Get to Know a Grantee – Hannah Sachs

Interview By: Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hanna Sachs
Frýdek-Místek lies on the outskirts of Ostrava, thirty kilometers from the Slovakian border, and only twenty kilometers from the Polish border, making it easily the most eastern placement town this year for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. That ETA is Hannah Sachs, a 22-year-old American who is driven by work that connects her diverse passions of theatre, religious studies and social justice. Hannah is working diligently this year to be as involved in her community as she can, even committing to directing a fully produced play with the students at her high school. With plans to study next year at the prestigious Yale University, Hannah is enjoying her year abroad in the Czech Republic immensely. Read below to hear her thoughts on teaching English, cultural diversity and the rich history of the theatre in the Czech Republic.

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

Hometown: Warrenton, Virginia 
University/Major: Smith College / Theatre Directing, minor in Religion, concentration in Community Engagement and Social Change
Age: 22 
School in the Czech Republic: Střední Průmyslové škole, Obchodní Akademie a Jazykové škole, Frýdek-Místek 
Favorite Czech food: Garlic soup
Favorite Quote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel 


Can you give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, what your interests are?
I’m from a small town in Virginia, and I went to college at Smith College in Massachusetts. My main focus was theatre directing, with a minor in Religion and a concentration in Community Engagement and Social Change. I have a lot of interests, and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to try so many things. I graduated this past May, and I worked briefly this summer at The Theatre Lab in Washington D.C., where I was the assistant director for a theatre summer camp program for children.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about people, my faith, the arts and social justice, particularly the intersections between those things. I love to do theatre, and also social justice work. I’ve done a lot of work with different marginalized groups, like human trafficking victims, refugees and the homeless community.

Why did you choose the Czech Republic?

I studied abroad here, and I loved it. I honestly hadn’t known very much about the country prior to studying in Prague, but I totally fell in love with Czech culture, the city itself, the people and I was searching for an opportunity to make it back. Also, I wanted to see a different side of the country. I was primarily based in the capital and hadn’t had a chance to see the more typical rural side of life here.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to the Czech Republic?
So much work! Smith College is very intense about Fulbright, and it is one of the highest producers of Fulbrights in the country. It’s a credit to them that they push us so hard, but it’s definitely a rigorous process. I worked closely with an advisor who helped me do many, many different drafts of my essays, and who spent a lot time talking with me to help me figure out why it was important so that I could articulate that in my application.

Can you tell me about the city you are living in this year?
I am living in Frýdek-Místek, a town in northern Moravia. It is closest to Ostrava, which is the third largest city in the Czech Republic, and it’s an extremely industrial area of the country, so it’s quite different from Prague. I would say it’s a blue-collar working city.

Tell me about your school that you’re working at this year.

It’s one of three connected schools. I am at the business academy, and it’s one of the best business academies in the region. Because of that, I’ve found the students to be really driven and committed to their studies. The school also has a pretty strong focus on English and language learning in general, because those will obviously be important skills for students entering the business world. It’s also primarily girls, which is an interesting dynamic that sets it apart from other schools. I would say that this school is very career-oriented.

How was it adjusting to life in your town?

I actually found it surprisingly easy. I expected it to be a difficult or somewhat lengthy transition, but I think because I am familiar with the culture from studying in Prague, I found it really easy to settle into life here. I was also just incredibly lucky to have a really wonderful mentor here at the school, and I made friends here in the community really easily, so I didn’t feel alone for very long. I think feeling connected helps you to adjust to a culture.

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

I’m working with a social worker for a group of Roma children who live in a nearby community, providing friendship and basic English instruction to them once a week. I also lead two conversation clubs, one for students, and one for teachers to meet after school over coffee. My largest undertaking is that I am directing a full-length, fully produced play at my school. Up to this point, we’ve been doing once-a-week workshops for skill building about performing in general, and specifically performing in English, but last week we had auditions! We now have a cast, and the play will go up in May. It’s pretty exciting! It’s called “The Secret in the Wings,” by Mary Zimmerman, and it’s a play that is a creative retelling of lesser-known fairy tales. I’ve directed her work before, and it’s fun to expose Czech teenagers to contemporary American theatre. I’m also involved with a local church here, trying to be as connected to the community, and meet as many Czech people as I can.

What is the learning situation with the Roma children?

They are sent to special, practical schools that are intended for disabled children, but none of these children are disabled. They are actually incredibly intelligent, kind, wonderful people, but because of essentially segregation that’s fueled by racism, these kids are not having the same opportunities that Czech children are, and one of those opportunities is specifically English.

What do you like about teaching English?

As a theatre director, I’m really passionate about communication and helping people feel heard, but also equipping people to be good listeners, and to provide space for others to be heard. I think teaching English is a really specific way to foster that. I’m teaching a language, and I’m giving students tools to understand others, specifically others who are different from them. In this time, more than ever, that’s a really important thing.

What do you hope to accomplish during your grant year?

I’m trying to be intentional about investing in the relationships that I have here, and not thinking too much about the expiration date. That can be a temptation, because the grant is for a rather short period of time. Overall, I am committed to showing up and being present in my community.

There’s a quote I really like from the author Bob Goff that says, “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I'm more afraid of succeeding at things that don't matter.” That’s something I’m reminding myself of: I don’t want to get caught up in the minuscule details of day-to-day life that I forget the overall reason that I’m here, which is the people.

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?

I think the most challenging part is finding the balance between keeping connected to life in the U.S., while being fully present here. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to stay up quite late to talk to friends back home, but I know that will affect my teaching the next morning, so having to choose between the two worlds, and finding that balance is a struggle for me sometimes.

And the reverse, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?

Definitely my students! There is something really special when you get to share something with people that they have no idea about. Like when I talk to them about America, it’s something they haven’t heard before, so it’s a real honor and a gift to be in some ways that ambassador to these kids. Also then, they’re teaching me about Czech culture, and I’m learning things that are perhaps more specific and important, and can tell me something much deeper about the country than what I would see in a book or some college course.

What places in Czech Republic do you want to travel to?
Oh, I want to go everywhere! There are so many beautiful small towns that I would love to see. I would love to travel in Bohemia and see some of the spa towns there, like Karlovy Vary. And I also haven’t had the chance to explore Olomouc yet.

What is something interesting you have learned about Czech culture?
One thing I have been talking about with my students recently is that it’s very uncommon for young people to move away from their hometown here, an interesting difference between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. If they go away from home for university, 90% of them return, whereas I grew up in a small town in Virginia, but everyone left for university, and almost no one came back. That’s sort of the norm [in America] to have pretty transient families, and for young people to travel great distances. It is definitely a very different dynamic to have such an established community where people have been living for so long. It’s also interesting to talk to so many young people who are smart, and have no ambition of ever moving outside of a small town. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s a different way of living than what we typically see in the U.S.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
It’s a really important mission especially at this time in history, because not just in America, but really we can see worldwide, there’s this tendency to fear those who are unlike us, and to shut ourselves off from those we don’t understand. I think that it’s super important on a local level to resist that trend, and to be really intentional about building relationships with people that are not like us. Because when you know, love and respect someone, you can’t make generalizations anymore, and I think generalization are tearing our world apart, and causing a lot of problems. The Fulbright mission can actually quite tangibly help the situation we have found ourselves in.

What do you hope to get out of your year here in Czech Republic with Fulbright?

I want to stretch myself to see how I can use the skills that I have in really different and new ways. I don’t intend to be a teacher as my profession, but I think teaching is something that as human beings, I hope that we are all willing to step into at least one time or another. Growing my teaching ability is something that’s going to be useful in my life, even if I don’t quite yet know how, and only good things can come from an experience with another culture.

Do you have a favorite moment or experience so far?

One of my favorite moments was when we had auditions for the play, because it was something almost none of these kids had ever done before. Auditions are hard anytime, but it’s really hard in your second or third language, so just to see them have that fear and anxiety, but rise to the challenge and do so incredibly well, and then to see them be so proud of themselves for taking that risk was something really cool to witness. 

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
Things are actually pretty planned out, which is both wonderful and kind of crazy! In August, I’ll be starting graduate school at Yale University. I’m doing a tiny program that I’m excited about, The Institute of Sacred Music. It’s an institute that combines the study of religion with the study of the arts, and I’m really passionate about that intersection. I’ll technically be getting my divinity degree, but I’m doing it with a focus entirely on the arts. I’ll be studying theatre, and how that relates to faith practices, and also to religion in other art forms.

What kind of work you want to do in your future?I want to love people and I want to create beautiful things. I want to do something related to the arts, social justice, and faith and I don’t know what that is, but I’m hoping that my time at Yale will clarify that, or perhaps it will be something like starting my own organization, or making my own position. I’m open to that as well.

It’s so interesting to come from a theatre background, what is the connection there with the Czech Republic for you?
Just to think about Czech history, the first president of the modern day Czech Republic was Václav Havel, a playwright, and to have a country with an artist as a prominent dissident and political leader is really fascinating. The arts have a history that’s really rich here, and unlike in other European countries, it’s not a bourgeois, elitist form of entertainment, but rather the theatre here has always been a people’s theatre, and one that has really concrete and demonstrable tools for social change.

And when you think about the period of the National Revival when they wanted to reclaim and reenergize Czech identity, they didn’t build some house of state, they built the National Theatre. I think that shows that the theatre has been an art form that really resonates with Czech people.

And obviously it’s unusual for presidents to come from a profession like playwriting, it’s much more typical for them to be lawyers, businessmen, or career politicians. They also built the National Theatre on donations from people all around the country.

Yes, exactly! That people believed in that, in what theatre has the potential to create. I heard that on the day of the Velvet Revolution, a lot of people were first told about the revolution by being called to the theater, or they were at plays that were interrupted to tell the news. I heard from a woman where that was her personal experience, they were told they were basically free during the middle of the play. That’s such a powerful image of the stage being used not just in an abstract way, but to really announce people’s freedom to them, to call out real tangible change.

Right, and during the Revolution, one of Havel’s main meeting places was in the theatre.

Exactly, and even now, though unfortunately there’s been some negative publicity for the Czech Republic for issues with xenophobia and the stance for refugees, the places that I personally have seen the biggest resistance from that attitude is in the theatre. The theatre communities in the Czech Republic have been producing a lot of brave work that deals with these issues in a head-on manner, and so even if that conversation isn’t happening nationwide yet, then it is starting in the theatre, and I’m hoping it will spread outward from there.

Is there anything else you want to add?
I just love being here at Christmas, it’s like being in a fairy tale! Even my small city has a Christmas market, and big beautiful tree. To see these old, beautiful buildings covered in snow, it’s so out of a postcard. While we’re here for quite practical and important reasons, there’s so much fun to be had, and so much of that fun is getting to experience an old world culture and something that would’ve only resided in my fairy tale books as a child. I get to step into that now, and that’s really cool.

Hannah Sachs (center) with students