2017/01/12

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.”

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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


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