Get to Know a Grantee - Kelsey Engstrom

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 
Kelsey Engstrom

Kelsey Engstrom is a 24 year-old California native who is spending the year teaching English in the small, northern Czech town of Náchod. Kelsey is a perfect example of the varied backgrounds that Fulbright English Teaching Assistants come from, proving that a background or previous studies in education is not a requirement to becoming an ETA. Indeed, Kelsey spent the year before her grant working for the Office of the Inspector General in California as a prison rehabilitation analyst. Here, Kelsey discusses living in a small Czech town, biking back and forth across the Polish border, and her passion for criminal justice reform.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ---------------------------------------- 
  • Hometown: Mill Valley, California
  • University, Major/Minor: University of Washington, Law, Societies, and Justice/Spanish
  • School in Czech Republic: Obchodní akademie, Náchod
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Quote: “An enemy is a person whose story has not yet been told.”
  • Favorite Czech food: “Schnitzel, and Czech beer!”

Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?

I’m from Mill Valley, California, which is just north of San Francisco. I went to the University of Washington in Seattle, and I went there because it was such a large school that I knew I would find something that would encompass the majority of my interests. I’m most interested in international studies, criminal justice, obviously travel, and constantly learning new things.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about finding similarities among completely different people, including myself. I find that it’s really important to find similarities, which kind of stemmed into why I came out here. Also, the work I’m interested in with criminal justice has to do with the people who are the most disadvantaged and ignored, and finding similarities with people like that.

And why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I studied abroad in Prague my sophomore year of college, and I totally fell in love with the culture and the people! But I also kept hearing that Prague is unlike the rest of the country, and now that I’m living in a tiny town, it couldn’t be more true. Going to Prague from here is like going to a whole other country, in my opinion. I wanted to come back and get to know the people, because when I first studied here, it was hard to get to know Czech people as a 19 year-old in Prague. So having the opportunity to be a teacher, and get to know the young people this way, is a really cool window into the life of Czech people.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I heard about it in college, through the scholarship department, but I didn’t apply for it until I was two years out of university. It was the right time to get out of the country for me.

What is the town you are living in this year like?

I’m in Náchod, a small town on the border of Poland. It has 20,000 people, and I can literally walk to Poland and back from here! When the weather was nice, I would bike back and forth between the borders, and there’s just a little E.U. sign that says ‘Welcome to Poland.’

I’m new to living in small towns, but it’s been really great. I can walk everywhere, and it has everything I could need, plus a really beautiful castle on the hill. I was worried about being in this small of a town, but it’s actually been really, really easy. I’ve gotten strong walking my groceries across town [laughs].

And how about the school you’re working at this year?

It’s a business academy, and it’s pretty small. There’s probably about 270 students in my school, and they’re all pretty driven. They all want to continue studying; I don’t have any that don’t want to go university, which is good. It’s just interesting because they’re taking economics, business law, and accounting- things I had never thought about in high school, so it’s a very different high school experience from what I had, definitely.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have an English club, but I want to start another one, because I noticed that the stronger students have remained, and the not-as-strong students have dropped off, so I want to split it into two groups. I also noticed that there could be a chance to do a women’s empowerment project of some kind, because through the younger female students that I’ve gotten close to, I’ve noticed there’s a huge need for that out here. Some of the comments are just shocking, that I’ve never heard myself as a young woman. I don’t know what that project would look like yet, but I would like to address it on a larger scale, because it’s something prevalent in this society, I think.

What kinds of comments have you heard?
Like the families of these young girls will tell them that they’ll never be as successful as their older brother because they’re a girl. There’s just not as much opportunity or chance for them, or even the idea for them to have big ambitions. For example, the idea of studying for a year in America, it is actually possible, if they do the work for it. I guess with America, we’re much more of global nation. It’s very common to study abroad, so it’s interesting having those conversations with young girls particularly, and their eyes are like, ‘what really, you think I can do this?’ Of course, they can! It’s just so important.

Incredibly important! And what do you like about teaching English?

I had never really taught English before, so it has been like a total surprise to me. I’ve just really enjoyed seeing these students try. In the past, I’ve been the one studying languages. I know what it feels like, and even here I feel it every day, not being able to easily talk with people. I think Americans are not afraid to really make mistakes, at least not most of them, but I’ve realized they don’t have as much on the line with learning Spanish as these students do with learning English. It’s really cool to see how hard they’re trying to learn it, because their futures really do depend on it. It’s good to be part of it.

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?
I would say the solitary lifestyle that comes with being in a small town. I think it would be very different if I were placed in a larger city. It’s been the most challenging, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’ve always had roommates since college. That’s definitely been the biggest challenge, but it’s also kind of been the most rewarding thing, because I’m getting more comfortable with it as time goes by. I’ve always known I wanted to live by myself to prove to myself I can do it, and become stronger from it.

The winter, too! I’m from California, and the no sun, and the freezing- I still have months of that ahead, so that’s hard. I have to deal.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Being surprised by people, and surprising myself at the same time. Everybody comes with their own baggage. When you can get through it to accept yourself, and have people accept you, it’s really rewarding. Making friends with people that you would never expect to really make friends with.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?

One of my favorite things was throwing a Halloween party at my school! It was the first event, aside from my conversation club, that I tried to put together, and I was totally surprised at how many students came out, how many of them dressed up, had face paint on, and were completely committed to this party! We craved pumpkins, played games, and listened to music. It was really fun! They definitely were appreciative of this crazy, American tradition. I went as Rosie the Riveter, so I got to teach them about some more American feminism there!

That’s awesome! And now, you are halfway through your grant. What is something you’re looking forward to that is still to come?
I’ve been working for a few months now trying to volunteer in my community, and I keep coming up against various roadblocks. I’ve had organizations kind of turn me away because I speak English, which is kind of strange. There’s one organization that works with Roma youth that I really wanted to work with, but it’s been hard to get in, even though that’s been one of my central goals. I’m really hoping to volunteer with some students, because I want them to get a picture of community service as well. I’m looking forward to that, and also to seeing parts of the Czech Republic I haven’t seen yet! When the weather gets better, I want to go to the Adršpach rocks, and backpack, camp, hike, and see more of the nature in the Czech Republic. I also want to go camping in Poland, because I’m so close! I’m also going to London and the Netherlands with my school; I’m going to be one of the chaperones, and I’m really looking forward to that.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?

It means bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to talk. That’s one of the things I really care most about, that we should be figuring out our similarities right now, not our differences.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think it’s already changed it in the sense that I really know what is most important to me now. Part of the reason I came out here was, I was considering a career in the Foreign Service, but I know now it’s not what I want to do right away, because my family, my friends, my boyfriend- they’re all back in the States! So, I am reconciling with where I am at in my life, and what is important. But it’s definitely empowered me to take risks, and to be okay with being alone, which is really important as a person.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

I plan to backpack in Europe for a little while. The travel bug will never leave me, I know that for a fact! Then, I plan to go back to Seattle, and I want to continue working in the criminal justice system in Washington. I worked in the prison system in California for a year before this, and it’s something I’m realizing I’m really passionate about. I want to keep doing that once I’m back in the States. I want to work for at least a year, and then I plan to go to graduate school.

What was the job you had working in the prison system in California?

I was a rehabilitation analyst. I was part of the Office of the Inspector General, which is the agency that oversees the prison system. I visited over fifteen California state prisons, and looked at the rehabilitation programs for the inmates. My job was to see how effective, or ineffective, the programs are that the men or women were attending. It was fascinating, and it was totally a mind-changing experience, and job.

Very interesting! And do you see yourself doing the same sort of work in Washington?
I don’t foresee myself having that same job, because it was so specialized, but I want to work in prison reform. That can be so many things, like changing sentencing laws, or providing ‘rehabilitation.’ I’m even considering getting into government, because that’s who can really change the system. There’s so many ways to attack it, and I’m just figuring out how it would be best to do that.

I would love to learn more about the prison system in the Czech Republic. I really want to visit a Czech prison to compare, because there is a whole field called comparative corrections, which is how other countries deal with their correctional institutions. I could totally see myself getting into that.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright or teaching abroad?

Yeah, one thing I expected was to be here with all of these teachers and people who have extensive teaching experience, so I would tell them that any background with the right intention can get here. Even if you don’t have plans to continue teaching. Every human being is a teacher, or they can be, so it’s good training for anyone. Also, you can’t prepare for living alone, but just know that it’s going to happen, and you have to be ready to adjust.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It goes by fast! It goes by so fast; you really have to be engaged!

Kelsey Engstrom (front, center) at her Halloween party with students


Get to Know a Grantee - Jennie Magner

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jennie Magner
Even though Jennie Magner hadn’t previously visited the Czech Republic prior to starting her Fulbright grant, she was already very familiar with Czech culture. This was thanks in large part to her Nebraskan hometown of 8,000 people, which has a vibrant Czech community, and even hosts a Czech cultural festival every year! This cultural connection inspired Jennie so much, that she applied for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant to the Czech Republic, and is now teaching for one year in the UNESCO heritage site Kroměříž. Here she discusses what it’s like to go on pilgrimages with the Catholic boarding school she teaches at, her many involvements with students, and what it means to be a Fulbrighter in 2017. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: York, Nebraska
  • University, Major/Minor: Abilene Christian University, Two-Dimensional Studio Art/Graphic Design, and Psychology
  • School in Czech Republic: Arcibiskupské gymnázium, Kroměříž
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do."-Mother Teresa
  • Favorite Czech food: Svíčková

Hi! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from the small town of York, Nebraska. I actually only lived there for four years in high school. I was born in Michigan, and grew up in Texas most of my life, but I do consider York to be my hometown. In university, I studied fine arts. I started out originally in an interdisciplinary Justice and Urban Studies program, where I was studying social justice and sociology. But after a study abroad experience, and doing some thinking, I ended up changing my major to art a bit unexpectedly. I studied drawing, art history, painting, print making, and illustration.

And what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about making cross-cultural connections, about working with people. I’m passionate about visual arts, music, traveling, and promoting intercultural experiences.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?

I studied abroad in England, and while I was there I took a trip to Vienna and to Budapest, and I really fell in love with Central Europe. I felt it was a really unique, and beautiful part of the world. During that trip I knew that I wanted to come back someday, I just wasn’t sure when. So when I started looking at different countries to apply to for Fulbright, I really focused on Central Europe. By reading through the different programs, I felt like I fit the best with the Czech Fulbright program, and also being from Nebraska, there’s quite a large Czech population. Even in the really small town I’m from, there’s a Czech festival every year! It’s a big part of the culture. Before I came, some different women from the Czech Club wanted to talk to me to tell me about their Czech relatives, and teach me some Czech. So, the ties with my community were also a part of the reason. And as I started researching more about the Czech Republic, I found the political history really fascinating. And the architecture! It just seemed like a beautiful, really interesting place to go.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?

I heard about it through the honors college at my university. Also, a girl who I worked with received a Fulbright to go to Malaysia, and I remember being really inspired by that! I thought it was really interesting.

And can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
It’s a really sweet place! It’s a town of about 30,000 people, so it’s small, but there’s still activity and life. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and my school is right next to the chateau. I actually live in the tower too, so where I live is connected directly to the chateau! It’s not quite as magical as it sounds, like ‘living in a tower,’ but it’s still really cool! I just really love the rhythm of life here. It’s a beautiful town; people are always outside walking, hiking, biking. I think my placement fits me really well. I connect really well with the town. I love it!

That’s wonderful! And how about the school you’re working at this year?

I’m working at a Catholic boarding school, and it is a grammar school gymnazium. Most students are here for four years, and some are here for six years. There are roughly 400 students, and approximately 200 of them are from Kroměříž, and the other half actually live at the school. I also live at the school, so right outside of my room are several of my girl students. Which is always fun, never really know what to expect on an average day!

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?

I have two different conversation clubs with students. One for more beginners who are a little less secure with their English, and one for more advanced students. I also have one for teachers, which I really enjoy. I’m also doing a pen pal program with a teacher in the U.S., who previously had a Fulbright in the Czech Republic! She contacted several of the grantees, and asked if we wanted to get involved. Basically, she gave me a list of her students, and I gave her some of mine, and they’ve been corresponding on their own now.

Other than that, I’ve tried to be really involved with the school, and the students. The first week I was here, because I’m at a Catholic school, there was pilgrimage to Hostýn church, a famous Czech pilgrimage site. That was one of my first experiences with the school, walking 40 kilometers with my students to this church! It was great, and actually the last two weeks of my grant, I will be in Spain with my students doing the Way of St. James pilgrimage journey! I’ve also taken dance lesson with my second year students; they just finished the last week, we had our final ball. And I have access to an oven now, so I’m trying to start baking with some of my students to teach them some American pie recipes!

That’s wonderful you have so many activities with your students! And what do you like about teaching English?
What I love about teaching English is that it’s all about communication, and getting to really know people. With English, since it’s a language, you’re able to discuss really anything in class and it still qualifies as English teaching! I love that you can really get to know your students through conversations in English, and make a lot of fun discoveries about English. There are a lot of things I took for granted about the language before I came, and now I appreciate it so much more, but my favorite thing is definitely using English as way to communicate, and get to know students better.

Speaking of communication, what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?
Definitely the language barrier. I think it’s a struggle for everyone, I’m guessing. I think for me, the hardest part with the language barrier is especially when you’re in a group, and someone says a joke or something, and everyone starts laughing, and you just sit there and smile politely. That can be really hard sometimes. Since I live at the school though, I’ve had a less difficult time socially than I thought I would, but it has been hard to find peers, people outside of the school.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There are so many things! I think it’s just the ways that you learn. When you live abroad, you learn things about yourself, the world, and about people that you would never get the opportunity to learn about otherwise. These are things you can’t learn in school, or through a book, you have to experience them firsthand. I think the challenges that come with living or studying abroad are also the rewards. Just the way that you learn to be independent, but also to depend and trust people at the same time. There are so many positives, I think!

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
One of my favorite things has been going home with students. I’ve gotten really close with a few students, who have invited me home with them, so getting to know their families, seeing the villages they’re from, getting to know their brothers and sisters, and just really experiencing authentic Czech life with them and making those deeper connections has been a lot of fun. Also, my mentor has been really incredible. She’s really gotten me involved with her family. One of the first weeks I was here, we went to her mom’s garden, and had a Czech cook out! Yeah, definitely spending time with people, and getting to know them better.

You are about halfway through your grant right now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
In a couple weeks for example, I’m going on a ski trip with my school! I’m looking forward to the other trips I’ll get to go on with the school. I’m also looking forward to deepening the relationships that I have, to continue making connections with different people, and to continue learning about Czech culture.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
For me, the Fulbright mission is really about giving a name and face to a nationality. There are so many really terrible things happening in the world today; people don’t trust each other, they’re angry at each other. And so with Fulbright, it’s really important to present yourself as an American, but also as a friend, and someone people can trust and rely on. I think it really builds bridges between people, and also between countries around the world. I think that’s what the Fulbright mission means to me.

Well said. And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
That’s a really good question! I’m hoping this will open up other opportunities internationally. I mean, my life has already been changed just by being here, thanks to the people I’ve met, and the things I’ve gotten to do.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

I honestly have no idea. Before coming, I thought I had much more definite plans, going to graduate school etc., but I’m kind of not sure of what to do next, because some of the experiences I’ve had, and some of the things that have happened, have changed a bit what I saw myself doing.

I probably still want to do something with international education, and study abroad programs, but since my major was visual arts, I feel like I need to somehow connect that back with everything else. So, I’m trying to figure out a way to tie in my different passions and interests and put them all together. I’m not sure what the near future will bring, though. That’s one of the reasons I wanted do Fulbright, as well. I really felt like I needed some space to do some things, and get some perspective to reflect on what I wanted to do.

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
I would just say, apply! Honestly, I had no idea if I would get accepted; I didn’t expect to. The application is difficult, but it’s really worth it. Even if you aren’t accepted, I think it’s still worth it, because all the things you go through in the application process really helps you to figure out what you want to do, and helps you to put your goals into words. So, apply if you’re interested! Just do it!

For my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling right now about where you are and everything?
I’m just so thankful to be here, honestly. Again this isn’t something I really believed I could do, so I’m really thankful to be here, thankful to be at my school. Yeah, just really grateful for the relationships I have here, and I’m hoping to continue to build those and work on them for the rest of the time I’m here.

Jennie Magner, third from the left, with students at her Thanksgiving Party


Get to Know a Grantee - Ashley Barba

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ashley Barba
Boskovice is a charming town of 11,000 in southern Moravia, which boasts a historic Jewish quarter, chateau, stunning castle ruins, and for one year, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Ashley Barba. A native Californian who radiates positivity, Ashley is excited to be spending ten months teaching English in the Czech Republic, a place she hadn’t previously visited before accepting her Fulbright grant. Ashley is passionate about teaching and learning from others, and endeavors to become a special education teacher upon her return to the States. Here, she discusses life in a small Moravian town, what it’s like to move to a country you’ve never visited before, and her advice for anyone considering spending a year abroad teaching English!

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

  • Hometown: Chino Hills, California 
  • University, Major/Minor: Chapman University, Integrated Educational Studies/Disability Studies, Language and Literacy 
  • School in Czech Republic: SPŠ pedagogická, Boskovice
  • Age: 22
  • Favorite Quote: “Everything happens for a reason, just believe.”
  • Favorite Czech food: “All of the soups! And svíčková.”


Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from Southern California, I grew up there most of my life. I always wanted to be a teacher, and I want to be a special education teacher when I return to the States. I’ve always loved working with children, I’ve done it since I was high school-aged.

And what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about learning from others, and then teaching others too, since I want to be a teacher. Really learning from my experiences, and I’m passionate about trying to be happy and looking for the best in all things and people, and helping others to be positive, too; that’s why I’m always smiling! I’m also passionate about my family, traveling, getting to know the world and other cultures more, and even knowing myself more.

Why did you want to apply for a Fulbright?
I always wanted to teach abroad, ever since I was in high school, and it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I found out about the Fulbright. I applied my senior year, and I was pretty nervous!

Why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I applied to the Czech Republic because I had two cousins and a roommate who studied abroad in Prague, and I had a really good friend who is from the Czech Republic, and she’s the nicest girl I have ever met! When I was applying, she was helping me to learn some Czech words and things about Czech culture for my application.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Europe because I’d never been before, and everyone who recommended the Czech Republic had such positive things to say about Prague, so, many things led up to choosing the Czech Republic. I also studied abroad in Australia, which was pretty similar to a southern California life. I knew if I were to go abroad again, I would want something very different; to have a different experience, and get involved with a different culture.

Can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
I live in Boskovice, it’s a beautiful town of about 11,000 people, which is smaller to the other ETA cities I’ve heard about, but there’s quite a few restaurants and good cafes. There’s also a historic Jewish quarter, cemetery, and synagogue, and a ‘western town’ where they have reenactments with cowboys!

My students are super sweet, and many of them since the beginning invited me out for coffee. They showed me around town, and for a couple of weeks I had a different ‘date’ with a few students every day after school going to different coffee shops, talking and meeting. A lot of them have said that I’m the first foreigner they have ever met, and they’re really excited. It’s a really nice town, I think I’m pretty lucky where I’m at. It’s beautiful, and especially right now with the snow, it looks so nice!

And what about the school you’re working at this year?
It’s about 300 students, focused on pedagogy and special pedagogy, and the students also have elective classes where they get to choose either music, art, or P.E., as well for Maturita. The senior students will go to what’s called a ‘practice’ for one month, and work at a nearby elementary school or kindergarten. A lot of the students after graduating either become kindergarten teachers, or go to university to become a teacher, or some want to become au pairs, or even something different, too. It’s up to them, but the focus is pedagogy.

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

Because so many of them have asked me to hang out every day, it’s almost like I didn’t need to start a group, because I see so many of them after school. But, I’ve been trying to get a group to meet after school, at the school, because I know I would have way too many students to meet at a café! It’s been really hard to get an ‘okay’ for it, because I just have to ask so many people, but I’ve told a lot of the students, and they are so excited. It would be like a game conversation club. I have a lot of English board games, plus topics that we would come up with. I’ve been hoping to start since November, but hopefully by this month, I will start my little English conversation, board game, fun club.

What do you like about teaching English?
I love getting to know the students and having them feel as comfortable as possible! Sometimes to help them not feel so nervous to speak up, I will try to say it in Czech, and they laugh and giggle, because I sound terrible, so I think that helps them open up and really express themselves. Some of my students say that they like talking in English, because they are able to express their feelings better than in Czech.

I had them do an assignment where they wrote about their goals in life, and I had them write as much as possible, so that at the end of the year, they’ll get it back, and they can see if their English improved, and if they accomplished their goals. They were really excited about that, so that made me happy! I’ve never realized how important English is, and how I take it for granted that I’m a native speaker. It’s really taught me a lot about being a native English speaker.

What would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
The first week I think was the hardest, just trying to adapt to my own place. I’ve never lived by myself before; I’ve always lived with other roommates. I just lived with five other girls back in May, and now I have my own flat, and it just feels so big to me! And then going to the stores and restaurants, too. In the very beginning, I would just point to the menu, and hope it would be something good! Now I’m getting to know what different words are, so it’s been a lot easier.

I think at first it was just adapting, going to the grocery store by myself, and having a huge language barrier, because not many people in my town speak English; I think that was the hardest. And being away from my friends and family, and the time difference. That’s pretty hard, but I’m loving it anyways.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
The people that I’ve met! I am absolutely in love with all of the students; they are so sweet and so welcoming! Especially for the holidays, so many classes brought me gifts that I was not expecting at all, they sang me Christmas songs, and one class threw me a surprise party! So many of them have invited me to meet their families, who are so welcoming. Usually it’s the students translating [for us], but it’s such a good way for them to practice, and it’s a good way for me to really meet and understand Czech people. They have told me so much about their history. Many of them lived through communism, and they told me about what they went through, and how everything changed. It’s such a great experience, to learn about all of their history.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
Probably the holidays, because during December and the end of November was when I went to the students’ homes. I got to go to their villages of like 225 people or something like that where I’ve never been before, and experience their Christmas traditions. I saw the town gatherings for Christmas shows, and little children singing Christmas carols, and to have the students be so kind to me during the Christmas holidays. And the fourth year students go to local elementary schools to help out for the holidays, so I went there with them for Halloween, St. Mikuláš Day, and Christmas Day! That’s been so much fun, celebrating with the little kids. They’re so happy and cute, and they don’t speak much English because they’re so little, but they say hi every time they see me, and they give me hugs! And for Christmas, all these little eight year-old girls wrote me messages, and they spelled my name in Czech; it was really fun! So, for the holidays, I didn’t feel lonely at all! You know, you’d think you might feel more homesick over the holidays, but I wasn’t, because I felt so much love here in the Czech Republic!

That’s wonderful! And now you are halfway through your grant, what are you looking do more of for the remainder of your time?
I want to help the fourth year students with preparing for Maturita as much as possible, because I know some of them are pretty worried, and I want all of them to pass. I want to really try my hardest to make my lessons as engaging as possible, and as helpful as possible. I want them to be happy to come to English class! Also, because there are so many girls at this school, I want to start some kind of girl conversation club, to talk about issues, things that are going on with them, and their home life, and other things that they can share, and feel that they are in a safe place.

That’s a great idea! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
It means getting the chance to experience another culture firsthand, and really immerse yourself totally into one culture. To have them teach you, and you teach them as much as you can, and really take all of it back home to make a bigger difference in your home state and country, so that you have this one-year experience that you will have for a lifetime, and from that you will grow into a much better person, in your profession and in life.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’ll definitely be more independent, because before this, I hadn’t lived or traveled by myself or tried speaking another language before. I think I will be better able to know what I want, and get it done, and to be a stronger person from this in many ways, like socially, and knowing how to budget well, too. It will also make me a better leader, because I think that sometimes the students look up to me, because I’m older and teaching the class, and so I will continue trying to do that for the other people in my life. And especially for when I become a teacher, I’ve learned from this experience what works in a classroom and what doesn’t, and also really being able to talk to, collaborate, and work with my colleagues who are from different backgrounds than me.

Why do you think it’s beneficial for teachers to try teaching in a foreign country?
Because the education system here is a lot different from in America. I think there’s some good things, and some not so good things about it, but you can learn from a different education system of what works and what doesn’t work, which you can bring back to your home country. You also get to learn how to cooperate with people who come from a totally different background from you, and you will have to learn how to adapt quickly to these new experiences, and to working with new people and students who are probably going to be very different from you, as well as learning to work well, and not just for yourself, but for the other people around you.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?

Go for it, and try it! I almost didn’t finish my application, because I was very nervous about whether or not I would get it, and I was worried about finishing my senior thesis and all of that. I had doubts about whether or not I would get it, but then I just decided to go for it. And I got it! I think if I had doubted myself, and not tried, then I wouldn’t have had this amazing opportunity. So just go for it; it’s going to be worthwhile! Everything happens for a reason!

Do you have plans for what you’ll do after your Fulbright year?

I plan to finish my Master’s degree in Special Education at Chapman University. Then, I plan to become a special education teacher for a few years, and then after that, I want to go into administration.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m so thankful to the Fulbright program for accepting me, and I love my town, the people in it, and all of my students!

Ashley with her students


Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Justin Hall

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Justin Hall
Justin Hall of San Francisco, California spent this last semester in Brno, Czech Republic serving as a Fulbright Scholar to Masaryk University. Hall is a celebrated comics creator, and professor of comics at the California College of the Arts, who was ecstatic to participate in the Fulbright program’s mission of international education and exchange. Hosted by the American and English Studies department at Masaryk, Hall is in fact, the first Fulbright Scholar in comics ever to date. I caught up with him in Brno to find out what that means to him, what’s changed in the field of comics since he first started, and how his Czech students enjoyed making their own comics as their final exam. 

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

U.S. Position: Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Sciences, California College of the Arts, CA
Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno
Project: Comics in the Czech Republic
Major: Discipline/Specialization: Arts/Arts


Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Justin Hall, and I’m an assistant professor of comics at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I’m here on a Fulbright teaching the history and cultural context of American comics for both graduate and undergraduate students at Masaryk University in Brno. I’m also a cartoonist, as well as a teacher of comics.

What courses are you teaching this semester at Masaryk?
It’s called ‘The American Graphic Novel - History, Context, and Analysis,’ and it’s basically a combination of reading and analyzing a number of graphic novel texts. I’ve introduced them to a lot of comics theory, and we’ve covered things like page layout, panel transitions, lettering styles, and other comics specific formats. We also talk a lot about story-telling, how it relates to these graphic novels, and about American identity as well, because I picked graphic novels that deal with different aspects of American culture and history. On top of that, I’ve also given lectures on the history of American comics, and the students make their own comics! They came in expecting to take a lot of tests, and I said, “No tests! You’re just making comics.” Some were shocked at first, or scared of having to draw, but they quickly adjusted, and the work they’ve been producing is extraordinary. I would say at least as good as the work produced by my art school students. It’s really kind of amazing. I think a lot of them have been very hungry for people asking them what their stories are, and probably the Czech education system is not particularly good at that.

For the final project, I gave them an option to make a final comic, or they could write an essay. And out of 29 students in both classes, only four picked the essay. The comics they’ve been producing have been really extraordinary, and a couple of them even actually on the professional level. It was a bit of a shock to be honest!

That’s amazing! And what are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
I came in worried that the Czech students wouldn’t interact with me as easily as I’m used to in America, because I run a class that’s very much about discussion. I want the students to challenge me, and I was worried that wasn’t going to happen here, but the worries were unfounded! I have found a tremendous level of vibrant interaction; students challenging me, coming up with their own ideas, being vocal about everything. I think some of this is the nature of the Masaryk American and English Studies program, that they already have this kind of pedagogy in place, but also I make sure of it. I have the students all sit in a semi-circle, and I just force them to talk, until they are used to talking with me and it seems to work. It’s been really good, and also their level of English is quite high in this department, which has also been really helpful. I would say from my particular situation, there’s been very little difference. These Masaryk students are some of the best in the whole country; it’s a very high level. It’s been amazing.

And on a university level, how is your host institution, Masaryk University, different from your home institution, California College of the Arts?
Very different! CCA is an arts college and Masaryk is a massive institution that takes up what seems like half of Brno, with many different departments, so the scale of everything is different. But in the Czech Republic, it seems that most faculties are very separate from each other and they operate very autonomously, more so than in America. When you’re in your faculty, your department here, you feel pretty much like that’s your world. I have virtually no interaction with the other faculties, except for a couple of lectures I did at the Faculty of Education, which also has an English department.

I also love the sense of history, that Masaryk is an older institution in an older city than what you can get in America, and that kind of gravitas is a nice feeling.

Do you think your semester here in Brno will effect or influence your teaching back at CCA?
Yeah, you know, my students here were in some ways more academically rigorous, and now I want to bring that back, and force my art school students in San Francisco to read more books! [laughs] I mean, if I can get my academic students here to make comics, then I can make my art school students read more books.

I think it also just makes me a better teacher, to be forced to do similar courses in other environments. I’ve also done a number of guest lectures in the Czech Republic and around Europe this year, and that’s forced me to think about the way that I present my material, to make sure that it makes sense, and that I’m drawing logical conclusions that can be understood across language barriers and cultural knowledge.

And how is living in Brno different from living in San Francisco?
Brno is much smaller, much sleepier. It’s a very comfortable, lovely town, and it’s been a great place to spend a few months. There’s good food here, a decent cultural life, and beautiful architecture. Now, there’s the Christmas markets, which bring a lot of people to the city squares, and it feels really dynamic. There’s almost no tourists, so it feels like this European gem that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s also really well-situated, only two and a half hours from Prague, one and half from Bratislava or Vienna, and four hours from Budapest, so I’ve been able to make use of that as well.

Besides size, one of the main differences is the homogenous nature of the population. In San Francisco, I’m used to living in a Latino neighborhood that is flooded with pretty much every kind of people you can possibly imagine, and that doesn’t really happen here. San Francisco is also a really queer-friendly city. Queer culture is a really important part of the city’s cultural life; it’s certainly what I interact with, and queer culture is much more subdued here.

Why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?

My friend and colleague at CCA, Rebekah Bloyd, had been to the Czech Republic on Fulbright assignments before, and has kept up a running relationship with the Masaryk American and English Studies department, and she convinced them that they needed someone to teach graphic novels and comics. Then she came to me, and asked if I wanted to come to the Czech Republic, and I said, “Okay!” I had been through the Czech Republic in 1999, and very much liked the place then, and was excited to come back. I’ve also been looking for an opportunity to not just travel, but to live and work in another country.

And what is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
I haven’t been to the smaller towns. I’m sure life is quite different there, but being in Brno, Prague, and some smaller towns like Zlín and Olomouc, I see a well-developed country with a high standard of living, and a people who seem engaged with the world around them, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism, which I find really refreshing and wonderful.

What is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?

For faculty, I think it’s amazing because you get to see different pedagogies at work, see how different departments run, and also see what’s similar. Also, it’s been great to see how an American Studies department is run outside of America, and what things are fascinating to students. For example, a lot of the students and faculty are very much interested in ethnic studies, in particular Native American and African-American studies. I think that’s exotic to them, which can be a tricky word to use, but that makes perfect sense because it’s in the same way that I find the Roma community here fascinating, but they tend to be invisible to people who actually live here.

I think for students, it’s got to be incredibly advantageous to be in another culture, see how that cultures operates from the inside, and try to learn something in that academic context. It’s very easy for us to live in our own reality bubbles. Travel forces you outside of that, and forces you to realize that there are people who don’t live the same way you do, and therefore don’t have the same preconceptions you do, or even the same interests necessarily.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think specifically the opportunity to have this experience of living and working in another country. Also, the opportunity for academic exchange across international boundaries. It’s already seen to be opening up doors and possibilities for me with teaching, and academic and creative work in places around the world, so that’s incredibly important. My field is comics, which is a relatively small and young field, and I really want it to be as international as possible. I think we have a lot to learn from each other, because every comics culture is slightly different, and the more we can foster this kind of international cooperation, the better! The Fulbright is a fantastic venue to do that.

What was most rewarding for you during your Fulbright semester?

I think the experience of living and working abroad has been incredibly useful. I love the fact that when I’ve gone away from Brno, coming back it feels homey. I spent years on the road with a backpack, and I’ve visited over 70 countries, but this kind of experience is different, because it enables me to set down roots. There are relationships and friendships I’ve developed here that will continue and last past the semester. And just that feeling of homeliness, that Brno will always feel like a little piece of home, and that’s invaluable. I was walking through the Christmas markets last night, just strolling through my adopted hometown, that’s what it felt like. It was really special, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I was just here for a few days. I needed to be here for several months to have that feeling. Hearing the church bells in the fog, and knowing where they were coming from, that really means a lot.

I read that you have “consumed everything from fried locusts to a cobra’s still-beating heart floating in a cup of Redbull.” So then, what’s your favorite Czech food?
I love the soups! From cabbage to leek soups with poached eggs in them, they have been amazing. Also, halušky is my jam!

And how has the field of comics changed over the years you have been practicing it?
Quite a bit. When I started there was no internet, well there was, but there wasn’t. I made my first comic in 2001, and I found a comics community by taking that comic to conventions to sell it, and interacting with people there directly, but it took me many years to get to that point without any sense of community. Now, my students can make a comic, put it up online, and have a community instantaneously. It’s quite remarkable how democratized the production of comics has gotten through the Web. The other big change has been how comics have moved into the academic sphere. Now, there are programs in Comics Production and Comics Theory, and I’m very jealous of my young students, because if I could’ve taken the program I’m teaching in now, I would have. Instead, I tried to cobble together a Comics major for myself out of fine arts programs back in 1989 and 1993, and that was not as satisfying as it could have been.

Also, I would say that there’s more of a sense of general respect for the form than ever before. In the past, if I said I made comics, I would be in a defensive crouch because the person would be like ‘oh, okay you love superman’ or ‘you make little kids’ comics’ and I’d have to explain to them how it’s not just for children, and it’s not just superheroes, and you can do anything within comics because it’s a medium, and not a genre. Now, I don’t have to explain that so much and most people now say, ‘oh, cool!’ And that’s new! They don’t look down on me now. I still get it, but rarely now. It’s a good change; we’re hopefully becoming more like the French or Japanese markets, which treat comics much more seriously.

Why are you most drawn to using comics as a way to tell your stories?
I’ve always been fixated with comics. I don’t know any other medium really; it’s so natural that the question doesn’t even occur to me, but if I had to analyze myself, I think there’s something about the combination of the verbal and visual medium that is also static and read, as opposed to watched, that is really compelling. I grew up with books, and I love books, but I love the idea that there’s a potential complexity for telling stories through a combination of imagery and the written word that is unequal. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, but what comics can do is unparalleled. It’s such a new field that we’re still exploring the basics of this, for example, what it can do with time, with depictions of identity, points of view, and it can do things that prose books or film animation cannot do. It’s really exciting to explore that! But I also just think that they’re cool. On some level, they’ve always just been kind of wondrous and magical to me, and I want to keep playing in that thing that makes me feel that way.

Who or what are your biggest influencers?
Growing up as a kid, I loved the Jack Kirby comics, he was the creator of the classic Marvel superhero comics. I also consumed Tin-Tin and Asterix. As a teenager and beyond, I became obsessed with Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers, which I would argue is perhaps the great American comic book. Since then, a lot of the major graphic novels have been inspiring, such as Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Howard Cruz’s Stuck Rubber Baby, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons, and the works of great cartoonists such as Joann Sfar, Ulli Lust, Osamu Tezuka, and Gengoroh Tagame.

Are there any projects you are working on right now?
I’m working on a graphic novel, tentatively entitled Castle and Creek. It’s set in the National Guard Armory in San Francisco which was abandoned for decades, and was recently bought by Kink.com. I became fascinated with the building, which is this remarkable castle-like structure that takes up almost half a block in San Francisco, and there’s a creek that runs through the basement. It’s called Mission Creek, and it used to run through this section of San Francisco that I live in, but it’s all been paved over, and the only place it runs free is in the basement of the Armory. So I came up with a story about a man who dies in the creek during the 1930’s labor unrest in San Francisco, a closeted gay man, and he becomes a ghost that haunts the Armory. Then there’s a modern couple- a young man who comes to San Francisco to be involved in the porn industry for the first time, and there he meets an older male actor, and the two of them have a relationship, but part of this is hampered by the ghost who is interacting with them. It’s a very strange story, and it also has an entire meta-narrative that’s a parody of the golden age of Wonder Woman, which I’m obsessed with. It’s going to take me a couple more years to produce, but I am working hard of it, and I’ve also been writing a script for a comic series set in the marijuana industry of Northern California.

You are most likely the first Fulbright Scholar in Comics ever. What does that mean to you?
It’s a huge honor. It is tremendously validating, because I’ve made comics my whole life, and when I started in this field, it was something that I loved deeply, but had a problem getting cultural validation and academic recognition. That is swiftly changing, which is wonderful to see and be a part of, and having the Fulbright program accept me as an international scholar, worthy of being sent to Europe to talk about the history of American graphic novels and comics, is a milestone that I think means something. I’m tremendously honored to be a part of that. There’s a gravitas and a recognition that the Fulbright program brings to anybody, and for me to bring that back to the comics field- I’m hoping it will be very valuable, and hopefully open up the possibility for more comics scholars to do what I just did. That would be wonderful. Comics are awesome! And people need to understand that.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?
The Fulbright organization here has been amazing! I’m sure that not every country is lucky enough to have one that works as well as ours does here. They are smart, organized, incredibly sweet, and professional, and I owe them a great deal and think they’re amazing! Props to them!

Professor Hall with his students


Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Stephen Doig

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig is a Distinguished Professor and Knight Foundation Chair at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, who has served as a Fulbright Scholar to Masaryk University in Brno this past semester. He specializes in data journalism, the use of social science methods and data analysis to help reporters more ably tell their stories. Doig has built a renowned career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and has spent the last 19 years as a professor at ASU. He was interested in doing a Fulbright to the Czech Republic as a way to spread his expertise in data journalism on an international level, particularly by teaching the future journalists of Europe. Here, he discusses his experiences as a professional journalist, how he found his profession and developed his specialty, his time at Masaryk and ASU, and his special connection to the Czech Republic. 

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

U.S. Position: Distinguished Professor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, AZ
Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno
Project: Social Science Tools for Journalism in the Czech Republic
Major: Discipline/Specialization: Journalism/Data Journalism, Social Science Methods


Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Steve Doig, I’m a professional journalist who spent 23 years working for newspapers in Florida, most of that time at the Miami Herald, as an investigative reporter and data journalist. The last 20 years, I’ve been a professor at ASU Cronkite School of Journalism, and I’ve enjoyed that very much. In the Fulbright world, this is the second Fulbright that I’ve been able to enjoy; the first time I was a Distinguished Chair in Lisbon at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Great experience, great time, and I’m very happy to have a chance to do this here in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University.

What courses are you teaching this semester?
I’m teaching a graduate course called Data Journalism and an undergraduate course called Reporting Public Affairs. My particular specialty in journalism is working with data, using government data and so on to find patterns that help tell stories, or can be used in stories. It’s been interesting for me learning about data that would be of interest to Czech students. I’m used to teaching this kind of thing to American students, but one thing I have learned over a bunch of years doing workshops around the world is that it really helps to have data that means something to the people you are talking to. I have about 25 students in each class, and I’ve been very delighted with them. The majority of them are Czech, but at least half a dozen or more are Erasmus students who come from a variety of places around Europe, and two or three other places, like Algeria, and Mexico. It’s an interesting, international mix of students who are learning from me.

Besides the weather, how is living in Brno different from living in Phoenix?
Definitely the weather! Actually, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to live in this weather, it has not been bad, it’s actually been pretty invigorating. We love living in Brno. We have a very lovely apartment that is steps away from Náměstí Svobody, which has been great. The main square usually always has something going on, one festival after the other. It’s also a five-minute walk to the where I teach, and we’ve learned about a number of really good restaurants here. We regularly eat not only the Czech style, but also Nepalese, Vietnamese, Italian, sushi; you can get any sort of nationality and ethnicity here. It’s been a great place to live, the people that we have met have been really nice, and very forgiving about our horrible language ability that clearly is never going to get any better. My wife has started volunteering to do English conversation with various women here, and has four of those meetings on different days where they talk for an hour. It’s really been a great experience all the way around. After our Lisbon experience, we have wound up going back there two or three times to see friends and so on, and I wholly expect to be doing the same thing here.

We do have a special connection with the Czech Republic; my daughter-in-law is Czech. It was 15 or 17 years ago, I had been invited to give a talk to the BBC in London where my daughter was working as an au pair, and my son was working as a reporter in Florida, but had taken his vacation to come to Europe. My wife said we should all meet for dinner in London, and my daughter wanted to bring her friend, this other au pair, who’s Czech and learning English. My wife said she’ll probably feel out of connection, because we all know each other so well, and my daughter said, “No, Matt’s going to fall in love with her,” and he did! It was a very immediate connection, they lived together in Prague for about a year, and then got married at the city hall next to the clock tower. It’s a great story.

What a wonderful story! And what are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
When I started out, the Fulbright Commission explained that Czech students kind of are trained as they go through school to sit quietly and absorb, but not talk in class. That’s probably a real difference. My teaching style is I want feedback, I want them talking to me, I want to ask questions, and have them argue with me. I quickly learned to call names out. I understand certainly the reluctance in class because all of them are working in a new language, and it can be scary to stand up, speak loudly, and do it in a language that you don’t know very well. I understood their problem, but I was happy that as time went on, they got used to the idea of the way I teach. That’s a primary thing. I think the commitment to learning things is every bit as good as the American students that I have, and their knowledge of computers and electronic communication is certainly right up there with my students. I really don’t see any negatives, other than that cultural difference in the way that they approach a classroom experience.

How is your host institution, Masaryk University, different from your home institution, Arizona State University?
In many ways, similar in that the physical environment was very similar, good classrooms with very modern equipment, good computer lab and Wi-Fi. Probably the main difference would be the differing background of the faculty. I would say more of the Masaryk professors mostly come out of academia, they’re very much scholars, and at the Cronkite School we have a number of good scholars, but I would say our orientation is very professional. That’s how people like me are able survive at the Cronkite School, because they value my professional background, so that may be the biggest difference.

One other thing that I’ve heard, and I don’t know if this is Masaryk so much, or just European journalist training in general, and I have heard this in various places I have taught, is that in their journalism studies, there often is a strong emphasis on theory, but not so much on practice. I’ve had students talk to me and say, “boy, we really like what you’re teaching us, you’re really showing us how to do stuff,” and they say very often all they hear about is the theory of this, or the theory of communication. I don’t know enough about the Masaryk curriculum, and I’ve been unable to sit in on other professors’ classes because I don’t understand the language, and that’s a difficulty that a Fulbright person coming in without the language skills can have. But I guess that might be a key thing. Our school where I teach back in Phoenix has a strong emphasis on, ‘here’s how you do it.’ We want our students to leave and start on day one in the newsroom, and I’m not sure that’s the case here.

You previously served as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010. Why did you choose this time to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
Actually, it was sort of a late decision to apply. During the summer last year, I had seen two or three emails coming from the ASU Provost office, saying hey, Fulbright deadlines, and I remembered very positively my Lisbon experience. I looked at the catalog, and I particularly looked for situations where somebody with my background would be a reasonable candidate, which very quickly narrowed it down from 160 to five countries. Then I spotted among them the Distinguished Chair in the Czech Republic, and another like that in Jamaica. I thought about applying, went back and forth, talked to my wife, and we decided, why not? Basically I dusted off my Lisbon application, and said this is what I can do, I can talk about social science methods in journalism, and I sent it in. And again, the resonance with the Czech Republic in particular was thanks to my daughter-in-law, who I think so highly of, and I had been here at least once before to visit my son for a few days.

What is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
In my opinion, it gives me so much to bring back to my classroom in Arizona. One thing I’ve learned from a lot of foreign travel and particularly after becoming a professor, is how insular Americans tend to be. Too few of us go out into the world, and see what it’s like, and that leads to many social and political problems in the U.S. My ability to talk about how things are different in other parts of the world, particularly in journalism, where I can talk about how much harder it is for journalists in most other places in the world to do what we do so easily in the U.S., where we have protections, public records laws, and it’s very easy for us; I can help my students appreciate what it’s like elsewhere, which is a good thing. Certainly, professionally, doing this has opened up a lot of opportunity to do workshops. A couple years ago, I took a sabbatical and spent 45 days going around Europe to 11 cities, nine countries, and doing 26 talks or workshops, and all of it was largely because I had met so many people in things like Fulbright. That certainly would not have been possible without the opportunity to be as international as I have been.

What was most rewarding for you during your Fulbright semester?
Still looking at all those things. I guess the key thing is knowing that at least some of the students that I’ve had, their interest in the subject that interests me a lot, this ability to use data journalism- has been sparked. Even among my students who sign up for my classes in Phoenix, I have no expectation that all of them want to become Steve Doig. I always tell them, a newsroom filled with people like me would be horribly inefficient, but on the other hand, you need some people with those kinds of skills, so I’m delighted to see that interest in these skills spreading in places where they are not really well underway. It’s a newer thing here. A lot of Western Europe has adopted it. Eastern Europe is not yet as involved, so that’s in a way a good thing that I could come here. I also have a connection with the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism based in Prague. I hope to continue that, and I know their interest in data will also spread interest.

Do you think your semester here in Brno will effect or influence your teaching back at ASU?
My primary class in the spring is going to be Sports Data Journalism. It definitely won’t be covering the wider range of things we’ve looked at here, but with that said, I will build into my Sports Data class a look at sports that are popular outside of the U.S., like European football. Actually, there’s an interesting cricket database, and certainly there are other sports I know little about, but that I realize are big in other places. That’s one of the points I will try to get across to my American football, basketball, baseball-obsessed students, that there is a larger world of sports out there. The other thing I will be bringing back is also my general enthusiasm for the Fulbright program. I’ve had students who asked me about it, and I’ve encouraged them to apply to be ETAs, and also my faculty members. I’m a big fan of what Fulbright does, and so that enthusiasm is something I bring back to my faculty again.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
To me, it means fitting into this idea of William Fulbright’s that more knowledge about people across national borders is a good thing. It’s a way of helping reduce the misunderstandings that get turned into wars eventually, so the more people you have, particularly those who wind up in policy making positions as their careers go on, is a great thing. My experience with Fulbright is as an American getting a chance to come over here, but I know a huge part of the Fulbright mission is having Czech students and Czech professors go over to spend time in the U.S., to learn about that place too, and I think that’s a huge thing. I know one of my colleagues from Masaryk is going to spend the spring semester at Penn State University at their Journalism School, and I was able to chat with him a bit, because I know people there. It’s good for him, and that very much fits into the larger Fulbright mission of international cooperation and exchange.

You’ve been called a pioneer for the use of computer-assisted data analysis by reporters.
I’m a pioneer in adopting the ideas of even earlier pioneers. I was an early adopter of, for instance Philip Meyer, who wrote a book in 1972 called “Precision Journalism.” His premise was that journalists ought to be using social science methods like statistics and polling to help us do stories better. I was exposed to it at about the time that personal computers were starting to appear. When Phil wrote it ten years earlier, he was kind of too soon, you had to have access to a big university mainframe to do this kind of work. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800, it was like watching paint dry looking at the screen, and it’s amazing what’s been done. Yes, I’m a pioneer in that I started early on it. Part of the reason I got started so early is I was working at the Miami Herald, which was filled with really smart, young, ambitious, reporters, and to stand out in a newsroom like that, you had to have a superpower. There certainly were better writers among my colleagues, and some who were more dogged investigators, and it turned out to be that my superpower is, I can do math! It’s rare in the newsroom. So, I learned that because I enjoyed playing with this computer I bought for home, and I realized I could use this for things at work too. That’s what lead to turn out to be my superpower, my specialty.

And you practice precision journalism. What does that mean?
It gets called different things, it started out being precision journalism, and then next, it was called computer-assisted reporting, and these days the more common term is data journalism. Part of that is the spread of things being done is much wider. When I started, it was analysis, and that’s still my primary ability, taking data, finding patterns in it, so on. These days, it gets into the presentation end of data, doing interactive web graphics, stuff I don’t know how to do. I’m amazed by it, and glad to see smart, young journalists learning to do it.

You were a core member of the reporting team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1993. Can you describe to us the moment you found out you won?
It was funny, I mean, I was gratified. My boss, the top editor, actually pulled me aside and said you know, we heard from the Pulitzer jurors that a key reason that they decided on the Herald project amongst the other obviously worthy things was the analysis that was done. So, I feel like I was a core person. But it’s funny, in newsrooms, there’s not a lot of looking back on your past. By that time, we were moving on to other projects. In fact, by the time we got the announcement for that, we were already underway doing our next thing looking at something in criminal justice in south Florida, and it was like, ‘hey, that’s great, good, back to work.’ You know, drink the champagne, and then go back to work. That’s sort of a journalism trait. I probably didn’t really appreciate it until, say, applying to become the Knight Chair. It was clearly the thing that helped me to be the one chosen, as compared to the three or four other talented, smart journalists who were also being considered, but they didn’t have that Pulitzer thing on their resume. I did, and that clearly made the difference, and frankly, I’m glad it did. I’m happy to be here.

You also spent a year working as a combat correspondent for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, what was that like?
I have to thank the Army for doing that. I was in the Army because I had made it through over two years at Dartmouth with absolutely no idea of what I wanted to become. Freshman year, I came in thinking well, I’ll be a doctor, and then freshmen chemistry persuaded me that was never going to happen. After that, I was completely adrift, so I basically wound up out of school, and was immediately drafted, because that’s what was going on at the time. The Army in its wisdom said, okay, you can either be in the infantry for two years, or sign up for three years, and we’ll send you to this information school. I thought well why not, it’d beat carrying a rifle in Vietnam. So, I was sent to the information school for ten weeks, then to Vietnam, and it was while I was in Vietnam- I realized, this journalism thing, I could do that for a living. I got to meet members of the Saigon press core, who were amazing, and I talked with them about how they got into journalism. Many hadn’t actually gone to journalism school. There was a guy from the New York Times who was a French major, something like that. A lot of it is like, if you’re bright enough to do that, you’re bright enough to be a reporter. It was very interesting, I got a chance to see and do a lot of things I wouldn’t have done otherwise when I was 21 or 22 years old. Actually, I was sent my last year to be an instructor at the information school. That was actually my first taste of teaching, which also turned out to be a thing I wound up doing. There were certainly lots of people who have no reason to have enjoyed, or gotten anything good out of being in the Army other than danger, but in my case, I got my profession. I’m proud to have done it, and I’m happy that it worked out that way for me.

How do you remain active in your profession while primarily working as a university professor?
That’s actually one of the advantages of being a professor, the idea that your work isn’t just in the classroom, it needs to be out in the profession, and that you bring back to the classroom the work that you do.  I’m heavily involved with the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. I spent four years as a member of the board of directors of that organization. I go to the I.R.E. and National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting annual meetings. A number of the international trainings I have done have been through that. I’m also involved in the Global Investigative Journalism Network that holds big conferences every few years in various places around the world. I also get with some regularity queries from newsrooms that are trying to do something tricky with data and analysis.

Six years ago, I was invited to be part of a team looking at Medicare fraud in California, and it was actually when I was in Portugal. It’s one of the miracles of this technology, I’m sitting at my apartment in Portugal, and get this email, they say, ‘we need you to look over several million rows of data to see if these patterns are there.’ And I can sit on my Mac, analyze it, and send it back. It was over six months or so, going back and forth with things we were finding, and it was great. I was absolutely a part of the team that looked into it, and helped prove that the things we were told by the whistleblowers inside the organization were true. We could independently confirm it. That won an important prize, and I was happy that after having won things back in the ‘90s, I could still say hey, as recently the 2000’s we got the Polk award, I’m still doing this stuff. I’m always happy to be involved in doing real journalism.

What was it like for you to watch the 2016 Presidential election from outside the U.S. this year?
It was interesting. Like everybody else, I was certainly surprised at the change of it. Election night, I had been invited by the American Center to do a talk about how the press was covering the election, and I did a talk that I think still stands up. I didn’t say absolutely, she’s going to win, but I said it seems to be a strong indication that she would win. But on the other hand, they were saying it’s like 84%, so that means there’s a one in eight chance she won’t win. I think people focus too much on that probability, as if it were saying absolutely she was going to win, and I’ve done enough polling and probability work that I realized that’s not what it means. The results of it were a surprise, and I then spent the next month being kind of the American apologist for the press, doing a dozen interviews with various new organizations or groups. I’ve done a lot of talking about it, because I’m one of the few American reporters in country that everybody can get, so I had to really think a lot about things that were done right and wrong by the press during that.

It’ll be interesting going back. My job will be preparing my students to go out into this new political world, and deal with an administration that is probably going to be very antagonistic to the press. I certainly worry about the social things that can happen, cutting back on women’s rights, talking about trimming Medicare and Obamacare. I see no viable plans that are being offered in place of those things, and the Republicans have spent so much time just saying no to Obama and now that they actually have to govern, it will be interesting to see how are they going to deal with the fact that they can’t blame somebody else anymore. It’s now their ball, so okay, great let’s see what they do with it.

What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
I’m delighted at how more open and vibrant it is than it was when I was here 17 or so years ago. When we were here, it was a lot closer to the end of communism. The economy back then was still transitioning into the economy that you have now, and all those kinds of things I think make a real difference. Seventeen years ago, going into the grocery store, there was one kind of fruit, one kind of cereal, a very narrow range of choices. Now there’s an American mall kind of thing right down south of the train station, and I’m not saying American malls are good, but it’s an example of the economic growth. There’s a McDonald’s and Starbucks, so yes, American culture has infected everything, but to some degree that’s a sign of a good economy, and people clearly coming from lots of different places around Europe and the world. I think it seems to be a substantially more vibrant culture, and economy than it was when I was here all those years ago.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m wistful that I only have a little less than four weeks left here. I’m looking forward to having my daughter, her husband, and my three grandsons get a chance to see this place, but then we’re going have to wrap it up and go back. So I’ll be a little sad at that, I would say.

Photo by David Kohout for Aktualne.cz