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


ETA Spotlight Interview: Madison Sewell

by Sinia Amanonce

Madison Sewell
Madison Sewell is spending a year abroad as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Benešov, Czech Republic. Below, Madison talks about her experience in the classroom, the mentor that encouraged her to apply for Fulbright, and advice on how to prepare for a year abroad.

Fast Facts 
Hometown: Texarkana, Texas
Age: 24
College, Major/Minor: University of Central Arkansas, Health Science/ Interdisciplinary Studies
School in the Czech Republic: SOŠ a SŠ zdravotnická Benešov
Favorite Czech food: Svíčková
Favorite Quote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” --Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Madison, it is so great to finally meet you. Please, tell me about yourself.
My name is Madison Sewell. I am 24 years old. I am from Texarkana, Texas. I went to university at the University of Central Arkansas and it is about 30 miles from Little Rock. When I was there, I studied Health Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. I ran track and cross country. I also worked as a writing tutor. My hobbies are running and reading.

What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about education in every sense. I like keeping abreast with political and social justice issues, and talking about these topics with friends and family. I like being in the classroom and working one-on-one with people to help them in any way that I can. I, myself, am passionate about learning and I love being a student as well as a teacher. I think I feel most happy when I’m working with someone and I can see that things are starting to click. That is probably the best feeling for me.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I chose the Czech Republic because when I was in university, I had 4 roommates and friends who either immigrated themselves or their parents were from countries that spoke Slavic languages. I learned a lot about their cultures, countries, and languages with them. I was curious about these places because when I was in high school we didn’t study Eastern Europe very much. Meeting them was my first experience with Eastern Europe. When I was look at countries to apply for Fulbright, I looked at all these countries, but with the Czech Republic, the commission supported all of the grantees really well.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA Program?
I had a great advisor who was a mentor to me. She happened to be the Fulbright advisor for my university and when I was a senior, I had a seminar class that was about environmental and economic sustainability. As part of one of our projects, we had to present on a topic to our class. Afterwards, she took me aside and said “I think you’d be great in classroom. Have you ever thought about applying for a Fulbright grant?” I didn’t know what it was, so I looked into it.

Very cool. What is her name? Maybe she will read this post one day.
Dr. Allison Wallace. My university has an honors college and to finish the honors college, we have to minor in Interdisciplinary Studies. She was the first professor I had while studying for this minor. She interviewed me for this program, so we had this 4-year mentor/mentee relationship. She always pushed me to be a better writer and critical thinker, and she was a really tough professor. When she gave you praise it meant a lot. When she recommended that I apply for Fulbright I was like, “Wow, I really have a shot at it if she is telling me to do it.” I really appreciate her thoughtfulness for all of her students. She always encourages us to be the best we can be. It sounds really cheesy, I know.

Speaking of how someone has helped you, what advice would you give to upcoming grantees on how to prepare for the Fulbright ETA experience?
I think the best part about this grant has been learning about new things. I would not try to overly prepare if you know you’re coming to the Czech Republic because the discovery and the small things I did not know, and learned about by coming here, have been better to learn than to prepare for.

I understand that! Learning through experience is different from learning about others’ experiences through reading.
Yeah, it is more fun. If you were to prepare, something I did was make a list of things I was anxious about. I was very anxious to leave the U.S. because I was stepping into the unknown. I wrote about all these things like being lonely and the language barrier being too difficult. Then, in a separate column, I had a list of things I could do to mitigate that anxiety. If I felt lonely, I would say “yes” more to invitations or make an effort to connect with people in my cohort. The condensed version of that is to think about problems you may run into and then have a plan and a way to remind yourself so you don’t get lonely or homesick.

But it is so hard to be homesick in Benešov, it’s a beautiful town! How was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
I honestly think it hasn’t been too hard to adjust. I thought it would be harder. I think the hardest thing is not speaking Czech and going to the grocery store for the first time. I remember I was trying to find flour, and there are so many different types of flour. I didn’t know what to do. I had to go home and use Google. That’s the main thing - adjusting to the language barrier.

What is the school that you are working at this year like?
I work at a technical school and it trains future nurses, dental technicians, social workers, and there is also a branch for public administration.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
I think the thing I enjoy the most about teaching English is there are so many different ways to learn. Learning a language is multi modal. For example, you can read, listen to music, play games, do projects, and practice by speaking. There is a lot of flexibility in the classroom and I can always do something new.

What has been the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
You get a different perspective on how to do things. Working abroad, especially in the classroom, and experiencing what a Czech classroom is like, makes you think about your own experiences. Sharing meals or celebrating holidays with my mentor and her family is more enriching than just reading about a different culture. It’s the experience.

What has been the biggest surprise of your experience thus far?
Last Tuesday, my mentor and I were doing a lesson on cultural differences. For a warm-up activity, my mentor asked the students to brainstorm what stereotypes they had about Americans. Then, she asked me to brainstorm stereotypes what Americans thought of Czechs. What came to mind was that Czech people are cold or rude. During that same week, some of my students returned from a class trip to Switzerland and they brought me chocolate. It was super nice and I wasn’t expecting it!

Later in the week, one of my coworkers brought me homemade food stuff like pickles, spicy peppers, and pressed juice. Then, that Friday, I went to my students’ ribbon ceremony. They made me a ribbon and pinned it on me. They thanked me for being here and it was so touching.

Over the weekend, I was thinking about all of these things. Most of the Czech people I have met are warm, friendly, giving, and I thought “Yeah, this is what Fulbright is about. I’ve never met a Czech. Most of my students have never met an American. But here we are, sharing experiences, learning about each other, and realizing we are more than the stereotypes we read on the internet.” I feel so overwhelmed with kindness every day. People have welcomed me, and have been so helpful. I think, “Do I really deserve this?” I think that is why the transition has been so easy for me because I never really felt alone in the process.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I feel great. I feel like time is moving really quickly and every time a month passes, I get sad that it is already over. I am loving every minute and new experience.

Ribbon ceremony


ETA Spotlight Interview: Meredith Rossignol

by Sinia Amanonce

Meredith Rossignol
Meredith Rossignol is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Litomyšl, Czech Republic. A special education teacher of four years and an alumna of the prestigious Teach for America program, Meredith is a passionate educator that encourages her students to engage their multiple intelligences and take ownership of their own learning. Read below to find out what Meredith has to say about the differences between Czech and American schools, life in the Czech Republic, and what her students taught her to say using Czech language.

Fast Facts  
Hometown: Barre, Vermont
Age: 26
College, Major/Minor: Bucknell University, International Relations and Spanish/ History
School in the Czech Republic: Vyšší odborná škola pedagogická a Střední pedagogická škola Litomyšl
Favorite Czech word or phrase: “Slon je velký [elephant is big] - really helpful because there are so many elephants here.”
Favorite Czech food: Svíčková
Favorite Quote: “Strive for progress, not perfection.”

Hey, Meredith! Can you tell me about yourself?
I’m from a small town in Vermont called Barre. I went to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania for my bachelor’s and then did Teach for America. While doing Teach for America, I got my master’s in Special Education from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. Then, I was a special education teach for four years before coming here.

What led you to apply for the Fulbright grant?
My undergrad major was International Relations and I’ve always loved travelling and learning about the world. After my first year of teaching, I did an internship with the Kern Family Foundation near Milwaukee where I worked with on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test for the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and looked at different educational systems throughout the world, and I loved doing that. I knew that at some point in my career, I wanted to work more with international education. After four years in Wisconsin, it was just time for a change. When the Fulbright opportunity came up, I learned more about it, and it was basically everything I ever wanted to do with teaching, learning about international education, travelling, and learning about new cultures.

Fulbright is really cool, right? Why did you choose the Czech Republic?
I’ve always been interested in Central European history. Last summer, my husband and I visited Prague, and I loved it. I didn’t know a lot about Czech education, it wasn’t one of the countries that I studied with the Kern Foundation, so I really wanted to learn more.

You have a lot of classroom experience. What do you think is the biggest difference between American and Czech education?
There’s so many! Wow, I don’t know if I can pick just one because it’s so different! The biggest difference is that students with disabilities are not educated in the same classrooms as their peers in regular education. I teach 150 students and I have about two or three students with disabilities.

I try to do general differentiations within lessons and give differentiated instructions to provide more support. Then, depending on the assessment or what my student needs, I’ll allow them to use notes, give them extended time, give them a separate setting. There’s not a ton of modifications I can make, unfortunately, because there are no modifications on the maturita [final] exam

But I do have a website! I put all of my lessons online before class so my students can look through them ahead of time and translate words they don’t know so they can understand.

I’d love to see your website!
Its https://meredithrossignol.weebly.com/

Do you have a project for this year?
Within my teaching, I’m trying to teach students ways of learning through Interactive Notebooks. It uses the Multiple Intelligences theory and combining it with taking notes. It combines art, with writing and notetaking to get students out of textbooks and have them take ownership of their own learning. They really do put a lot of effort in their notebooks and it's evident and awesome. When I was a special education teacher, it was one of the most helpful tools for my students.

It’s sounds like you’ve been doing great. Do you have any advice on how to prepare for the Fulbright grant to the Czech Republic?
I don’t think I’ve planned enough. I tried to learn some Czech but I could have done a lot more. I think just try to talk to your mentor as much as possible and reach out to build relationships ahead of time, so it’s not so shocking when you get here.

What town are you living in this year?
Litomyšl - it is perfect. It’s amazing. It’s a small town of about ten thousand people. It is the birthplace of Bedřich Smetana, a famous Czech composer. Music and the arts are very special to my town and the school. It feels so liberal and cool. It’s a little music and artsy town. I just love it.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
I love teaching about (American) culture and how students get excited to learn about something that’s totally different from their own experiences. The other part, is that I love watching students become more and more comfortable with English, and then watching them start to talk. In the beginning of September my students were shy and didn’t know what to expect and had low confidence in their language abilities. But, as these two months have gone on I’ve seen them open up, talk, and get excited and motivated to speak in English.

How was adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
It’s always challenging being part of a different culture you are not familiar with. I think the Czech Republic there is definitely more of an emphasis on community and you support your community - everyone shops at locally owned stores. There are shopping centers or fast food in my town. You can not just go to one store and get everything you need. It can be a bit of an inconvenience, but it has made me integrate more into the community.

I understand that! It is not what we are used to in the U.S. So, on the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Meeting the people. My coworkers and students have made me feel so welcome and like a part of the community. Everyone keeps taking me out for coffee and I enjoy it because everyone is so kind and welcoming. It makes me so happy to be here.

I know it is still early in the grant year, but how do you think your life will change as a result of this year with Fulbright?
I don’t know how it won’t change. One thing I didn’t expect is how much I’m learning to appreciate America. Being away from home, I realize there are a lot of things I took for granted and things that I miss. I take for granted how Americans will speak out for injustice, and how passionate and outspoken they are about their beliefs. I think there are many cultures where people are not as outspoken and it is less normal for people to find ways to stand up for injustice. I know I will have a better understanding of what the world is like because I’ve experienced multiple cultures.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I feel so lucky that I get to be here. The emotion I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly for the past few months is gratitude because the people I have met here - my mentor, my students, and Kelsey, another ETA in Litomyšl. I think the people in this town are so special and I’m so lucky I know them.

Meredith with her Czech colleague


Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Gene Terruso

By Maureen Heydt

Gene Terruso
Gene Terruso has established a diverse career working as an actor, director, producer, writer, and professor. He can now also add Fulbright Scholar to that list, as he has just completed a nine-month teaching grant to two universities in Brno, Czech Republic. Terruso taught a variety of courses and workshops this year at both Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts (JAMU) and Masaryk University, where he also directed a play with the city’s oldest and only English-language theatre company, the Gypsywood Players, who are affiliated with the English and American Studies program at Masaryk. Through the Fulbright Program, Terruso was able to experience and immerse himself in Czech university and theatre life, and in a twist of good news, he will be returning to the Czech Republic this fall. Serving as a Visiting Professor to the University of Hradec Králové, he will also be collaborating again with JAMU and Masaryk, as well as working on an exciting new project to create the first English-speaking theatre in Brno, as commissioned by the Brno Expats organization. Here, Gene Terruso candidly discusses his career and experiences, as well as what the Fulbright Program means to him.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Adjunct Full Professor, College of Performing Arts, University of the Arts, PA
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Theater, JAMU; Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno
  • Project: The American Century on Stage and Screen: History, Literature and Performance
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Humanities/Theater Studies
  • Academic Background: MFA, Theater, Rutgers University, New Jersey

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I have worked as a professional actor, director, producer and author, and as an educational administrator throughout my career. I have appeared on Broadway, major regional theatres and on stages throughout Europe, as well as working in film and TV. My career in conservatory/academy directorship includes stints as director of the Ira Brind School of Theatre at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and as President of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (NYC and Hollywood). The latter is the oldest institution for actor training in the English-speaking world. This was not my first position in service to a ‘legacy’ organization. I also served as Artistic Director of the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City’s first Off-Broadway theatre and the home to 17 world premieres by Eugene O’Neill, the Father of American Theatre. My current work as a teacher focuses on English and American Studies, acting for the camera, developing librettos for rock musicals based on classic artists, studying and making use of dance dramaturgy and lecturing on media and political commentary in the USA from the 1930’s to the present.

And what courses have you been teaching this year at both JAMU and Masaryk University? And what other projects have you worked on?
At JAMU I taught courses in “Current Trends in American Theatre,” “Current Trends in American Musical Theatre” and the “Meisner Acting Technique.” I also directed a production of the musical “Light Beneath the Brel Café.” This is a new show I adapted from the well-known musical revue of Jacques Brel songs. I developed a scenario/plot line, created dramatic personae, incorporated some new songs, replaced some older ones, tweaked a very few lyrics and wrote the libretto for the story. Brel’s publishers allowed the show to be licensed as an entirely new property under my name. The show was scheduled and ran in repertory at JAMU’s Divadlo Na Orli.

At Masaryk, I taught a BA course in “The American Century On Stage and Screen” and an MA course in the same subject. I also directed a production of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” at the Buran Theatre in Brno, with the city’s oldest and only English-language theatre company, the Gypsywood Players. The company is associated with Masaryk University’s program in English and American Studies, the faculty with which I taught.

I also taught a series of workshops at JAMU – Theatre Management, Dance Dramaturgy and Research Methods. I also gave a presentation on Election Night 2016 at the American Embassy in Prague on the topic of Hollywood’s treatment of presidential elections. I was invited back later in the year to offer a lecture on new American TV shows for Czech professors in American studies. These dealt with new performance approaches, socially relevant themes and how shows breakthrough to serial and episodic production. I gave a lecture at the International Theatre Festival in Brno in December on the evolution of the Sanford Meisner Acting technique and its prevalence in major American training programs. In the spring, I also presented at The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) in Prague, discussing how the Meisner work, although created for the stage actor, was actually an ideal process for training the on-screen actor.

You’ve worked in a variety of different capacities, from actor, director, producer, and playwright to professor. What do each of these roles mean to you?
Very hard to answer. They each have their advantages. As a playwright, I feel the greatest degree of ownership over a work, although I have long since learned that a writer should not direct her/his own work – at least not until it’s been done a few times by others. What a writer can learn about his play through a good director is incalculable. One likes to think that the beautiful nuances that a director can reveal were hidden gems within the script. More likely, these gems are often just the creative genius of the director.

As a director, one experiences both the greatest degree of fulfillment in realizing a vision more fully than anyone else working on a project, but he also incurs an unimaginable amount of pressure keeping everything together. And it is critically important that none of that stress is ever revealed to other members of the company. The balance, comfort, and momentum of a production depend upon a director who remains focused and grounded. The greatest reward of directing is engaging in the collaborative process with one’s team of designers, musical directors, and choreographers –when working in that genre and, yes, even with actors. Another great joy in directing is that once the show opens, I am free, whereas an actor must live with the show for its entire run.

Actors can be temperamental and sensitive, but ultimately the success of any production relies mostly upon them. I love actors and love working with them. Being one myself, I believe, helps me understand their concerns and is the biggest factor in the success of the shows I’ve done and in the general perception of me as an effective director.

My own acting might be my greatest source of artistic satisfaction. For a variety of reasons, I suspect it might be my greatest talent. Certainly the opportunity to focus is much greater. While an actor must be responsive to and aware of his acting partners, it is the only area of MY endeavors where I am responsible only to myself. All my other activities require that I see to the needs of many, many others. I experience a sense of self-exploration, discovery, and purgation when I am totally invested in a part and feel somehow liberated when in command of a role. Of course, as I mentioned above, an actor is tethered to a show from first rehearsal through closing so, on balance, I probably prefer working on film. You do the shoot and move on.

Working as a producer is fool’s gold. The illusion –or the reality-- of having final control over an entire production rarely brings rewards that can balance out the frustrations and challenges that come with that kind of responsibility. Nevertheless, it is a role that I have a difficult time staying away from, as is evident in my new role as Artistic Director of the new English-language theatre in Brno, which I was asked to create by the organization Brno Expats.

Of all these roles, none brings me the joy and happiness of teaching. It is something I feel I do very well and have received much affirmation on that point. The prospects of sharing knowledge in a humanities course or helping aspiring artists strengthen their technique provide an invigorating sense of helping others and making important contributions to their lives. I close the door to the studio or lecture hall at the beginning of class and I feel as though I have left the world’s troubles behind me. I open the door, at the conclusion of a great class or on a break midway during class, and I feel as though my lungs are filled with fresh air and my mind is alive with ideas that my students have evoked. I love my students. They teach me so much.

And why did you choose the Czech Republic specifically, when you were looking at Fulbright?
This mostly had to do with the “American Century On-Stage and Screen” class. It is a course that traces the history of the USA in the 20th century and studies how major events and themes were treated by dramatists during this period. It also examines how these treatments reflected evolving social customs and culture. For too many years, I have taught the class for nothing but American students. I felt that I needed to gain some objectivity about the topics I was dealing with and felt that the best environment in which to do this would be one where the political, economic, and social atmosphere had undergone more profound changes throughout its history, than the more stable environment of America. In the Czech Republic, I found a country that had successfully emerged from decades of occupation, a long post-war period of repression, and the challenges of struggling with a socialist economy. To have adjusted as well as this country has, following the conclusion of those historic chapters, has given Czech people a view of both liberty and autocracy; free markets and socialism. This was a perspective that would have been impossible for me to draw upon at home. As such, I could now bring fresh viewpoints to my teaching back home and also provide –at Masaryk—a class that they felt filled a need in their American Studies program. Finally, there has been a small research component during my time here. As mentioned above, there is a production technique called ‘dance dramaturgy’ that is fairly popular in Europe and is gaining more popularity as time goes by. It is virtually unknown in the USA. I believe I can help enlighten my colleagues back home about this new process and that it can be of tremendous help to me in the musical adaptations I work on. The Czech Republic, in addition to having many superb dance companies, is also centrally located facilitating my visits to dance companies throughout the region. 

What has been the most rewarding experience for you here during your Fulbright?
The people. My colleagues, my students and my new Czech friends. I have learned a great deal about myself and gained valuable new perspectives on the American personality/disposition through my interaction with these new associates. 

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
The Fulbright mission is living proof that only through closer interaction can cultures truly know each other and, as the world moves more and more toward a global melting pot status, nothing could be more important in terms of tolerance, understanding, learning, and enrichment. Knowledge is freedom and a large part of loving. In the end, the best world for all of us is one that is free from fear. That is best achieved by putting ourselves as fully in touch with other cultures as we possibly can.

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

A photo from “Light Beneath the Brel Café” musical, source: JAMU