This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nestled at the foot of the Šumava mountains lays the picturesque town of Vimperk, where Teal Vickrey is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant this year. As a native Coloradoan, she is used to living in mountainous areas, but still finds herself awed by the nature and beauty of Šumava, as well as impressed at how active the community is in hiking, cycling and skiing. Vickrey herself is passionate about education, communication and writing, and at only two months into her grant year, is already starting to feel at home in her South Bohemian town of 8,000 people.
-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
Hometown: Louisville, Colorado
University/Major: Colorado State University, Communication/English
School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium a SOŠ ekonomická, Vimperk
Favorite Quote: “What you think, you become. What you feel, you attract. What you imagine, you create.” –Buddha
Favorite Czech food: “I love svíčková and creamy mushroom soup.”
Can you give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, what your interests are?
I studied at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, Colorado, but I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. I studied Communication studies, and had the original intention to become a writer for a TV show, which is still in the back of my mind as a possibility. I also took on English creative writing when I became more interested in becoming an educator, and I graduated last year.
What are you passionate about?
I really like to write, mostly creative nonfiction, which is exploring real elements of your life through creative lenses. Additionally, I’m really passionate about human connections, and how to do that in a way that benefits both people. Especially with communication across cultures, I think it’s really important to learn which parts of that are valuable and good, and I think the whole world can benefit from learning those kinds of communication and behavioral skills. So I’m very conscious of myself and how I act in situations. I always try to be the best I can be, and as understanding as possible.
Why did you choose the Czech Republic?
I chose the Czech Republic because I studied Czech literature at Charles University in 2014, and I loved it, but I felt like I didn’t get to see Czech culture as a whole. I saw the little part of culture that existed in Prague, which I felt was very westernized and Americanized. I wanted to get back and live somewhere else so I could get in a whole new level of Czech culture.
How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I took a lot of time for myself to prepare for leaving to make sure I was mentally ready to embark. I also worked at a summer camp to save up some money, and I worked with kids, which also helped me to get into the education mode. There’s only so much you can do and then you just have to go.
Tell me about the town you’re living in this year.
I live in Vimperk; it is a very active town. Every weekend people are up at their cabins, walking, hiking and cycling. My mentor cycles 160 kilometers every weekend. They are very connected to the land and are very active with it. They take everything from the plants of Šumava. For example, I’ve gotten honey from flowers, jam from berries, and herbal remedies for when I was sick.
Tell me about your school that you’re working at this year.
I am teaching at Gymnazium a Stredni odborna skola ekonomicka, I believe it’s a little less than 300 students. The school used to be economics, but the new focus is on sports training. We have a very serious cycling and cross-country team, which mirrors this community and how active they are. The hallways are lined with pictures of people who have gone on to represent the Czech Republic in cross-country skiing. But unfortunately, there is almost a lack of any liberal arts channel for students who might be interested in that. It’s not a requirement to be in sports to study at the school, but that’s why a lot of them are here. Students come from all over the country specifically to study in Šumava.
Does that remind you of being in Colorado?
Yes, but they take it to another level here than in Colorado. Here it’s traditional, it’s not a new wave of health consciousness. It is culturally driven. It’s embedded.
Where are you living this year?
It was actually fairly easy. I was sent two options and instead of living at the school hostel, I decided to live with Magda. All of the Americans who have ever lived in Vimperk have lived with Magda, so I agreed! I call her my Czech mom because I get cookies every day, I’m invited out with her family and I’ve become friends with her daughter. I know a lot of other ETAs are living alone, and I feel really grateful that I get to live with this family.
How has it been adapting to life in your town?
Honestly, it was really hard for me. I think I overestimated my ability to adapt into new situations because I grew up my whole life moving around. I thought I was really good at going in between places, but that was in the same culture and language confines. Coming here was a lot more difficult for me, and I felt almost really isolated. It was strange; it was this feeling of loneliness I have never felt before. I was like, what the heck, I’m surrounded by all these people, yet I feel so far away from all of them. It was just the cultural and language barriers. On top of that, I really wanted to impress them. Finally, I just needed to be myself. And they needed to take it or leave it. I am not all of America, and I am not all English speakers. I am myself. That was a really healing realization to have. It’s just me here. I’m not carrying the weight of everybody, and I don’t need to change the world right away.
Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
Yes, I have a creative writing club. We meet at this café every Wednesday. I teach them about different creative essay forms, which we practice and do free writes. We’re also working on developing a blog so they can publish their own material. On top of that, I’m collaborating on a project with the school to publish a creative writing magazine for one of their Maturita projects. It will be poems, short stories, essays and photos about Vimperk.
I think it’s one thing to be able to write in English, and it’s another to creatively express yourself in English. It’s a really good skill to have. [The club] has become like a therapy session. It’s mostly girls in the club, and we’re exploring really personal parts of our lives. I talk about safe spaces with them, that what we discuss doesn’t leave this space. We’re really sharing with each other.
What do you like about teaching English?
I just really like teaching. It’s something I think I’ve always known about myself. I’ve always been able to connect with youth. I’m excited to wake up in the morning and connect with kids, because they really do have some of the best ideas and they deserve to be listened to. It’s also a unique experience, especially in the Czech Republic, because they’re not always asked for their input, so it’s really fun to hear what they think and what their opinions are.
What do you hope to accomplish during your grant year?
During my grant year, I don’t think I’m going to do anything extraordinary. If I can make an impression on a few students and change the way they think about the world, and in return, learn some lessons from students or people in the town...
This is really a give-and-take experience, an exchange, and if there is even a little growing or some seeds planted for the future, I will feel like I had a successful time here.
What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I was just thinking about this the other day. In class we were talking about animals and the noises they make, and in the Czech Republic, it’s absolutely different! I felt this is so reflective of my time here: everything is different, down to the noise an animal makes. I’m not only different in the language I speak, but culturally I am a minority here. It was really hard to get used to feeling misunderstood, but I’ve learned to relax into that gray area. I try really hard not to see my culture as good, or theirs as bad, or vice versa, but to accept that its different, and to just revel in that feeling. It’s very uncomfortable, but I am trying.
What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think the growth that comes from that discomfort. I’m learning a lot about myself, others and the world at the same time. For example, how you see another culture, your initial reactions and how sometimes it can be negative. You need to push past that to understanding. World peace is never going to be reached unless everyone leans into that discomfort a little more. I think it’s a very valuable thing to understand.
What places in Czech Republic do you want to travel to?
Moravia. I’ve never been before! I’ve just heard legends of the amazing wine cellars! Also, I’ve heard Czech Switzerland is incredible. I’d like to go visit some of the towns that are near Poland. After going to Vimperk, and seeing how different it is from Prague, I can just imagine how the towns by Poland and in Moravia would have different vibes as well, and I’m interested to check that out.
Do you have any other travel plans for this year?
Denmark, where my ancestors are from. Also, I’m trying to get an Asia trip underway when everything ends. I hope to be in Asia for a month, to teach or work in a kids’ camp.
What is something interesting you have learned about Czech culture?
On top of them being very knowledgeable about the land that surrounds them and being very resourceful, something I didn’t know about was their holiday where the devil comes to your house- St. Mikolas Day! I thought it was like St. Nicholas Day in America, where you leave your shoes out, and he puts candy in your shoes, but no, I was informed he actually comes to your house dressed up as a devil. I was in complete shock! I know I would be terrified. Also, the fact that it’s baby Jesus who comes [on Christmas Day to deliver presents]. But then I was reflecting on Santa Claus, and I realized that’s equally bizarre. I really enjoyed myself thinking about all these weird things we do, like we have this old dude, who’s breaking and entering at night. At least baby Jesus comes during the day here. It’s more polite for sure.
What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
When I was applying for Fulbright, I was excited for this opportunity to feel uncomfortable. I really do believe that this uncomfortable state where things are growing and changing is so important to put yourself in. Fulbright offers that opportunity for Americans to live somewhere different, and experience it. On top of that, I wanted to learn about education systems in other places because I think the American education system is taking a fall for the worse.
It’s the opportunity to discover around the world, which I hope to continue afterwards. It’s fantastic that they’ve allowed me to take my first step. I can take back to the U.S. what I learn, and hopefully, I can contribute to some sort of change, either as a teacher or as an administrator. Fulbright really opens the doors and provides that initial opportunity for students. I wish more students knew about it, because it’s such a valuable opportunity.
The Fulbright Commission makes it as comfortable as possible for you so you can focus on what’s important.
What do you hope to get out of your year here in Czech Republic with Fulbright?
Professional practice to see if teaching is something I really want to pursue, which at the moment, it absolutely is, as well as, lifelong connections with students, the town and townspeople that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. If I can leave with real relationships… sure, they’re not tangible, but they’re the most important things to me.
How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I saw, on a smaller scale when I went for study abroad and came back, how differently I saw everything. You realize that the world is a lot bigger and some problems aren’t as important. It really changes your perspective. After a year away, I can only imagine what returning home will be like. I think it’ll push me in the direction of my future in the way it is supposed to go. I can’t even know what that is yet because there are things I still need to learn and realize.
What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
Currently I’m really interested in staying abroad and checking out more of the Czech Republic school system, or school systems in other European countries. I want to keep doing more of my research on what works, and what doesn’t work for educating our youth.
Eventually I’m interested in going back to school, but I’m still on the fence about what to get my master’s degree in. All I know is that it will be education focused, but I don’t know what angle that will be from yet.