and different cultures. I like politics, political science, and social sciences. It allows me to explore policies and laws in different countries, and that’s always been interesting to me. I later studied abroad in Barcelona my sophomore year. I think the one thing I did in college was I took advantage of every travel opportunity I could; I studied abroad, and I did a class where I spent two weeks in Berlin this past summer. 

And what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about traveling, and getting to have different experiences. I try not to spend my money on too much material stuff, and more on experiences, like going to events with people, traveling, and going to music festivals. I’m really passionate also about learning about other cultures, and trying to immerse myself in different cultures as well. And I have to say, I’m one of those people who really likes politics; I read the news every single day. 

Why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I chose the Czech Republic because when I was thinking about a few other countries, and googling them, I found the Czech Republic to be one of the most interesting. It is a post-communist country just finding its way out of that era, and kind of in transition where the older generation was experiencing something very different from what the younger generation is, and as a political science major that is really interesting to me, and of course the beer [laughs], I like the beer, I’m not going to lie! And also whenever I mentioned the Czech Republic to people, they always said how beautiful Prague is, that was probably the number one thing people said. And Prague is just so beautiful, it is one of my favorite cities. So, I did a bit a more research, and I decided that this is the country that I wanted to apply to. 

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I was planning on teaching abroad after graduation anyways to have the experience of living abroad and being in a different country and culture, and someone just happened to tell me about the Fulbright. After that, I immediately went to the professor in charge of it, and applied. I always wanted to do something like this. 

Can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
Zlín is quite a sizeable town, it’s probably 70,000 people. I have to say I’m really lucky! I do see a bit of diversity here; I see why they placed me here. There are a lot of the things that remind of me of home, like H&M and certain brands in the mall, a movie theater that plays movies in the original English, and there’s McDonalds and KFC. So, I don’t feel completely at a loss, like so far away from the U.S., and for the most part, I’ve found people to be friendly. It’s definitely a bigger town, so it’s not as isolated. 

Zlín is also famously the hometown of Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana. Has that come up at all?
Yes, my town has a history with Donald Trump. Ivana is very famous here. She actually went to the school where I teach at, and one of the teachers here remembers her from when she was a student. They have their house here, and I’m pretty sure Donald Trump has visited here just because it is her hometown. I think it’s kind of funny for them just to have that weird connection. Like, there’s only three degrees between me and Donald Trump, and it would be really funny to see if Ivanna got the ambassadorship to the Czech Republic. It’s going to be interesting to see what things are like after January 20th, and what kind of standing the Czech Republic will have with Donald Trump, because he does have a personal connection to it. And I’m the most pro-Hillary Clinton person, and for me to be in this town where there’s this personal connection to Donald Trump, it’s kind of funny.

That is pretty crazy! And what is the school like that you’re working at this year?
The school is Gymnazium Zlín, and it’s great. I love the school I’m working at. The students, their English is amazing. A lot of them are really well traveled, and quite a few have studied for a year in the U.S., which was really surprising. Some of them are completely fluent, so I can have really high level conversations with them.

Teaching was something I had to learn to get into. I have done a little bit of teaching with refugees and ESL classes in San Antonio and Houston, but this was a little bit different, obviously. I had to get into the way of making sure it’s interesting for them, and they understand what it is. It took like a month to get into the flow of teaching, and getting to know my students, but after that, I think I have a great interaction with my students. I do get to learn a lot of interesting things from them, too. 

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I did Model United Nations for four years at university. I was head delegate on the team by my senior year, so I really wanted to take some of those experiences from Model U.N., and do it at this school. I started a team, and we’re actually going to Prague this April to compete! I have a team ready of twelve students, and I’m really excited. For some of them, this will be the first time they’ve done something like this, so it’s really interesting for them! They’re really interested in international affairs, and possibly doing something with it in school, or in work. It’s a really great opportunity, as the school does not necessarily have things like this.

And whenever a holiday comes up, we do holiday based things. So for Thanksgiving I had a party for the students, and for Valentine’s Day, we might have another one. 

What do you like about teaching English?
I enjoy really talking to my students! They make me laugh, and we learn from each other. One of my favorite things is talking to them, and having a good conversation about something interesting. I do like teaching them about weird topics, or interesting things they’ve never heard of, to open up their understanding of the world by showing them something new. It makes me really happy when they enjoy the lesson, because I put work into them for the most part. 

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Communication is one of the biggest ones, obviously. Zlín is a big town, and the students speak English really well, but communication can be tricky when you’re trying to say something or you need something. The majority of the older people don’t speak English well, so it’s harder to say exactly what you want. Trying to figure out how to get you want is really hard, but I am taking Czech language lessons for free at the integration center, which is really nice. 

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There’s a lot! There’s the learning about being able to live in a different culture that I didn’t know very much about, and being able to just find my way through it. The confidence from being in a different culture, and being able to really do it by myself is a big part, and also having help from other people. I think the human interaction too, like seeing the Czech Christmas with my student was really great, and these random little, happy moments I have with people are really good. 

You are halfway through your grant, what is something you’re looking forward to that is still to come?
One thing I am looking forward to is the springtime, and being able to really travel a bit more through the country. For the first half, I’ve been trying to adjust to where I am, and I would like to see more of the Czech Republic. I’d like to learn more about the history of the different areas, and why they’re different for what reasons. 

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think it means to be an ambassador of the U.S., but also to show the diversity that exists in the U.S. I’m from Texas, people are from California, we have all had very different life experiences. As a Fulbright ambassador and grantee, I want to show them that the American experience is a diverse experience, and a different one for everyone. 

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’m going to have so much of a wider perspective. I’m definitely going to have something that a lot of people don’t have, the opportunity and the ability to live abroad and be in another culture. That is something I can take back with me to the States, and bring a little bit more of a global perspective to whatever I do when I get back. When you live abroad, you have to be flexible with everything that’s going on, and you can’t expect everything to happen perfectly, so I would say I’m much more of an adaptable person. I can adapt to things so much better, because you have to, and situations change very quickly, so that’s one thing I’ll be able to take back. 

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’m hoping to either work in law or policy, maybe with an international aspect to it, so hopefully that. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Don’t be afraid to do it! Just do it, and remember to have a very open mind when you do it, because you never know where you’ll be placed, or what you’ll be doing. Really go with an open mind, and be ready to adapt to any situation. And if you can do that, the experience is so rewarding. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really happy with the placement of my town. I’m happy here, and the people have been super helpful. I have to say that my mentor was really a great help in getting me settled in immediately, so I’m really grateful to the teachers at the school for being really helpful!

Sonam (third from left) with a student’s family over Christmas


Get to Know a Grantee - Kelsey Engstrom

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 
Kelsey Engstrom

Kelsey Engstrom is a 24 year-old California native who is spending the year teaching English in the small, northern Czech town of Náchod. Kelsey is a perfect example of the varied backgrounds that Fulbright English Teaching Assistants come from, proving that a background or previous studies in education is not a requirement to becoming an ETA. Indeed, Kelsey spent the year before her grant working for the Office of the Inspector General in California as a prison rehabilitation analyst. Here, Kelsey discusses living in a small Czech town, biking back and forth across the Polish border, and her passion for criminal justice reform.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ---------------------------------------- 
  • Hometown: Mill Valley, California
  • University, Major/Minor: University of Washington, Law, Societies, and Justice/Spanish
  • School in Czech Republic: Obchodní akademie, Náchod
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Quote: “An enemy is a person whose story has not yet been told.”
  • Favorite Czech food: “Schnitzel, and Czech beer!”

Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?

I’m from Mill Valley, California, which is just north of San Francisco. I went to the University of Washington in Seattle, and I went there because it was such a large school that I knew I would find something that would encompass the majority of my interests. I’m most interested in international studies, criminal justice, obviously travel, and constantly learning new things.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about finding similarities among completely different people, including myself. I find that it’s really important to find similarities, which kind of stemmed into why I came out here. Also, the work I’m interested in with criminal justice has to do with the people who are the most disadvantaged and ignored, and finding similarities with people like that.

And why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I studied abroad in Prague my sophomore year of college, and I totally fell in love with the culture and the people! But I also kept hearing that Prague is unlike the rest of the country, and now that I’m living in a tiny town, it couldn’t be more true. Going to Prague from here is like going to a whole other country, in my opinion. I wanted to come back and get to know the people, because when I first studied here, it was hard to get to know Czech people as a 19 year-old in Prague. So having the opportunity to be a teacher, and get to know the young people this way, is a really cool window into the life of Czech people.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I heard about it in college, through the scholarship department, but I didn’t apply for it until I was two years out of university. It was the right time to get out of the country for me.

What is the town you are living in this year like?

I’m in Náchod, a small town on the border of Poland. It has 20,000 people, and I can literally walk to Poland and back from here! When the weather was nice, I would bike back and forth between the borders, and there’s just a little E.U. sign that says ‘Welcome to Poland.’

I’m new to living in small towns, but it’s been really great. I can walk everywhere, and it has everything I could need, plus a really beautiful castle on the hill. I was worried about being in this small of a town, but it’s actually been really, really easy. I’ve gotten strong walking my groceries across town [laughs].

And how about the school you’re working at this year?

It’s a business academy, and it’s pretty small. There’s probably about 270 students in my school, and they’re all pretty driven. They all want to continue studying; I don’t have any that don’t want to go university, which is good. It’s just interesting because they’re taking economics, business law, and accounting- things I had never thought about in high school, so it’s a very different high school experience from what I had, definitely.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have an English club, but I want to start another one, because I noticed that the stronger students have remained, and the not-as-strong students have dropped off, so I want to split it into two groups. I also noticed that there could be a chance to do a women’s empowerment project of some kind, because through the younger female students that I’ve gotten close to, I’ve noticed there’s a huge need for that out here. Some of the comments are just shocking, that I’ve never heard myself as a young woman. I don’t know what that project would look like yet, but I would like to address it on a larger scale, because it’s something prevalent in this society, I think.

What kinds of comments have you heard?
Like the families of these young girls will tell them that they’ll never be as successful as their older brother because they’re a girl. There’s just not as much opportunity or chance for them, or even the idea for them to have big ambitions. For example, the idea of studying for a year in America, it is actually possible, if they do the work for it. I guess with America, we’re much more of global nation. It’s very common to study abroad, so it’s interesting having those conversations with young girls particularly, and their eyes are like, ‘what really, you think I can do this?’ Of course, they can! It’s just so important.

Incredibly important! And what do you like about teaching English?

I had never really taught English before, so it has been like a total surprise to me. I’ve just really enjoyed seeing these students try. In the past, I’ve been the one studying languages. I know what it feels like, and even here I feel it every day, not being able to easily talk with people. I think Americans are not afraid to really make mistakes, at least not most of them, but I’ve realized they don’t have as much on the line with learning Spanish as these students do with learning English. It’s really cool to see how hard they’re trying to learn it, because their futures really do depend on it. It’s good to be part of it.

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?
I would say the solitary lifestyle that comes with being in a small town. I think it would be very different if I were placed in a larger city. It’s been the most challenging, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’ve always had roommates since college. That’s definitely been the biggest challenge, but it’s also kind of been the most rewarding thing, because I’m getting more comfortable with it as time goes by. I’ve always known I wanted to live by myself to prove to myself I can do it, and become stronger from it.

The winter, too! I’m from California, and the no sun, and the freezing- I still have months of that ahead, so that’s hard. I have to deal.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Being surprised by people, and surprising myself at the same time. Everybody comes with their own baggage. When you can get through it to accept yourself, and have people accept you, it’s really rewarding. Making friends with people that you would never expect to really make friends with.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?

One of my favorite things was throwing a Halloween party at my school! It was the first event, aside from my conversation club, that I tried to put together, and I was totally surprised at how many students came out, how many of them dressed up, had face paint on, and were completely committed to this party! We craved pumpkins, played games, and listened to music. It was really fun! They definitely were appreciative of this crazy, American tradition. I went as Rosie the Riveter, so I got to teach them about some more American feminism there!

That’s awesome! And now, you are halfway through your grant. What is something you’re looking forward to that is still to come?
I’ve been working for a few months now trying to volunteer in my community, and I keep coming up against various roadblocks. I’ve had organizations kind of turn me away because I speak English, which is kind of strange. There’s one organization that works with Roma youth that I really wanted to work with, but it’s been hard to get in, even though that’s been one of my central goals. I’m really hoping to volunteer with some students, because I want them to get a picture of community service as well. I’m looking forward to that, and also to seeing parts of the Czech Republic I haven’t seen yet! When the weather gets better, I want to go to the Adršpach rocks, and backpack, camp, hike, and see more of the nature in the Czech Republic. I also want to go camping in Poland, because I’m so close! I’m also going to London and the Netherlands with my school; I’m going to be one of the chaperones, and I’m really looking forward to that.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?

It means bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to talk. That’s one of the things I really care most about, that we should be figuring out our similarities right now, not our differences.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think it’s already changed it in the sense that I really know what is most important to me now. Part of the reason I came out here was, I was considering a career in the Foreign Service, but I know now it’s not what I want to do right away, because my family, my friends, my boyfriend- they’re all back in the States! So, I am reconciling with where I am at in my life, and what is important. But it’s definitely empowered me to take risks, and to be okay with being alone, which is really important as a person.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

I plan to backpack in Europe for a little while. The travel bug will never leave me, I know that for a fact! Then, I plan to go back to Seattle, and I want to continue working in the criminal justice system in Washington. I worked in the prison system in California for a year before this, and it’s something I’m realizing I’m really passionate about. I want to keep doing that once I’m back in the States. I want to work for at least a year, and then I plan to go to graduate school.

What was the job you had working in the prison system in California?

I was a rehabilitation analyst. I was part of the Office of the Inspector General, which is the agency that oversees the prison system. I visited over fifteen California state prisons, and looked at the rehabilitation programs for the inmates. My job was to see how effective, or ineffective, the programs are that the men or women were attending. It was fascinating, and it was totally a mind-changing experience, and job.

Very interesting! And do you see yourself doing the same sort of work in Washington?
I don’t foresee myself having that same job, because it was so specialized, but I want to work in prison reform. That can be so many things, like changing sentencing laws, or providing ‘rehabilitation.’ I’m even considering getting into government, because that’s who can really change the system. There’s so many ways to attack it, and I’m just figuring out how it would be best to do that.

I would love to learn more about the prison system in the Czech Republic. I really want to visit a Czech prison to compare, because there is a whole field called comparative corrections, which is how other countries deal with their correctional institutions. I could totally see myself getting into that.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright or teaching abroad?

Yeah, one thing I expected was to be here with all of these teachers and people who have extensive teaching experience, so I would tell them that any background with the right intention can get here. Even if you don’t have plans to continue teaching. Every human being is a teacher, or they can be, so it’s good training for anyone. Also, you can’t prepare for living alone, but just know that it’s going to happen, and you have to be ready to adjust.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It goes by fast! It goes by so fast; you really have to be engaged!

Kelsey Engstrom (front, center) at her Halloween party with students


Get to Know a Grantee - Jennie Magner

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jennie Magner
Even though Jennie Magner hadn’t previously visited the Czech Republic prior to starting her Fulbright grant, she was already very familiar with Czech culture. This was thanks in large part to her Nebraskan hometown of 8,000 people, which has a vibrant Czech community, and even hosts a Czech cultural festival every year! This cultural connection inspired Jennie so much, that she applied for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant to the Czech Republic, and is now teaching for one year in the UNESCO heritage site Kroměříž. Here she discusses what it’s like to go on pilgrimages with the Catholic boarding school she teaches at, her many involvements with students, and what it means to be a Fulbrighter in 2017. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: York, Nebraska
  • University, Major/Minor: Abilene Christian University, Two-Dimensional Studio Art/Graphic Design, and Psychology
  • School in Czech Republic: Arcibiskupské gymnázium, Kroměříž
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do."-Mother Teresa
  • Favorite Czech food: Svíčková

Hi! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from the small town of York, Nebraska. I actually only lived there for four years in high school. I was born in Michigan, and grew up in Texas most of my life, but I do consider York to be my hometown. In university, I studied fine arts. I started out originally in an interdisciplinary Justice and Urban Studies program, where I was studying social justice and sociology. But after a study abroad experience, and doing some thinking, I ended up changing my major to art a bit unexpectedly. I studied drawing, art history, painting, print making, and illustration.

And what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about making cross-cultural connections, about working with people. I’m passionate about visual arts, music, traveling, and promoting intercultural experiences.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?

I studied abroad in England, and while I was there I took a trip to Vienna and to Budapest, and I really fell in love with Central Europe. I felt it was a really unique, and beautiful part of the world. During that trip I knew that I wanted to come back someday, I just wasn’t sure when. So when I started looking at different countries to apply to for Fulbright, I really focused on Central Europe. By reading through the different programs, I felt like I fit the best with the Czech Fulbright program, and also being from Nebraska, there’s quite a large Czech population. Even in the really small town I’m from, there’s a Czech festival every year! It’s a big part of the culture. Before I came, some different women from the Czech Club wanted to talk to me to tell me about their Czech relatives, and teach me some Czech. So, the ties with my community were also a part of the reason. And as I started researching more about the Czech Republic, I found the political history really fascinating. And the architecture! It just seemed like a beautiful, really interesting place to go.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?

I heard about it through the honors college at my university. Also, a girl who I worked with received a Fulbright to go to Malaysia, and I remember being really inspired by that! I thought it was really interesting.

And can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
It’s a really sweet place! It’s a town of about 30,000 people, so it’s small, but there’s still activity and life. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and my school is right next to the chateau. I actually live in the tower too, so where I live is connected directly to the chateau! It’s not quite as magical as it sounds, like ‘living in a tower,’ but it’s still really cool! I just really love the rhythm of life here. It’s a beautiful town; people are always outside walking, hiking, biking. I think my placement fits me really well. I connect really well with the town. I love it!

That’s wonderful! And how about the school you’re working at this year?

I’m working at a Catholic boarding school, and it is a grammar school gymnazium. Most students are here for four years, and some are here for six years. There are roughly 400 students, and approximately 200 of them are from Kroměříž, and the other half actually live at the school. I also live at the school, so right outside of my room are several of my girl students. Which is always fun, never really know what to expect on an average day!

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?

I have two different conversation clubs with students. One for more beginners who are a little less secure with their English, and one for more advanced students. I also have one for teachers, which I really enjoy. I’m also doing a pen pal program with a teacher in the U.S., who previously had a Fulbright in the Czech Republic! She contacted several of the grantees, and asked if we wanted to get involved. Basically, she gave me a list of her students, and I gave her some of mine, and they’ve been corresponding on their own now.

Other than that, I’ve tried to be really involved with the school, and the students. The first week I was here, because I’m at a Catholic school, there was pilgrimage to Hostýn church, a famous Czech pilgrimage site. That was one of my first experiences with the school, walking 40 kilometers with my students to this church! It was great, and actually the last two weeks of my grant, I will be in Spain with my students doing the Way of St. James pilgrimage journey! I’ve also taken dance lesson with my second year students; they just finished the last week, we had our final ball. And I have access to an oven now, so I’m trying to start baking with some of my students to teach them some American pie recipes!

That’s wonderful you have so many activities with your students! And what do you like about teaching English?
What I love about teaching English is that it’s all about communication, and getting to really know people. With English, since it’s a language, you’re able to discuss really anything in class and it still qualifies as English teaching! I love that you can really get to know your students through conversations in English, and make a lot of fun discoveries about English. There are a lot of things I took for granted about the language before I came, and now I appreciate it so much more, but my favorite thing is definitely using English as way to communicate, and get to know students better.

Speaking of communication, what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?
Definitely the language barrier. I think it’s a struggle for everyone, I’m guessing. I think for me, the hardest part with the language barrier is especially when you’re in a group, and someone says a joke or something, and everyone starts laughing, and you just sit there and smile politely. That can be really hard sometimes. Since I live at the school though, I’ve had a less difficult time socially than I thought I would, but it has been hard to find peers, people outside of the school.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There are so many things! I think it’s just the ways that you learn. When you live abroad, you learn things about yourself, the world, and about people that you would never get the opportunity to learn about otherwise. These are things you can’t learn in school, or through a book, you have to experience them firsthand. I think the challenges that come with living or studying abroad are also the rewards. Just the way that you learn to be independent, but also to depend and trust people at the same time. There are so many positives, I think!

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
One of my favorite things has been going home with students. I’ve gotten really close with a few students, who have invited me home with them, so getting to know their families, seeing the villages they’re from, getting to know their brothers and sisters, and just really experiencing authentic Czech life with them and making those deeper connections has been a lot of fun. Also, my mentor has been really incredible. She’s really gotten me involved with her family. One of the first weeks I was here, we went to her mom’s garden, and had a Czech cook out! Yeah, definitely spending time with people, and getting to know them better.

You are about halfway through your grant right now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
In a couple weeks for example, I’m going on a ski trip with my school! I’m looking forward to the other trips I’ll get to go on with the school. I’m also looking forward to deepening the relationships that I have, to continue making connections with different people, and to continue learning about Czech culture.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
For me, the Fulbright mission is really about giving a name and face to a nationality. There are so many really terrible things happening in the world today; people don’t trust each other, they’re angry at each other. And so with Fulbright, it’s really important to present yourself as an American, but also as a friend, and someone people can trust and rely on. I think it really builds bridges between people, and also between countries around the world. I think that’s what the Fulbright mission means to me.

Well said. And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
That’s a really good question! I’m hoping this will open up other opportunities internationally. I mean, my life has already been changed just by being here, thanks to the people I’ve met, and the things I’ve gotten to do.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

I honestly have no idea. Before coming, I thought I had much more definite plans, going to graduate school etc., but I’m kind of not sure of what to do next, because some of the experiences I’ve had, and some of the things that have happened, have changed a bit what I saw myself doing.

I probably still want to do something with international education, and study abroad programs, but since my major was visual arts, I feel like I need to somehow connect that back with everything else. So, I’m trying to figure out a way to tie in my different passions and interests and put them all together. I’m not sure what the near future will bring, though. That’s one of the reasons I wanted do Fulbright, as well. I really felt like I needed some space to do some things, and get some perspective to reflect on what I wanted to do.

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
I would just say, apply! Honestly, I had no idea if I would get accepted; I didn’t expect to. The application is difficult, but it’s really worth it. Even if you aren’t accepted, I think it’s still worth it, because all the things you go through in the application process really helps you to figure out what you want to do, and helps you to put your goals into words. So, apply if you’re interested! Just do it!

For my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling right now about where you are and everything?
I’m just so thankful to be here, honestly. Again this isn’t something I really believed I could do, so I’m really thankful to be here, thankful to be at my school. Yeah, just really grateful for the relationships I have here, and I’m hoping to continue to build those and work on them for the rest of the time I’m here.

Jennie Magner, third from the left, with students at her Thanksgiving Party


Get to Know a Grantee - Ashley Barba

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ashley Barba
Boskovice is a charming town of 11,000 in southern Moravia, which boasts a historic Jewish quarter, chateau, stunning castle ruins, and for one year, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Ashley Barba. A native Californian who radiates positivity, Ashley is excited to be spending ten months teaching English in the Czech Republic, a place she hadn’t previously visited before accepting her Fulbright grant. Ashley is passionate about teaching and learning from others, and endeavors to become a special education teacher upon her return to the States. Here, she discusses life in a small Moravian town, what it’s like to move to a country you’ve never visited before, and her advice for anyone considering spending a year abroad teaching English!

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

  • Hometown: Chino Hills, California 
  • University, Major/Minor: Chapman University, Integrated Educational Studies/Disability Studies, Language and Literacy 
  • School in Czech Republic: SPŠ pedagogická, Boskovice
  • Age: 22
  • Favorite Quote: “Everything happens for a reason, just believe.”
  • Favorite Czech food: “All of the soups! And svíčková.”


Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from Southern California, I grew up there most of my life. I always wanted to be a teacher, and I want to be a special education teacher when I return to the States. I’ve always loved working with children, I’ve done it since I was high school-aged.

And what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about learning from others, and then teaching others too, since I want to be a teacher. Really learning from my experiences, and I’m passionate about trying to be happy and looking for the best in all things and people, and helping others to be positive, too; that’s why I’m always smiling! I’m also passionate about my family, traveling, getting to know the world and other cultures more, and even knowing myself more.

Why did you want to apply for a Fulbright?
I always wanted to teach abroad, ever since I was in high school, and it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I found out about the Fulbright. I applied my senior year, and I was pretty nervous!

Why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I applied to the Czech Republic because I had two cousins and a roommate who studied abroad in Prague, and I had a really good friend who is from the Czech Republic, and she’s the nicest girl I have ever met! When I was applying, she was helping me to learn some Czech words and things about Czech culture for my application.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Europe because I’d never been before, and everyone who recommended the Czech Republic had such positive things to say about Prague, so, many things led up to choosing the Czech Republic. I also studied abroad in Australia, which was pretty similar to a southern California life. I knew if I were to go abroad again, I would want something very different; to have a different experience, and get involved with a different culture.

Can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
I live in Boskovice, it’s a beautiful town of about 11,000 people, which is smaller to the other ETA cities I’ve heard about, but there’s quite a few restaurants and good cafes. There’s also a historic Jewish quarter, cemetery, and synagogue, and a ‘western town’ where they have reenactments with cowboys!

My students are super sweet, and many of them since the beginning invited me out for coffee. They showed me around town, and for a couple of weeks I had a different ‘date’ with a few students every day after school going to different coffee shops, talking and meeting. A lot of them have said that I’m the first foreigner they have ever met, and they’re really excited. It’s a really nice town, I think I’m pretty lucky where I’m at. It’s beautiful, and especially right now with the snow, it looks so nice!

And what about the school you’re working at this year?
It’s about 300 students, focused on pedagogy and special pedagogy, and the students also have elective classes where they get to choose either music, art, or P.E., as well for Maturita. The senior students will go to what’s called a ‘practice’ for one month, and work at a nearby elementary school or kindergarten. A lot of the students after graduating either become kindergarten teachers, or go to university to become a teacher, or some want to become au pairs, or even something different, too. It’s up to them, but the focus is pedagogy.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?

Because so many of them have asked me to hang out every day, it’s almost like I didn’t need to start a group, because I see so many of them after school. But, I’ve been trying to get a group to meet after school, at the school, because I know I would have way too many students to meet at a café! It’s been really hard to get an ‘okay’ for it, because I just have to ask so many people, but I’ve told a lot of the students, and they are so excited. It would be like a game conversation club. I have a lot of English board games, plus topics that we would come up with. I’ve been hoping to start since November, but hopefully by this month, I will start my little English conversation, board game, fun club.

What do you like about teaching English?
I love getting to know the students and having them feel as comfortable as possible! Sometimes to help them not feel so nervous to speak up, I will try to say it in Czech, and they laugh and giggle, because I sound terrible, so I think that helps them open up and really express themselves. Some of my students say that they like talking in English, because they are able to express their feelings better than in Czech.

I had them do an assignment where they wrote about their goals in life, and I had them write as much as possible, so that at the end of the year, they’ll get it back, and they can see if their English improved, and if they accomplished their goals. They were really excited about that, so that made me happy! I’ve never realized how important English is, and how I take it for granted that I’m a native speaker. It’s really taught me a lot about being a native English speaker.

What would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
The first week I think was the hardest, just trying to adapt to my own place. I’ve never lived by myself before; I’ve always lived with other roommates. I just lived with five other girls back in May, and now I have my own flat, and it just feels so big to me! And then going to the stores and restaurants, too. In the very beginning, I would just point to the menu, and hope it would be something good! Now I’m getting to know what different words are, so it’s been a lot easier.

I think at first it was just adapting, going to the grocery store by myself, and having a huge language barrier, because not many people in my town speak English; I think that was the hardest. And being away from my friends and family, and the time difference. That’s pretty hard, but I’m loving it anyways.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
The people that I’ve met! I am absolutely in love with all of the students; they are so sweet and so welcoming! Especially for the holidays, so many classes brought me gifts that I was not expecting at all, they sang me Christmas songs, and one class threw me a surprise party! So many of them have invited me to meet their families, who are so welcoming. Usually it’s the students translating [for us], but it’s such a good way for them to practice, and it’s a good way for me to really meet and understand Czech people. They have told me so much about their history. Many of them lived through communism, and they told me about what they went through, and how everything changed. It’s such a great experience, to learn about all of their history.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
Probably the holidays, because during December and the end of November was when I went to the students’ homes. I got to go to their villages of like 225 people or something like that where I’ve never been before, and experience their Christmas traditions. I saw the town gatherings for Christmas shows, and little children singing Christmas carols, and to have the students be so kind to me during the Christmas holidays. And the fourth year students go to local elementary schools to help out for the holidays, so I went there with them for Halloween, St. Mikuláš Day, and Christmas Day! That’s been so much fun, celebrating with the little kids. They’re so happy and cute, and they don’t speak much English because they’re so little, but they say hi every time they see me, and they give me hugs! And for Christmas, all these little eight year-old girls wrote me messages, and they spelled my name in Czech; it was really fun! So, for the holidays, I didn’t feel lonely at all! You know, you’d think you might feel more homesick over the holidays, but I wasn’t, because I felt so much love here in the Czech Republic!

That’s wonderful! And now you are halfway through your grant, what are you looking do more of for the remainder of your time?
I want to help the fourth year students with preparing for Maturita as much as possible, because I know some of them are pretty worried, and I want all of them to pass. I want to really try my hardest to make my lessons as engaging as possible, and as helpful as possible. I want them to be happy to come to English class! Also, because there are so many girls at this school, I want to start some kind of girl conversation club, to talk about issues, things that are going on with them, and their home life, and other things that they can share, and feel that they are in a safe place.

That’s a great idea! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
It means getting the chance to experience another culture firsthand, and really immerse yourself totally into one culture. To have them teach you, and you teach them as much as you can, and really take all of it back home to make a bigger difference in your home state and country, so that you have this one-year experience that you will have for a lifetime, and from that you will grow into a much better person, in your profession and in life.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’ll definitely be more independent, because before this, I hadn’t lived or traveled by myself or tried speaking another language before. I think I will be better able to know what I want, and get it done, and to be a stronger person from this in many ways, like socially, and knowing how to budget well, too. It will also make me a better leader, because I think that sometimes the students look up to me, because I’m older and teaching the class, and so I will continue trying to do that for the other people in my life. And especially for when I become a teacher, I’ve learned from this experience what works in a classroom and what doesn’t, and also really being able to talk to, collaborate, and work with my colleagues who are from different backgrounds than me.

Why do you think it’s beneficial for teachers to try teaching in a foreign country?
Because the education system here is a lot different from in America. I think there’s some good things, and some not so good things about it, but you can learn from a different education system of what works and what doesn’t work, which you can bring back to your home country. You also get to learn how to cooperate with people who come from a totally different background from you, and you will have to learn how to adapt quickly to these new experiences, and to working with new people and students who are probably going to be very different from you, as well as learning to work well, and not just for yourself, but for the other people around you.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?

Go for it, and try it! I almost didn’t finish my application, because I was very nervous about whether or not I would get it, and I was worried about finishing my senior thesis and all of that. I had doubts about whether or not I would get it, but then I just decided to go for it. And I got it! I think if I had doubted myself, and not tried, then I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. So just go for it; it’s going to be worthwhile! Everything happens for a reason!

Do you have plans for what you’ll do after your Fulbright year?

I plan to finish my Master’s degree in Special Education at Chapman University. Then, I plan to become a special education teacher for a few years, and then after that, I want to go into administration.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m so thankful to the Fulbright program for accepting me, and I love my town, the people in it, and all of my students!

Ashley with her students