This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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|