2016/11/23

Get to Know a Grantee – Sinia Amanonce

Interview By: Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sinia Amanonce
Sinia Amanonce is an energetic 23-year-old American living in the historic town of Kutná Hora as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for the 2016-2017 school year. She was inspired to apply to the program in the Czech Republic after spending a summer working at a restaurant in her home state of New Jersey with Czech university students who were participating in the United States’ international student work exchange J-1 visa program. Sinia connected immediately with the Czech students, and decided to apply for a Fulbright grant from that experience.

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

Hometown: Jersey City, New Jersey
University/Major: New Jersey City University, English/Secondary Education
School in Czech Republic: Církevní gymnasium, Kutná Hora
Age: 23
Favorite Quote: “The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar, and it was tense."
Favorite Czech food: “Beef tartare, all day, every day.”

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Sinia, where you are from, and what did you study?
I’m from Jersey City, New Jersey. I studied at New Jersey City University, and I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and Secondary Education.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about learning and teaching. I think you can’t stop. There’s a quote from Will Smith that says: “The two things you need to do in life are to run and to read. To run, because when something is difficult in life, you have to be able to push through and get it done. To read, because when you are pushing through and you realize it is really, really hard, someone, somewhere has written about it, and understanding that someone else has experienced what you’re going through is really helpful.”

I’m also passionate about traveling. I think this is a really good way to do both: to learn and read about different cultures, communities and societies, because I think we’re so used to our little bubbles, so getting to see a new bubble is pretty refreshing.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic?
In the summer of my third year of university, I started working as a waitress at Surf City, a restaurant in Jersey City. Our manager hired Czech J-1 students and over the summer, we got really close working long hours. They taught me words in Czech, and we talked about the differences between Czech and American education, culture and politics. It was just so cool that these girls who are essentially from a country that I don’t know anything about were so open to share their experiences with me. So when I had the opportunity to choose a country, I wanted to go to a place where I knew people would welcome me to learn.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
During my senior year at university, I was working on my capstone project with my professor Dr. Maini. She was also the Fulbright coordinator for the university, and she would always plug the Fulbright scholarship. It was something that I blew off, but when I was in her office going over my capstone and we finished early, she was like, “Well, since I have you here, let’s talk about the Fulbright. It’s something you could really benefit from.” I think I wouldn’t have done it if she wasn’t so persistent with making me apply.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I don’t think I prepared effectively. I think I had this mindset of I’ll figure it out when I get there, which is pretty cool, because I didn’t know anything when I got here. Everything was way more exciting: seeing the architecture, and hearing about the culture and history. I think because I didn’t know anything, this has made my experience richer.

Can you tell me about the school that you’re working at this year?
I’m at Církevní Gymnazium. It’s a really small private school in Kutná Hora. There’s less than 300 students for 8 classes. I teach pretty much one section of every class except for third and fourth year. I like the school because it’s so small. It fosters a sense of community in the classroom where the students are more encouraging of one another because they see each other all the time. They’re more likely to help each other out.

What about the town you’re living in this year?
Kutná Hora is historically the place where they kept the national mint so during medieval times, this is where all the coins were pressed together. It was also used as the King’s treasury because the town is equidistant of the four international borders that surround the Czech Republic. We’re known for silver mining and for the Sedlec Ossuary, the bone church. It’s also known as one of the most holy places to be buried in. Kutná Hora only has 20,000 residents.

Do you like living there?
I love Kutná Hora. It’s such a small town so everyone knows each other. It fosters community, and it’s great because it gives me everything that I need. I enjoy my routine. Every morning I wake up, go to school, and after school I go the bakery. That’s become a thing that gives me a sense of security, just buying a fresh piece of bread every day for my lunch. We’re so used to buying food in bulk in the U.S., and moving on with our day, but in the Czech Republic, people really take the time to pick out what they’re eating and share their meal. I really enjoy this about Kutná Hora, because I was so afraid to move to a country on my own where I don’t speak the language, where I don’t know anyone and where the culture is so different, but to still be able have these little things in my day is comforting.

How was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
I think everyone has to experience this learning curve of not knowing what you’re doing and asking a lot of questions. When it came to adjusting, I wanted to ask as many questions as possible because it was like, if I don’t ask, no one will help me. But the people were really great! They were really good at anticipating my needs: giving me train schedules or giving me a list of vocabulary words to translate so I can go grocery shopping or mail a postcard.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
So far this year, I’ve helped chaperone a school trip to London, and this was really cool because I got to see my students practice their English. In December, I’ll be going to Leipzig, Germany on another trip for the school’s student exchange. I’m excited to see the kids interact with other cultures, as I am interacting with their own Czech culture.

Later in the year, two other teachers and I are trying to start an English-German film club where we will watch films in English and German, and then discuss both in the respective languages.

What do you like about teaching English?
The look on the students’ faces when they realize that they’re communicating effectively is priceless. I mean, yeah, planning can be really difficult, and trying to make sure you have an engaging lesson can be stressful because you can’t entertain every student 100% of the time, but the moment when their eyes light up because what they’ve said is correct, it’s just so worth it.

What do you hope to accomplish during your grant year?
This year, I would like to learn enough Czech to order food at a restaurant, to talk about my day and to get to know people better. I think everything about food is so important because it’s a really big thing with sharing. When you travel to another country, you eat the food to get a feel for what the locals are like, and talking about your day and your experiences while doing it really brings a sense of community. I think Thanksgiving is such a big holiday for Americans because we get to do this: we share a massive meal and we tell each other we’re thankful for them. If you can master these skills in another language, that makes it better.

I also hope all my students pass the Maturita. There’s no doubt in my mind that they won’t, but I just love them so much!

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
The most challenging part of living and working abroad is not having my friends and family with me. I think that’s one thing I couldn’t prepare myself for when I accepted the Fulbright. I think that was the scariest part, because they are so important to me. It’s one of those things that keep you comfortable and now I just don’t have them. It’s kind of lonely too, because even when you have these little victories in your day of successfully going to the grocery store, buying the right kind of flour and using Czech language correctly, I can’t share this with anyone and the time difference is also really hard. So, even though I know I have them, they can’t be with me in the same way they are when I’m in the States.

It kind of sucks because you commit yourself to a year of loneliness, living on your own. Even the closest ETA is 2 hours away.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
So even though I lost my family, I kind of found a new family here, and all of the people I’ve met here that I never would have met otherwise.

Also my students, totally. They have a different kind of appreciation that you don’t see from students in the U.S. It’s not that they are better or worse, it’s just different. I feel appreciated, and as much as I feel lonely, and missing my friends and family, I know that the people here appreciate me.

What places in Czech Republic do you want to travel to?
Plzen, Karlovy Vary, and Olomouc. I’m looking forward to playing the train game, where you flip heads or tails, and if it falls on heads, you take the next train ending in an odd number, or on tails you get the next train ending in an even number. I think it’s such a beautiful country. Even though we are landlocked, the Vltava river is such a nice break from that. Just to be out in nature is really nice.

Is there something interesting you have learned about Czech culture so far?
I think it’s really weird because as a Filipino-American, living in the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic still has more history than the Philippines and America. Even though the Philippines have been around for a few hundred years, it’s not like they’re in Central Europe. Filipino history can really only go as far back as our colonizers will let us keep it recorded, and in the United States, we’ve only been a country for like 300 years. But the Czech Republic has been here, and they’ve experienced so much, and being able to walk the streets and think about the wars… I know it’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s like we’re walking through history.

It’s amazing how old the history is! Like how there’s porcelain here that’s been around longer than the United States has even been a country!

It is really amazing! What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
The Fulbright mission means that we young people are actively trying to make a difference by not just saying we understand this culture by reading about it, but making an effort to really get there, and stand in a classroom in front of these students who want to learn English, and put our best foot forward, and say, “Okay, I want to help you, I want to be the one to share, and be a part of this.”

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I’m definitely leaving as a more empathetic and knowledgeable person, to not just look at a history book, or go to a museum and say, “hey that’s really cool,” but to understand how and why it has affected these people and our world altogether. I think it will also make me a better teacher because when I was teaching English literature in the States, I never really had to think about why the English language is constructed this way. I’m so used to talking about the big fancy things at school like themes and symbolism, but now it’s just like, why does English use articles and Czech doesn’t? I don’t know, but I think it will make me a more well-rounded teacher and student.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
Really, really wishfully thinking, I want to be in Oxford University’s Master’s program for International and Comparative Education. I think there’s just something about it, understanding what our purpose is here as humans. Trying to figure out our place in life is really hard, but what we can do is learn together. Learning is so important, that if we can figure out a way for everyone to be successful, and to get an education, that would make us better off.

Anything else you want to add?
Shout out to my momma!

Sinia Amanonce (center) with students

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