ETA Spotlight Interview: Azeta Hatef
by Chloe' Sky 

Summary Azeta Hatef is serving this year as a Fulbright Scholar through an affiliation with Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia. Inspired by her personal journey as an Afghan-American, she studies, researches and teaches international communications and world media systems. Read below to find out about her research in the Roma community, how ethnography informs her method, and why she thinks Fulbright is such a valuable experience.

Fast Facts  
Hometown: Fremont, California
Age: 30
College, Major/Minor: B.A. – Berkeley; M.A. – Syracuse; Ph.D. - Penn State in Mass Communications
Czech University: Masarykova Univerzita
Favorite Czech word or phrase: učitelka, teacher
Favorite Czech food: Azeta is a vegetarian. She likes the meatless classic
smažený sýr, or fried cheese.
Favorite Quote: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” -Carl Sagan

Explain to me exactly what it means to be a Fulbright Scholar.

The Fulbright Scholarship that I am a part of as a graduate student focuses on dissertation research. I have an affiliation with Masaryk University in Brno, which provides a lot of support and has made my transition to living in Brno so smooth. I work very independently, so my days are scheduled around interviews and observations that I am conducting for my research. The Fulbright program is about exchanging ideas and skills and as a Fulbright Scholar, that’s exactly what we do. It allows individuals to share their experiences and to learn from one another.

What’s your research about?
Broadly speaking, my research focuses on how marginalized communities use social media, specifically as alternative spaces for the development and support of organization, community, and engagement. While there may be certain responses, for example, to these communities gathering in public, I explore how they may use alternative spaces to create identity and community. During my first trip to the Czech Republic in 2016, I met with an organization serving as the largest Roma media server. I noticed many parallels to my work and began researching the topic of media use within Romani communities. My research today examines the intersections of identity formation, community building, and media use by Roma in the Czech Republic. I don’t see social media as a panacea of sorts, but rather a valuable tool and I’m interested in learning how these resources are being employed.

How do you make relationships with people in the Roma community?
Prior to beginning the Fulbright program, I traveled to the Czech Republic to meet with scholars, activists, and organizations working within Romani communities to learn more about the individuals I should be speaking with to understand the questions my research sets out to address. These individuals and my colleagues at Masaryk University have connected me with the people that I have been interviewing since I started the Fulbright year. From there, it’s been like a snowball effect, how one person you meet will introduce you to others.

Where did your interest in the Roma come from?
I have a personal and academic interest in understanding identity and how we perform them in different spaces. My interests in understanding hyphenated identities stem from my own experiences as an Afghan-American. So, I am particularly interested in understanding the lived realities of this insider/outsider relationship. In my case, the personal has inspired and informed the academic.

After coming here in 2016, I started to see a lot of parallels to the questions that guide my research. I became interested in learning more about the social and political issues within the country and as someone who researches media, I set out to explore how online spaces could be utilized to foster greater intercultural awareness and possibly empower communities.

What kind of challenges have you encountered in this work?
Of course there is the language barrier. It’s interesting and different for me because in Afghanistan I could communicate with people directly because I speak one of the official languages, Dari. Here in Czechia, individuals who feel comfortable speaking in English will; otherwise, I work with an interpreter and it’s been working out really well.

There’s also the fact that I am a woman of color, something I am hyperaware of living in the Czech Republic. This provides a different perspective to my work and allows me to make connections and understand the intersections of oppression between different marginalized communities.

What has been the most rewarding for you?
Connecting with people and listening to their powerful stories. I appreciate the individuals’ graciousness in sharing time with me and their reflection on sensitive topics. Sometimes they ask me why I came to Czechia, and I respond, “Why not?” The work I do with ethnography allows me to spend an extended time here to learn more about the lived realities of being Roma in the Czech Republic. There are many community leaders who are working towards change and it is inspiring to speak with them.

How is your analysis going?
It’s going well. I’m still doing interviews, which can take between 45 minutes and two hours. There is a diversity in terms of gender, age and sexuality among the individuals I am interviewing. At this point, some themes are starting to emerge in terms of how the Roma produce their identities online and how they create community, which is empowering.

What solutions do you see emerging from this research?
It depends on the findings this research yields and it will take time. There are different goals for individuals and communities, for example, political representation. So, findings on political engagement online may help comment on some possible solutions.

How do you think Fulbright will impact your future career trajectory?
The research will continue – I see myself returning to Czechia and collaborating further with the organizations and individuals I have met over the year. I also hope that I can do some comparative work with this project in the future.
 This year will also inform my teaching. I teach courses on international media, and I always tell my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s given you a sense of curiosity that inspires you to understand different individuals and cultures.” This opportunity from Fulbright has been so important. The program encourages connecting and learning through our differences. Given the current political climate, this is particularly important. It’s important to reflect on the purpose and impact of the Fulbright program especially considering the funding crisis it faces.


ETA Spotlight Interview: Maeve Duffy

by Chloe' Sky 

Maeve Duffy is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Rakovník (17,000 people), although she lives in a village called Senomaty (1000 people). Having majored in Theatre at Barnard College, Maeve is bringing Broadway to Czechia by directing a play in her town. Read below to find out exactly what classic American story she’s working on with her students, how she deals with the tough topics that are seen differently in Czech and American culture, and how being so close to nature has impacted her life.

Fast Facts
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Age: 22
College, Major/Minor: Barnard College, B.A. in Theatre with a concentration in Acting, pre-med track, minor in Biochemistry
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnazium Zikmunda Wintra Rakovník
Favorite Czech word or phrase: veverka, squirrel. “Day 2 of my grant I was attacked by a squirrel, so this was one of the first Czech words I learned. I used it in the classroom and now my students think I love squirrels. I really, really don’t.”
Favorite Czech food: Maeve is gluten-free. She loves the duck with rye crust from the Prague restaurant Švejk.
Favorite Quote: “People will forget what you say, people will forget what you do, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Tell me about yourself.
I’m an actor, a storyteller, and now an English teacher. I studied Theatre and Biochemistry as an undergrad and I was cast in a play by Václav Havel, Largo Desolato, and I even wrote my thesis on Havel. That’s how I fell in love with Czech people and culture. Oh, and since my grant started, I’ve learned how to bike, ski and ice skate.

I see why you chose Czechia! 
It was amazing to learn about Havel, a man who ignited revolution and served as a figurehead for change. I wanted to go to a country that elected a playwright as president.

Do you have any advice for people applying to Fulbright?
It’s beautiful here, I really love the country. The people who are happiest here have a real reason for wanting to be in Czechia. So – have a real reason for applying to the country you’re considering spending a year of your life in.

Tell me about the area where you live.
It’s 45 minutes west of Prague and I feel so lucky for that. My town has a vibrant theatre scene. It’s also a factory community with Proctor & Gamble headquarters, and other companies like Valeo and Rako. There are a lot of expats here. Also, the desire for English is high, which makes my job much better. My students want to work, travel and consume English media. The village where I live is gorgeous and has a higher elevation than the town, so there are amazing views. I go running all the time in the forest, spending more time outside now than I ever have. A lot of people would tell me in the beginning, “I’m spending the weekend in nature.” Now I really understand what that means. I want to spend the weekend in nature too.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
My students are really inquisitive and have a strong foundation of English. I can even delve into conversations about gun violence, sexism, racism and politics. They ask a lot of tough questions. And it’s not just about telling my opinion but helping them to figure out their own. Part of Fulbright is learning through listening, and I really try to listen to the students and learn from them – how they view the USA and what they think about what’s happening in our world right now.

What was difficult about adjusting to live in Czechia?
I came from a women’s college where we supported each other and lifted each other up, so it’s difficult to see male students always raising their hands or speaking first. The teaching assistant nature of my job – seeing myself as something of a peer – has helped so much in encouraging even female students to speak. It was also difficult adjusting to the blatant sexism you can encounter here. At my college if we [saw an instance of sexism], we would shut it down. Here in my teaching capacity I can’t do that in the same abrupt declarative way. You have to pick your battles. If everything students say makes you fly off handle, you won’t get anything done and they won’t trust you. Instead, if someone says something inappropriate in class, I may not address it immediately, but come in next week and use it as a teachable moment; for example, “What it means to be a feminist.”

What else has been challenging for you?
Being away from my family and not being able to go back home and be there with them [in tough moments]. I’m really close with my little brother who has Down Syndrome and it’s hard to explain to him why I’m not there.

On the flip side, what has been rewarding about your experience living abroad?
Getting to try everything! I’ve taken the “say yes to everything” approach. Also, Europeans do work-life balance so well. I used to sleep four hours every night and think that was great; now I sleep eight to ten hours. I end school early and then have time to do what I want, I can be outside so much and take five-kilometer runs and it’s amazing. It’s just so simple, a simple form of joy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, just because I have time to practice self-care, be in nature and really enjoy it. I keep saying nature!

That’s because it’s such a major part of your experience! What are you doing for your Fulbright project?
Since August, I’ve had a theatre improvisation class in English, and I’ve just now started the process of directing a full-length play. I got a small grant from the US Embassy and we’re going to be doing The Wizard of Oz in English. It’s a fairytale, which Czech people love – my town already has an English theatre troupe which has performed some fairytales in English. At school, I’ve announced the play and am now putting the cast together. We’ve read through a 15-minute version and talked about the major themes, but we’re going to do the real read-through next week and I hope to finalize the cast by Easter!

That sounds amazing, especially because most Czech people don’t know that story! Last question: How will your life change after Fulbright?
I spend way more time outside and now I actively search out opportunities to do so, whereas I used to be a passive consumer of exercise. I appreciate the simplicity of life here. I realize that I need far less than I thought I did. For now, I’m hoping to maybe stay in Czechia another year.


ETA Spotlight Interview: Danielle Mueller

by Chloe' Sky

Danielle Mueller

Danielle Mueller is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the little town of Sušice, Czech Republic, near the Šumava mountains. An educator with a Bachelor’s in Sociology and English, Danielle studied abroad in Prague before Fulbright. Read below to find out how many Statement of Purpose drafts Danielle had to write, how Fulbright has impacted her self-image for the better, and what unexpected faux pas she’s committed by drawing basic shapes! 

Fast Facts
Cortlandt Manor, New York
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Sociology and English plus completion of an Education track
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnázium Sušice
Favorite Czech word or phrase: “Kočička” – meaning a small cat or a pretty girl
Favorite Czech food: Svíčková
Favorite Quote: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Tell me about yourself.
I’m 23 and I’ve lived in Westchester County my whole life. This is the first time I’ve lived abroad for so long, not like study abroad in college, but in the sense of having this permanent home for a year. I’m very athletic, I love music and singing, and I’m a very social person. I love to be around people. It’s a hard question!

The simplest things can take us by surprise sometimes! So here’s another one: Why did you choose Czech Republic?
My college really stressed the importance of going abroad. I was lucky enough that I could fit a semester study abroad into my schedule, and I chose Prague because (1) I wanted to go to Europe, (2) the classes I took there fit nicely with my major, and (3) I was so impressed by the city’s beauty. So I did one semester at Charles University in which I took courses about essential European writers, including one specifically on Kafka; “Comprehending the Holocaust”; the history of the Czech Republic, and Czech language. I loved being here and four months was simply not enough, especially in such a big city where I could easily speak English with the many foreign students. I didn’t get enough of my experience, so I knew I had to come back and that when I did, I wanted it to be a much more meaningful and immersive experience.

What advice would you give to those writing their Statements of Purpose?
I would say to let your authentic self shine through. Writing applications are difficult and they often feel forced. I remember I wrote about fifteen drafts before I got it right! Keep pulling the strings and when you hit on the anecdote that’s just right, hone in on it.

Do you have any advice in general for those coming to Czech Republic?
I would want people to know that in Czech Republic you’ll be received with open arms. There are a lot of stereotypes about how Czech people are cold. Of course, don’t expect warm and fuzzy at first, but when you go a bit deeper, you’ll find that this is the furthest thing from the truth.

In terms of fitting in with your community, your fate is being chosen for a year based on what your application tells the Commission. Be prepared to be flexible no matter what cards you are given, but get involved! Say yes to every opportunity you feel comfortable with. Go to concerts and plays to support your students. The Czechs will open their hearts to you – you can trust that.

How big is your community, and what’s interesting about the area?
Sušice has a population of 11,000 people. It’s in a valley near the Šumava mountains and the Otava river. It’s so easy to be active here because everyone in my town is so active. Everyone knows everyone here and everywhere you look, people are cross-country skiing, hiking, and biking. Another interesting thing is the former Solo factory, which made safety matches. It’s closed now and you can see the ruins of the factory and its smokestacks. (I interrupt and say: Wow! I think I actually have a box of matches somewhere by them; it even says Made in Czechoslovakia.) That’s the one!

What about at school?
For a small town, Sušice is always buzzing. And the Gymnázium I work at is great. It has four- and eight-year tracks and a wonderful English department, which is always looking to improve itself. For example, we are currently taking part in an international Erasmus project called “Fight for Tolerance.” Overall, it’s a very welcoming environment, and I felt welcome from the first day.

I feel that I can really fulfill my interests here. I’ve joined a choir and a football team, and I’m taking ballroom dancing classes. At school, I have started a beginner English club for teachers to encourage alternative ways of learning.

What’s interesting is that in my school environment, age doesn’t really matter. This is different from American schools. I remember being in high school and clearly noticing the difference between freshmen and seniors. But everyone gets along here, and the students treat each other well.

That’s amazing; I’m so happy to hear it. Can you tell me about the adjustment process you went through?
Adjusting was easier than I thought! The thing that terrified me most was the idea of being alone. It was like jumping into a dark swimming pool with no idea of what’s below the surface. However, I was embraced within the first couple of days. The first night, I remember playing UNO with my mentor’s kids. She also invited me to lunch every Sunday, and though it’s a 40-minute walk from me, I went. I didn’t realize until later what a big step that is for Czechs. I got to practice saying those basics, Dobrý den, čau, ahoj – even though that last one will always be strange for me since I will always associate it with pirates J (Interviewer’s note: These are different ways to say „hello/goodbye“ with varying levels of formality. Čau is the Czech version of ciao, and ahoj (ahoy) is in fact a normal greeting!)

It sounds like it wasn’t so bad! Did you face any challenges?
On the adjustment front, it was difficult dealing with ties back home, as well as social expectations here. In the end, [making friends and fitting in] was rewarding, like – I can do this! I could have easily stayed at home – it would have been so easy. I wake up some days and say to myself, I’m living in a foreign country. And I think I’m doing a very good job. It gives you the opportunity to be alone with yourself. Not everyone has a chance in life to do it, to relocate and in a different sense, really meet yourself.

How do you think Fulbright has impacted you?
Fulbright has shown me the power of intercultural exchange. Before I went abroad in my Junior year of college a member of the Global Education team, they gave us a quote to consider: “There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.” And I really believe in it. Here we have a support group of 26 other Americans and the Commission and it’s not so difficult. The program gives us structure – and yet there’s a lot of freedom – and there are people to fall back on; you’re never truly alone. At the same time, every one of us has a unique experience. I think it’s helped me advocate for myself growing as an individual, which can be frustrating for some but not for me. It’s improved my communication skills, and I’ve gotten to know my own language better – that’s a side effect of teaching to non-native speakers.

Give me a funny anecdote from your time here.
I’ve got two, and although the second one may not be so appropriate, it will definitely be educational for incoming Fulbrighters…

The first one wasn’t so funny at the time. It’s about Czech eating habits. When I was at [my now-boyfriend] Pepa’s house for the first time, it was Sunday lunch, and I was being my normal American self, cutting with the knife in my right hand and then switching to eat with the fork. And so, his dad asked, “Is she left-handed?” It was just this huge mess and I ended up being so embarrassed because everyone was laughing at my method of switching hands. Now I’m hyper-aware of how I eat and am training myself to eat like a Czech. When I go to switch hands, I say, No, Danielle, focus…

The second one is about a sports lesson I was doing in class with a lower English level while co-teaching. We were talking about baseball and I was explaining the baseball field, so I drew a diamond on the board. But in Czech, a diamond represents the vagina. I was labeling it: Here’s home base; first, second, third; here’s the pitcher’s mound… And my colleague was saying quietly, “No, no…” Of course she couldn’t tell me because we were standing in front of the class and everyone was laughing. I felt so awkward, but I was also frustrated because I only wanted to describe baseball!
Czech Christmas-themed class by Danielle.


ETA Spotlight Interview: Sarah Marie Kidder

Sarah Marie Kidder
by Sinia Amanonce

While attending Penn State University, Sarah Marie Kidder was part of a hip-hop dance team that hosted an event featuring Jaja Vankova, a famous Czech dancer, as one of their judges. As Sarah and Jaja spoke about dance, culture, and the Czech Republic, Sarah was inspired to apply for Fulbright in the Czech Republic. Read below to find out what Sarah has to say about building bonds with students and her experience living in Česká Lípa.

Fast Facts:

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Age: 24
College, Major/Minor: Penn State University, University Park, Biobehavioral Health
School in the Czech Republic: Obchodní akademie Česká Lípa
Favorite Czech word: “I really like “veverka” which means squirrel and the phrase “tak ahoj!”[bye]”
Favorite Czech food: Chlebíčky
Favorite Quote: “The sun is perfect and you woke this morning. You have enough language in your mouth to be understood. You have a name, and someone wants to call it. Five fingers on your hand and someone wants to hold it. If we just start there, every beautiful thing that has and will ever exist is possible. If we start there, everything, for a moment, is right in the world.” - Warsan Shire

Tell me about yourself.

My name is Sarah and I’m a Penn State University graduate. I graduated in 2016, worked in research for a year at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and then applied for Fulbright. I really like travelling, learning new languages, dancing, horseback riding, and I love photography.

Have you had the chance to dance or go horseback riding while being here? Have you had the time to do these things you like?
Photography, yes. I was really excited about being here because I knew I’d have time to improve on my photography. I bought a new lense since being here but I’m still just teaching myself. With dancing, I haven’t been able to do that yet. There is a hip hop dance group in my town called Tutti Frutti. One of my students is on the team, so I’m hoping to do a couple workshops with them, which would be awesome.

I feel like now I’m actually settling down, but the first few months felt like a whirlwind. Even though I have a lot of free time, I feel tired. I think being in a new place zaps your energy and you don’t even realize it.

I have to say, I love your Instagram! You post events and activities with your students, and everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves. How did you build this relationship with your students?
It’s actually kinda funny. We found out about our acceptance to Fulbright in March or April I think, and before I even knew which town I would be placed in, a girl messaged me through Twitter saying, “Me and my friend, Paja, are so excited to meet you in September. We can’t wait until you’re here.” I said, “Oh I’m really excited to meet you too, but who are you?” It turns out, they would be my students. The school told the students about me and posted an article on the school website. I found out the details of my placement through my students and Twitter messages before the Fulbright Commission told me.

A month after that, some of my classes sent me videos or PowerPoints introducing themselves. I didn’t know if it was because they had never met an American or if they really enjoy speaking English, but they seemed excited to meet me. Now, I say “hi” to everyone as I pass them in the hallways at school which is incredible. I don’t think I could have another experience of moving to a different country where I feel so welcomed by so many people. Also, I think I’m close to my students simply because I want to be and make the effort. When I’m friends with someone, and know what they like and care about, I think it’s much easier to teach them. I can tailor my lessons to what they are interested in and it’s always more comfortable to try to speak another language with a friend. In class, I am very much myself, and the school definitely allows for that, so it’s been nice.

Tell me about the town you’re living in this year.
Whenever I tell other Czech people I’m living in Česká Lípa, I get a weird “ugh” and then they always ask “why?” You know how they call Baltimore “Charm City?” Well, Česká Lípa is a place that grows on you. I can’t imagine being placed anywhere else now. At first I thought, “Aww, man. I’m not in Plzeň or a big city with a mall.” [laughs] But, it’s great. Once I saw that there was sushi and coffee, I knew I was going to be okay.

Not sushi and coffee at the same time, right?
No, not at the same time. But yeah, I live in an attic apartment above someone’s home. It’s actually one of my students, and her grandma, grandpa, and great grandma. They are all so great! Grandma and great grandma are always giving me food and hugs and grandpa is always offering me a beer, even in the morning. He also has full on conversations with me in Czech even though I don’t know what he’s saying.

What!? That’s great! Tell me more. How did you find that housing?
Before I came here, Niky and Tereza, my students, were helping me look for a flat. We couldn’t find anything as affordable or as close to the school as I’d like. So Nikki was living in the attic flat, decided to move downstairs, and said, “You can live with us.” I was nervous at first, but since I’m such a people person, I’m so happy there are others in the house. I’m really close with them now. I go downstairs often to just watch television with grandpa or hang out with Niky.

Wow, I’m glad it worked out for you. What about the school you’re working at? What is it like?
I’m at a business academy. I only teach at one school, which has been nice because I’ve had the opportunity to teach every class at least once and meet everyone. I’ve become more and more comfortable with teaching in a classroom. In the U.S., I was an ESL tutor, and the most I had was two or three students at a time. I was nervous because I didn’t know if I’d be able to command a classroom or not. I was also nervous about teaching teens because I am used to working with adults. I have so much respect for teachers who get up everyday and try to pull any amount of emotion out of teenagers.

How was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
I think the experiences I had before Fulbright, like studying abroad in Tanzania, prepared me for going with the flow and knowing that being uncomfortable is a fleeting feeling. Things don’t always work out the way you think they are going to and that’s fine. I adapt more and more each day and now, I really love the way of life here.

What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
This may sound selfish, but I think one of the most rewarding parts is being able to look back and know I lived in another country, functioned from day to day, and had the capacity to be able to do something like this. I’m proud of myself for doing Fulbright because I come from a family that rarely steps out of their comfort zone. I think being able to be independent and on my own are the main reasons I wanted to live abroad. It has been awesome. Also, I’ve made so many new relationships. I’m going to be devastated when I have to go home. I keep thinking “Oh no, I have only so many months left.” Then, I have to tell myself “Stop thinking about that and just be happy right now!” I have friends here who I care about and will want to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.

What is the most challenging part of being abroad?
I think it’s the same as the most rewarding. Being on your own, being independent, and trying to figure everything out. I feel like not being able to express yourself fully is also a challenge. I have to say things in different ways and I don’t know if I’m always getting my point across.

Why did you choose to apply to Fulbright Czech Republic?
I guess there are a bunch of smaller reasons that led me to choosing the Czech Republic. I was really interested in the history and culture of the Czech Republic, and had the chance to meet a few Czechs back in the States. I invited a Czech dancer, Jaja Vankova, to be a judge at my dance team’s big annual ‘jam’ at Penn State. So I got to talk with her about the Czech Republic, which made me even more excited to see it for myself!

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I have no idea because I’m not entirely sure what I want to do after Fulbright. I went into this academic year trying to make sure I was fully present in the moment. I didn’t apply to graduate school because I didn’t want to worry about that while I was here. I hate that I feel like I always have to think about the next year in life. I think it takes away from the experience of what you’re currently doing. I just want to be here, experience everything, say yes to everything, and see where that takes me.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?

Great! Each day has its ups and downs, but as a whole, I’m really excited still to be here. Maybe I’ll just stay and open up a taco shop because there is a serious lack of Mexican food in the Czech Republic. Not that I know anything about Mexican food, nor do I think I should be the ambassador for that, but I can learn!

Sarah and her students at the gym. 


Jak se dělá neuroscience na Columbia university a kdy chodí New York spát

Postřehy stipendistky Fulbright-Masarykova programu Petry Winnette

Mozek v New Yorku

Tak se konečně dostávám k malému zpravodajství. Už jsme se zabydleli na Broadwayi a trochu prozkoumali Manhattan. New York je velmi hlučný, plný lidí, ale taky úžasný. Hučí a žije ve dne v noci. Když se kolem druhé ráno, noční pták, podívám z okna, pořád se něco děje.

Columbijská universita je šestou nejlepší universitou na světě. Zabývám se oborem, který je zde skloňován ve všech pádech, i když angličtina pády nemá… Neuroscience! To znamená zejména zkoumání mozku, jeho vývoje a činnosti, která je za vším, co nás dělá lidskými bytostmi: za myšlením, emocemi, pamětí, chováním… Patřím do laboratoře, která se přímo zaměřuje na vývoj mozku u dětí a adolescentů, vlivu adversního dětství na vývoj jednotlivých mozkových struktur a jejich propojení. Jsem u zdroje.

Psychologie je na Columbijské universitě silný obor a neuroscience je tady samostatným oborem a zároveň už také zcela integrální součástí všeho psychologického myšlení. V podstatě všechny laboratoře a oddělení na zdejší obrovské katedře psychologie mají svoji laboratoř vybavenou mj. funkční magnetickou rezonancí... Zobrazování činnosti mozku je nedílnou metodou při experimentech, výzkumech i testování. Tradiční metody se používají, ale už se jim bez pohledu dovnitř, na činnost mozku, dost nevěří.

Studenti jsou zde skvělí, velmi motivovaní, chytří a kultivovaní. Zcela zjevná a všudypřítomná disciplína a zaměření na studium se jeví být samozřejmé. Každá samostatná práce prochází několika koly kolokvií, kde doktorandi presentují experimenty nebo výzkumný záměr a ostatní studenti a učitelé komentují, doporučují změny, ptají se na vše, co bylo presentováno. I když je zde vše na komputerech, učení a práce studentů probíhá za velmi intensivní osobní účasti jejich učitelů.

Mluví spolu, diskutují, řeší problémy. Všechny přednášky jsou na velmi vysoké úrovni.

Ještě jsem objevila další součást Columbijské university, nedávno dostavěnou obrovskou moderní budovu v Harlemu, kde nyní sídlí "Zuckerman Mind Body and Behavior Institute". Spoluzakladatelem a spoluředitelem je nositel Nobelovy ceny za výzkum paměti, autor řady skvělých knih prof. Eric Kandel. Je to velký výzkumný ústav, kde asi 40 špičkových vědců dělá jen primární výzkum mozku. Financováno ze soukromých zdrojů, takže vědci nejsou tak zavalení a řízeni grantovými pravidly a účelovou politikou. Úžasné! Zabývají se mnoha detaily, přednášejí a publikují.

Na Columbijské je takové pravidlo, že všechny katedry, ale psychologie a psychiatrie zvlášť neustále zvou vědecké kapacity z USA a světa, aby tady dělali veřejné přednášky pro učitele, studenty a odbornou veřejnost. Je jich několik za týden. New York hučí a člověk skoro neví, co dříve.
Zatím toho o skutečné fascinující činnosti mozku víme velmi málo, ale je strhující se tím zabývat. Jak napsal Eric Kandel: "Poznání o biologii mysli spojuje přírodní vědy s humanitními a objasňuje význam lidské zkušenosti."

Příště už více o tom…


ETA Spotlight Interview: Vandana Apte

Vandana Apte
by Sinia Amanonce

As a biotechnology major, Vandana was interested in becoming a high school chemistry teacher and aimed to do so with the prestigious Teach For America program. Instead, during this academic year, Vandana is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Nový Jičín, Czech Republic. Here, she talks about her experience living abroad, goofing off with her students, and “adulting” in a foreign country.

Fast Facts:

Hometown: Walpole, Massachusetts
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: Rutgers New Brunswick, Biotechnology/ Bio Science Policy and Management, Women’s and Gender Studies
School in the Czech Republic: Mendelova střední škola Nový Jičín
Favorite Czech Word: “Well, my least favorite Czech word is the word for closet [skříň]. It’s so hard to say!”
Favorite Czech Food: “My favorite Czech food is Svíčková and my favorite Czech candy is Fidorka - they remind me of Kit Kat.”
Favorite Quote: “I went to a Kooks concert and I like the title “She Moves in Her Own Way” it’s very captivating of this whole experience.”

Vandana, tell me about yourself.
I went to Rutgers University and I majored in biotechnology. I was going to be a high school chemistry teacher. Actually, I was going to do it through Teach For America, but then I got this offer and I decided to do Fulbright. I definitely want to teach when I get back, perhaps I will teach chemistry. I enjoy teaching my classes, but I don’t think teaching ESL is something I can do for the rest of my life. I want to teach science because it’s something I enjoy doing and it’s what I studied in college. After teaching for a while, I want to go to law school at some point. Either for health policy or human rights law, or something that combines the two areas.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
Well, for a few reasons. I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Europe and I knew the Czech Republic has such a rich history because of it’s communist background which played a very interesting role post World War II. Also, I’m obsessed with genetics and Gregor Mendel is from this area and I think that’s pretty cool. I knew that as an ETA in the Czech Republic, I would be placed in the countryside as opposed to being in the city. Being in the center of Europe appealed to me because I think it is really cool to witness the intersection of so many different European cultures in one country. Also, I’ve never been here before, so I wanted to go.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I think it's something I’ve always known about. My cousin is a few years older than me and she applied to a bunch of fellowships. She ended up doing Gates Cambridge, but she applied to Fulbright too. I think that is where I first heard the name. From then on, it always sounded like something I wanted to do. I thought it would be a cool experience to go abroad for a year, teach in a different country than what I’m used to, and experience their culture.

What is the town you’re living in this year like?
I don’t have anything to complain about! There is about 28,000 people so it’s not small. For me, it’s normal because I grew up in a similar sized town. The center was voted the most beautiful center square in all of the Czech Republic. It’s a gorgeous town. I like the variety of things you can do. You can go shopping in the center, go for nice walks, and we have great hiking trails and beautiful parks. There are a lot of picturesque towns around me, like Štramberk. It looks like something out of a medieval picture. I really enjoy my placement.

What about the school you’re working at this year?
My school is really nice too. The students are hilarious. I love Czech humor, I think it’s so funny. I was placed in a technical school. There are different branches to it and I alternate branches every few months. I was in the business section and in the next two months, I will be in the health section. I think the teachers are really nice. The school is organized. The students are motivated. They want to learn English and realize that speaking English is a gateway to a lot of different things, especially the IT students who play computer games and need to know English for those.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
Honestly, the cultural exchange is my favorite part. For example, when my youngest students are not able to remember something in English, I’ll ask them to tell me the Czech word and I’ll try to say it. Then when they realize my Czech is really bad, they open up and speak English. They giggle, whisper to each other, and ask me to say other things in Czech. I think that is my favorite part - being a goof and having them be goofy with me.

With the older students I enjoy more discussion based things. I like when they ask me questions about the U.S. the differences between the U.S. and the Czech Republic on various topics like dating, high school, and college. Those conversations are interesting to me because I learn more about Czech life.

Speaking of Czech life, how was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
It’s going really well. I was fortunate enough to have my dad here to help me settle in. I remember feeling this wave of anxiety and panic sweep over me as he left. I realized I was in this foreign country, I didn’t really know the language, and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I haven’t done the whole “adulting” thing in the U.S., let alone in a different country. I never paid a cell phone bill or an internet bill before, so figuring all that out in Czech was really difficult. Now, I feel like a superhero [laughs] and I can do anything! I feel like since I was able to figure it out here, I can “adult” in the U.S. and it will be super simple. In that sense, I feel like I have adjusted well. Also, I can convert very easily between Czech koruna and U.S. dollars, so I consider that a win.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of living abroad, aside from the initial adjustment period?
The fact that every encounter you have runs the risk of someone not being able to understand you. I think that in the U.S. we take for granted that if something happens, like getting lost, you will easily be able to explain what happened and get help. I think the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges for me. For example, I went to Tesco and the cashier asked if I had a Tesco card. I had no idea what she was saying, so I held up the line as I figured it out. This would never happen to me in the U.S. and it’s not a big deal, but it is an everyday hurdle.

On the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think it’s realizing you are way more independent than you thought you were. I realized I can live abroad and be a successful adult in a foreign country where I don’t know the language and didn’t know anyone. Now, I know a lot of people in town, I am very comfortable with the other ETAs and with traveling within the Czech Republic. I consider that a success. I think it speaks to my ability to adapt to different situations and my ability to “adult” - if that is even a real verb.

I think it “to adult” can be used as a verb.
Yes! I’m going to be a successful “adult” when I get back to the U.S. and I think that is the most rewarding thing about this experience. Also, meeting all of these new people! I have connections abroad with such incredibly smart people like my ETA cohort. I really admire them and I think they are really nice people.

Vandana teaches her students the "Thriller" dance.


ETA Spotlight Interview: Kelsey Gerbec

by Sinia Amanonce

Kelsey Gerbec
Kelsey Gerbec is a 22-year-old, Indiana University graduate who has spent time teaching English in Peru and Rwanda. This year, she is continuing her experience with international education by serving as an English Teaching Assistant in Litomyšl, Czech Republic. Read below to find out what Kelsey has to say about language education and acquisition, conquering imposter syndrome, and her experience introducing the Cha Cha slide to Czech teens.

Fast Facts
Hometown: Geneva, Illinois
Age: 22
College, Major/Minor: Indiana University, Secondary Math Education/ Spanish and International and Comparative Education
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnázium A. Jiráska Litomyšl
Favorite Czech word and food: “Oh! Svíčková! I don’t know if that counts as a word because it is food, but it is my favorite Czech food.”
Favorite Quote: “Keep moving forward” - Walt Disney.

Please, tell me about yourself.
I am from the Chicago suburbs and I went to Indiana University where I studied Secondary Math Education with minors in Spanish and International Education.

My dad works for an international company so I grew up always fascinated with living abroad and teaching abroad. I taught abroad for two summers, once in Rwanda and another summer in Peru. I always knew, that when I graduate, I want to teach abroad.

That’s really cool that you can speak Spanish.
Yeah! Peru really helped but it’s been about a year and a half since.

Are you learning Czech?
Slowly here and there. Basically, I studied a bit before like numbers and greetings. I talk to my mentors a lot, they gave me basic readings, and they said they will help me with the rest. We’ll go to a cafe and they’ll talk me through the menu or we will be at a store and they’ll point out new words. I’ve been learning on the spot and it’s way more helpful than any book or YouTube video. I always revert back to Spanish but I have to tell myself “No, no, no.” It’s really interesting thinking of language acquisition as I’m trying to learn a new language.

Why did you apply to the Czech Republic and not to a Spanish speaking country?
I wanted to work in secondary schools. That was my major and I have a passion for preteens and teenagers so I knew I wanted to be in a country where I would definitely be working in a secondary school. I really wanted to try something new. When I was in Rwanda, I learned completely different skills from what I learned in Peru. In Peru, it was completely different from what I learned in the U.S. I wanted to be in a different culture and education system, so while I love Spanish and it’s been a huge part of my life, I wanted to challenge myself.

What do you think of the school you are working at this year? What is it like?
I love my school. I am in a gymnazium with a 4-year and an 8-year program. I work with all the students in the 4-year program and the 6 oldest classes in the 8-year program. I mainly work on applying English and giving them a more cultural basis for language instead of just grammar. I am in a great school environment. My colleagues are constantly checking in with me, helping, and seeing if I need anything. We have high caliber students and they are eager, attentive, and they see the benefit of working hard to improve their English.

What do you think of the Czech Republic? How was adjusting to living here?
That’s a big question. It has been much easier and quicker adjustment than I expected. With knowing little Czech, I was interested to see how I would navigate grocery stores, shopping, and getting to know people considering I’m still learning the language. Everyone in my town is so patient and so kind. I tell my teachers I feel like Litomyšl has really become my hometown because I pass students and colleagues all the time. Being in a town of about ten thousand is perfect for an ETA because it is small enough to meet people but big enough to get I what I need.

Overall, I love the history, architecture, everything is beautiful and so well preserved. I am shocked at how fast it felt to be comfortable to be here, after a week and a half I thought “Okay, I got this.”

I think Fulbright has a reputation for being competitive, and it is! But when ETAs arrive they feel a sort of imposter syndrome and it is such a great feeling when you realize you can do this.
That’s what I thought! I thought I would feel like an outsider, but I have the best mentors that anyone can ever have. I literally went to dinner with them last night. Without them I don’t think I would have adjusted as well as I did. They help me with everything, yet they think I’m the most independent person. They are like my big sisters, moms, and friends. I still need them a lot. They really embraced me and made me part of the town.

What advice would you give an ETA on communicating with their mentors?
Don’t be nervous if your mentors are not communicative over the summer. My mentor took long spreads of time to answer and I was very nervous. But, they picked me up from the airport and from that moment, they have been nothing but the most helpful, supportive, encouraging people. Don’t be scared if you feel like things are not communicated well over email. You have to remember English is not their native language so they may be nervous to message you, just as you are nervous to message them. Don’t hesitate if there is a problem. I think, at first, I was scared if I did not know something. I would be scared to ask “How do I set up a bank account?” or “How do I tell my students this?” Once I realized it is okay to ask a million questions, and they want to answer, because they want you to feel comfortable, I was more relaxed.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have a bunch of English clubs because that is what my school really wanted. I have two actual clubs where we play games in English, listen to music, and last week we did the Cha Cha slide [laughs]. I have never seen 13-year-old Czechs so entertained in the two months that I have been here. Then I have another English club with coffee and conversation, so I basically sit in my favorite cafe and whichever students want to come, sit, talk, and it is very casual. A lot of them of breaking down their walls of what they are scared to ask or say. The teachers became interested so they asked me to start a “teacher coffee and conversation,” so we sit and talk, and I really like it. I feel like if I can help the teachers then that will help the students for many years past the time I’m here.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think the two biggest things are one, everyone in my school - the teachers, students, and their families, have been so welcoming to me. As an outsider, it makes me want to, when I go back to the U.S., if there is ever a foreign exchange student or someone new, wherever I may be living, it makes me want to be more of a welcoming person. The way it makes me feel when people reach out and make me want to feel at home, I think “I want to do this for more people, people who are going somewhere new, I want to make them feel welcome.”

The second thing, is as a teacher, I came here to improve and learn more about being a teacher. A lot of my content is based on application and how to take English in grammar classes and apply that to real life. I realize the value of getting to know students on a personal level. We talked about what my students are thankful for because we learned about Thanksgiving. I want to try to make more real life connections with students to make their learning more valuable.

How are you feeling about your experience with Fulbright at this moment?
I am loving my experience. I feel like as much as my days are starting to feel normal, I have moments where I have to pinch myself. I come home and I think, “Wow, I seriously get to live here and teach in this incredible school with these wonderful people.” I’m very thankful because not that many people get this experience and Fulbright is so well organized. You feel like you are part of something big and that feeling of being part of something big motivates you even more. I want to be a good representative in my school for the program, for the U.S., and for English speakers as a whole. I feel like knowing I’m part of something is important. 

Do you want to add anything?
I don’t know, I love it here. If I can move my family and plop them over here, I can definitely see myself staying even longer.

Kelsey's English Club during their Thanksgiving Feast