Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Mark A. Novotny, PhD

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mark A. Novotny
Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mississippi State University Mark A. Novotny, PhD, is serving this year as a Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University in Prague. Professor Novotny has cultivated a prominent career in physics that has seen him earn his PhD from Stanford University, teach and conduct research in four different U.S. universities, and work for two years at the IBM Scientific Center in Bergen, Norway as well. His contributions to the field of physics are great, including his discovery of a new nano-device that he has named quantum dragons. Here, Professor Novotny discusses his current research, the differences between his home and host institutions, and the importance of international education exchanges in today’s world.

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

  • U.S. Position: Giles Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Mississippi State University, MS
  • Czech Affiliation: Distinguished Chair, Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague
  • Project: Studies in Quantum Systems, Including Quantum Materials and Quantum ComputingDiscipline/Specialization: Physics
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics, Stanford University, CA, 1978
  • Favorite Quote: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”- Albert Einstein
  • Favorite Czech Food: Potato dumplings

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?

I’m originally from Minnesota, and grew up on a farm in the northern part of the state. I was one of eight children, and I went to a small school, about 22 kids in the graduating class. Very rural. From there, I went to North Dakota State University as an undergraduate, majored in Physics, and have enjoyed doing that ever since. I spent four years there, and then went to graduate school at Stanford University in the Physics department, and worked mainly at the interface between mathematical physics and experimental physics. After finishing my PhD, I got a postdoc position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and was there for three years. There I moved to what is now called computational physics, but back then was frowned upon as not really a way of doing physics, because it wasn’t experiment and it wasn’t theory, and computers were so small, that you know, what can you do on them? So, after three years there, I moved to Northeastern University in Boston, was there for five years and again doing computational physics and teaching, and then I went to work for IBM up in the scientific center in Bergen, Norway, and enjoyed working for them for two years. I then moved to Florida State University, and was there for a dozen years as a research scientist doing computational physics, and then in 2001 moved to Mississippi State University as the department head, where I’m still the department head. I’ve tried to do research there, as well as administration, and the research is still on computational physics. I’m getting more and more into working on the quantum aspects of things, both in the computing side, and what I’m actually computing for, so both the machine that I’m using, and the atomic, materials, and engineering systems studied.

And what courses are you teaching this semester?

I’m teaching one course in quantum mechanics, but it’s a non-traditional quantum mechanics. It’s a graduate course, but there are some undergraduates and some postdocs that are sitting in as well, so it kind of spans the gamut.

What does your research focus on?
Right now, focusing on two different things, one is quantum computing. In particular, focusing on adiabatic quantum computing. There’s one company in the world that makes a quantum computer; if you write a check to them, they will sell you one, and they just announced one that has 2000 qbits, so in theory, these computers can do calculations that no classical computer can do, but theory and practice are still flirting with each other, shall we say. That’s one thing I’m working on, and the other thing I’m working on is I’m trying to find dragons. I’ve discovered this type of nanomaterials that I call quantum dragons. After all, if you discover them, you get to name them, and I thought it was a cool name. So, I spend a lot of my time looking for quantum dragons. I discovered some before I came here, and now I’ve learned a different mathematical path to find the same ones, and looking for more.

What are the quantum dragons you have discovered? What do they do, or what is their function?
A quantum dragon is a type of nano-device I discovered. The nano-device is composed of atoms (in the picture below the spheres), and the hopping of an electron between two atoms (the cylinders in the picture below). The nano-device can be of many different forms, or in the lingo of the field, can have a lot of disorder. When properly connected to input and output leads, the quantum dragon has complete transmission of incoming electrons for all energies of the incoming electron. In other words, every electron in the input lead goes to the output lead, none are reflected back into the input lead. This property makes quantum dragons have zero electrical resistance (in four-probe measurements). Electrical resistance is the reason your smartphone gets warm when you use it. Quantum dragons can be made in many different styles, some interesting in engineering, and others just fun to look at.

And what do you wish everyone understood about physics?
That it’s really the basis for all of our modern technology. If you talk about your cell phones and your computers and electronics, it’s all based on quantum mechanics. But it’s based on quantum mechanics at the classical level, and the new computers, the quantum computers, are going to be quantum mechanics at the quantum level, bringing even more power, and probably changing the society we live in some more.

I also read online that the time spanned by algorithms you have made for nanoparticle dynamics “is as many decades in time as the number of decades between the volume of a raindrop and all the water on Earth.”
Yes. So, you really have to come up with advanced mathematical methods to be able to calculate things in a way other than a brute force method. A brute force method only allows you to look at things in certain time ranges, very short time scales, but if you use advanced mathematical methods and embed those in your algorithms, then you can come up with things that are exact mathematically, that get you the same calculations, but you’re essentially doing it in a much smarter way.

How long does it take you generally to create one of these algorithms?

Usually, it’s a couple of years to get there ultimately. Often, you don’t really know what you’re setting out to accomplish, you’re just setting out to accomplish something, and then you find something. That’s how I found the quantum dragons. I wasn’t looking for them, because I didn’t think that they could exist when I looked for them, because it goes against some of the ideas of disorder in physics, and those kinds of things. And it was also that you put together three different, very hard things and together each of them is hard, but you put them together, and it makes something that is easy, which is very unusual in physics and mathematics.

So sometimes you just go off, and explore in the woods, and you find something. You’re just heading in a general direction, and when you get there, you say, wow, if I knew I was heading in this direction, I would have planned. But that’s the way research is. Actually, one of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is, and I’m probably paraphrasing, but it’s, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”

That’s very interesting! And how is your host institution, Charles University, different from your home institution, Mississippi State University?
Mississippi State University is a land grant university. About a 150 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that allowed states to create one university which was supposed to be an agricultural and mechanical university, so in every state you will find at least one land grant university. The land grant university is really charged to be responsible for the engineering aspects, which means the sciences, and also the agricultural aspects. The emphasis is really on the education of the engineering and the agricultural sides, as well as on the science and social sciences, and so on. And even though there are some small branch campuses, there’s one main campus. Which means that if I’m sitting in the Physics building at Mississippi State, I can walk across the street, and I’m in the Political Science building. Whereas here at Charles University, to go to a different faculty, a different department, it’s a half hour ride away; so that’s one of the big differences. The building I’m in here really holds the Faculty of Physics, which includes material science in particular, and quantum systems and theory related to those, but there are other aspects of this science that overlaps that’s done in completely different parts of Prague, even though they’re at the same university.

And how is living in Prague different from living in Mississippi?
Mississippi State University is in a little town called Starkville, so living in a little town is different from living in a big city. I’m really enjoying my time here, and being able to attend concerts and events. Just walking and seeing the architecture is amazing here as well, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
I think it’s much more dependent on the particular student. I’ve certainly met some students here that are extremely bright, extremely motivated, and hardworking, and they’re definitely going to succeed, and those students in the U.S. succeed as well. It takes U.S. students some time to find themselves, but since I’m teaching at the upper level here, I’d say the students at the upper level here are comparable to the students at the upper level in the U.S., because by that time they have already found themselves, and if they’re in a rigorous course of study like physics, then they are definitely motivated.

And do you think your semester here in Prague will effect or influence your teaching back at MSU? How so?
I think so, because here I prepared a brand new course in quantum mechanics. Typically, when people teach quantum mechanics, they start with the wave function, which is a mysterious thing that I would venture to guess that no physicist understands, but yet we use it all the time whenever we’re talking about atoms, or we’re talking about materials. I decided I was going to take a different tact, and try not to mention wave functions when I teach quantum mechanics. I didn’t know where this would end, because I lectured it every week, and every week I pushed it a little further. So, it will definitely influence the way that I teach quantum mechanics, and topics related to quantum mechanics when I return to the U.S.

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

Well, first of all, you’ve seen my last name.

Yes, Novotny!
Yes, so about 150 years ago, my great-grandfather came from Mala Strana in Prague, and went to the U.S., so the genes have come back! And it’s a great university and I knew it was a beautiful city, and so as soon as I saw they were looking for a Distinguished Chair in Physics or Mathematics, I said, it sounds like me! It was a perfect fit.

That’s wonderful! And what is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
In my opinion, science is really an international endeavor. Everyone comes at it from their own perspective, because of their own background, but ultimately there’s a set of facts called nature that we’re all trying to understand, and to be able to meet with other people that are trying to understand nature, from different backgrounds, really allows you to get a better handle on what we are trying to understand in the sciences.

And relatedly, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
To me, the Fulbright mission is really meant to encourage interaction between countries. Certainly, hearing the stories of people here talking about what happened when the Iron Curtain was still up, and having visited both Hungary and East Berlin when the Curtain, the Wall, was still up, and just seeing how everything has changed and progressed, to me it really means that you want to have this connection between people from different countries to be able to lay a foundation to essentially advance humanity, as opposed to erecting Iron Curtains.

What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?

First of all, my overall impression of life in the Czech Republic is it’s an extremely nice culture. The mass transit is extremely functional, and something that I wish the U.S. would do more of. I think people have a nice balance between work and what that entails, and shall we say, living, enjoying life, family, those kinds of things. I very much appreciate seeing that. You see kids out with their parents all the time, in all weathers, which is very nice, being pulled on and off the trams. I think it’s a nice family atmosphere.

What has been the most rewarding for you so far during your Fulbright year?
I would say interacting with the faculty and students at Charles University, and discussing things with them. Mainly science, because we are scientists after all, but other things as well, and just getting to know new people, and seeing the culture as well.

Have you given talks at any other universities in Czech Republic, or in Europe?
I gave a talk at University of Lisbon; I was on my way to visit my son, so I stopped in. I’m scheduled to give a talk in Poland, and also a talk on mathematics of quantum computing at Charles University, but in a very different part of Prague. And at the beginning of the next semester, there’s a named lectureship I’ve been asked to give, so I’ll be giving that to essentially kick off the semester for the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. It’s to me, a real honor to be asked to do that.

That’s so exciting! And right now, you are halfway through your grant.
Hard to believe!

Yes, it goes so fast!

It does!

So what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

I would say it really took one semester to get to know people, talk with people, find common ground and common ideas, so I’m looking forward to bringing those to fruition, and hopefully submitting a paper, or two or three, with people here.

Have you been able to travel much in Czech Republic? Or, is there somewhere you would like to visit here?
There’s a lot of places I want to visit! I’ve visited some places; we met Steve and Ellen [Fellow Fulbright Scholar Steve Doig and his wife] in Brno, explored with them some, and saw some of the small villages. But we haven’t really gone towards the German border from Prague, and that’s a part of the Czech Republic I want to see.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright?
Just to apply! Because it’s extremely rewarding. Yes, there are hoops to jump through, and you may or may not be selected, but if you are selected, then it’s a great honor, and a great chance to give something back to your discipline, and really the two countries you’re in.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just feel fortunate for this opportunity, because I think it’s been fulfilling to me, and at the same time, I feel like I’m contributing to a better dialogue between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. To me, that’s really a large part of what the Fulbright grants are for, is to get people in sort of similar areas, but from different countries, different cultures, to talk to each other.


Ladislav Zikmund-Lender: Kalifornský sen

Od listopadu 2016 do června 2017 pobývám díky Fulbright-Masarykově stipendiu na kalifornské univerzitě v Berkeley. Co tu tedy dělám?

Bádám. Proto tu jsem. Kromě vytyčeného výzkumného cíle (kterým je rozšíření teoretických rámců pro zkoumání českých, slovenských a polských queer umělců, sběratelů, mecenášů a architektů hlavně v první polovině 20. století) jsem se jako člověk trénovaný v historických vědách přirozeně snažil najít nějaký historický vzor pro svou aktuální výjimečnou zkušenost. Zajímalo mě, jestli a jak lidé z českých zemí v minulosti reagovali na návštěvu Kalifornie a jak je to poznamenalo po návratu do Evropy a do Čech. Konkrétně mi šlo o lidi kolem architektury – samotné architekty nebo stavebníky. Nesmírně mě to chytlo a snad z toho bude nějaký další výstup, ale to zatím z pověrčivosti nebudu prozrazovat.

UC Berkeley

Zapojuji se. Důležitým cílem Fulbrightova programu je pro mě nejen jednosměrné vstřebávání Ameriky, ale „výměna:“ nejen si odsud odvést plno poznatků, zážitků a nových přátelství, ale také něco předat. Mám tu čest a radost přijmout pozvání na konferenci k 150. výročí narození Franka Lloyd Wrighta v Teliesinu ve Phoenixu, AZ, svůj výzkum budu prezentovat na domácí univerzitě v Berkeley a ještě jednám o přednášce v New Yorku. Je skvělé využít všechny tyto možnosti a nabídky k poznání nových míst, vytvoření nových kontaktů a taky k tomu připomenout náš periferní, ale vlastně už zase ne tak zaostalý kus světa, který je trochu mimo pozornost Američanů. V rámci univerzity funguje také řada studentských spolků, mezi jinými Humanities and Social Sciences Association, která sdružuje studenty humanitních věd a poskytuje různé formální i neformální platformy – třeba setkání k akademickému psaní, kde se vzájemně diskutují různé texty. Je to skvělá věc pro cvičení jazyka, stylistiky i způsobu akademické argumentace. Organizuje i různé večírky, není to jen suchá věda.

Studuji. Kromě výzkumu občas zajdu na přednášky a to zdaleka nejen ze svého oboru a zdaleka nejen na domácí univerzitě – skvělé přednášky organizuje třeba sanfranciská veřejná knihovna. Kromě konkrétního a přesně zacíleného výzkumu je to skvělá příležitost zjistit, jak se obor i vůbec vysokoškolské vzdělávání provozuje jinde. A je to v mnoha ohledech opravdu sakra rozdíl. Snažím se sledovat místní kulturu – výstavy, nové knihy (o tom více na mém blogu na webu o umění Artalk).

Jím. Mám to štěstí a zároveň smůlu, že bydlím na dohled od obchodního řetězce Whole Foods. A to věru není žádné Tesco. Po prvotních rozpacích nad některými základními potravinami – třeba najít druh chleba, na který máme vypěstovaný kulturní návyk, byl docela oříšek (všechny jsou buď nesnesitelně sladké, nebo nesnesitelně kyselé), majonéza nebo hořčice byly z počátku taky docela chuťovým překvapením. Když si tohle po pár dnech sedlo, staly se nákupy potravin hříšnými orgiemi. Protože jsem na západním pobřeží pacifiku, užívám si mořské plody, co to jde. Na clam chowder, polévku ze škeblí, jsem už docela expertem. V případě čerstvých smažených kalamárů (ne ty indiferentní kroužky, o kterých jsem až doteď nevěděl, nebo nechtěl vědět, z které části vlastně jsou, ale celá ta tělíčka se schránkou i chapadýlky) jsem prošel celým procesem od prvotního zhnusení až po nadšenou obsesi. Zvlášť návštěva přístavu v Monterey s uličkou rybích restaurací byla zatím nepřekonatelná.

Cestuji. Co to jde. Navštívil jsem LA, Santa Cruz, San Simeon, čeká mě cesta do New Yorku, Buffala a Phoenixu. Často je třeba volit levné řešení (couchsurfing se na rozdíl od Airbnb osvědčil), osmihodinová cesta autobusem do LA sice nebyla vrcholem luxusu, ale stálo to za to.

Golden Gate

Nakupuji. To by se dalo shrnout do populární komiksové epizody Sarah‘s Scribblers: Jídlo – jen to nejnutnější, drogérie – jen to levné, oblečení – občasné povyražení, ale jen to základní, knihy – dolary létají vzduchem. Za první dva měsíce je skóre 14 knih z antikvariátu, který stojí po cestě do kampusu. Už jsem musel změnit trasu a nechci myslet na to, jak tu knihovnu odvezu domů a jak to všechno proclím (účtenky si radši schovávám).

Angažuji se. Přijel jsem do Kalifornie pár týdnů po zvolení prezidenta Trumpa a zažil uvedení do úřadu jeho administrativy. Tedy spíš s tím spojené protesty (a protesty související s podporovatelem prezidenta Trumpa Mila Yinnopoulose), které byly velmi intenzivní. Angažovanost ve veřejném dění a ve veřejném protestu má bezpochyby v Americe daleko silnější tradici a daleko vyšší společenský status než u nás. Kromě podpory poklidných protestů (protiinauguračních protestů a Women’s March) jsem se rozhodl zapojit do dobrovolnické činnosti (protože kromě výzkumu je skvělé poznat i něco jiného a celý pobyt je příjemnou příležitostí vystoupit z komfortní zóny). Po vstupním tréninku začnu v nejbližších dnech dělat dobrovolnické směny v Pacific LGBT centru nedaleko kampusu v Berkeley, které se zabývá podpůrnými programy pro LGBTIQ+ osoby v nejrůznějších životních situacích.

A doufám, že ve zbývajících 4–5 měsících přibydou další odstavce.


Get to Know Grantee - Lianna Havel

By Maureen Heydt 
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lianna Havel
When it’s sunny outside, Lianna Havel can see Poland from her bedroom window in Broumov, Czech Republic. An alumna of the prestigious Teach for America program, through which she spent two years teaching in a low-income school in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lianna now serves as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Broumov, a town of 7,000 people. She also interestingly shares her surname with perhaps the most famous Czech person of the last century, the late President Václav Havel. Here in her Fulbright interview, Lianna describes what it’s like to have the most recognizable Czech surname as a foreigner in the Czech Republic, what the myriad difficulties and rewards of living and teaching abroad are, and her advice for anyone considering teaching abroad. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio 
  • University, Major/Minor: George Washington University, Political Communication/Film 
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Broumov 
  • Age: 24 
  •  Favorite Quote: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”- John Stewart Mills 
  • Favorite Czech food: Fried cheese

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Lianna Havel, and I grew up in Worthington, Ohio. I was born in Washington D.C., and returned back there for college where I attended the George Washington University. I majored in Political Communication, and minored in Film. After that, I participated in Teach for America, where I taught in a low-income school in New Orleans, Louisiana for the past two years, and now I’m here!

And what are you passionate about?
Things that are really important to me all have to do with words. I love communicating through teaching. Writing, I’m an active writer. I write every single day. I also really love theatre. I was a nerdy theatre kid. Film is really important to me, and I travel a lot.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
Well, I was lucky enough to study abroad in Prague during college, and I was aware that Fulbright places you in a small town, and not in a city. I was really intrigued by the possibility of getting to explore Czech life and Czech culture both in a city, and in a small town, to compare them. Also though, I really just found the people here to be lovely, and the culture is amazing.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I was the weird kid who knew since second grade where she wanted to go to college, and coming from that, I knew what I wanted to do after college, and what programs I wanted to participate in, so I was aware of Fulbright from a young age. My dad was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and he always wanted me to do that, or Fulbright. He put the idea in my head probably starting in early high school, maybe even middle school. I worked for it, and pursued it after college.

What is it like to have an incredibly recognizable Czech last name, and to share it with one of the most famous Czech people of the last century?
I mean, it’s really fun. When I first got here every time I saw my last name, which is a lot of places, I would take pictures of it, but after a while that got a little bit old. I really enjoy it as a conversation topic. Every time I have to share an ID someone will say, “are you Czech?” or “Do you know your last name is like the most important last name?”

Because he’s a popular figure, it’s really nice that people will warm up to me for something that’s not really my fault. They are just kind, and excited to talk to me. I’m sure that is true also for non-Havel last name people, but it’s true for me, and that’s how I experience it.

And do you have Czech heritage?
This is a great topic of debate in my family. My whole childhood, my dad said we’re named after the Havel river in Germany, but since I’ve come here, my dad has claimed all of sudden that I am of Czech ancestry, so I’m not entirely sure.

So what is the town you’re living in this year like?
Broumov is very small; I think it’s around 7,000. We’re right on Polish border; when it’s light out, I can see Poland out my window. There are the student-age people and their parents, and I am under the impression that there’s not a lot of people in between, or at least I’m having a hard time finding them. It’s very small, it’s very quiet, you can walk everywhere. We have this beautiful monastery. It’s very pretty, and I’ve walked to Poland. That was fun.

And how about the school that you’re working at this year?
Gymnazium Broumov is three stories tall; it’s in this very beautiful building. It’s not really a cliff per se, but it hangs out over a second part of the city, so it has a beautiful view of mountains in the distance, and there’s some really ornate designs in the stairwells. The teachers are kind and welcoming. I teach everybody, from the first year students who are twelve years old, to the nineteen year-olds who are about to do Maturita [Czech graduation exams for high school students]. It’s really neat to see the progression of English teaching knowledge for those eight years.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have a couple of things I’m doing. I have something called Welcome Lesson, just a day after school where I hang out, and if kids come by we talk about English, movies, politics, or travel- whatever we feel like discussing that day. One time, a kid helped me make a doctor’s appointment; it’s like a really useful all around thing to have. I also was talking Czech from students, so I’m trying to learn Czech. I’m not good at languages, but I’m trying. I went to the younger schools a couple of times to try to get them enthusiastic about English too, even though they’re not yet at the high level of the older students.

What do you like about teaching English?
I like that communication is a very important part of everything that we do in our lives, whether it be business interactions, or talking to a stranger on the street asking for directions. I think it’s really special to me to be able to share my language. There’s this idea that everyone should speak English, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but I do love my language, and to get to share it with other people, and let them catch onto little things that they didn’t catch onto when I would say them at the beginning of the year. It’s a really beautiful moment to watch that light turn on for people that don’t speak my language, who start to love the language that I love so much.  

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I think the most challenging thing for me has been weirdly coming to learn what small things matter so much to me that I don’t have access to. This is just an example, and probably sounds silly, but I have always known how important movies are to me. They’re like my comfort, when I’m sad, I want to watch movies, and when I’m happy, I watch movies. I analyze them, and the fact that the nearest cinema is over an hour away in another town, and they show one movie a day, and last month they didn’t show any movies I wanted to see, just not having access to that. Or, that I love Indian food, and there’s no Indian restaurants near me. Missing little things that you take for granted that give you comfort in your life, I think has probably been the hardest adjustment for me. It’s not loneliness, which I thought it would be.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Just having access to a whole world that you’ve never been a part of before. I’ve always lived in big cities, and I thought I was going to really struggle living in a small town, and I have at points, but I think finding in myself these strengths, and finding independence in myself has really helped me grow as a person in a way that I could not have achieved, had I not had this experience. And also getting to be a part of the culture.

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
Well, this weekend I’m going on a ski trip with my school, and I’m so excited for the opportunity to get to see the students outside of the school environment, but still engage with them in English, and get to know them as people, and not just as students. I know from my past experiences as a teacher that is probably one of the most valuable things that can help enhance a classroom, but that hasn’t happened yet. Also, I’m bad at skiing, so they’ll get to make fun of me, which is exciting.

Definitely! You are about halfway through your grant right now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I’m really excited to get to the point where my Maturita students are about to take their test, because even in these past four months, I’ve seen immense growth in their English language skills, and to see them get ready for the test, and go in confidently with pride, is going to be something really beautiful, and I’m very much looking forward to that.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think that to me, the mission of Fulbright is to create connections among young people across the world to our country, and to the English language, so that they believe in America, and they are able to participate in a global society where, for good or bad, English is one of the main languages. And I think that in eight days [January 20th] when things change, it’s going to be really important for a lot of young people who are impacted by Fulbright, who have had ETAs come to their school, to know that not all Americans believe in hatred, and we put a positive image of a country into the world where sometimes there’s not a positive image of the United States.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
Personally, I’ve already seen immense growth in my independence and ability to be myself with myself, because I think a lot of times, I struggle to just be alone and be Lianna.

I think on a professional and educational level I’ve learned a lot about a part of the world I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I’ve had the great opportunity to travel. One of my goals in life is to be in the ‘100 Country Club,’ to have traveled to 100 countries, and I’ve made great strides in that. By the time I’m going to back to America, I’m going to stay in Europe for a month after, and I will probably have been to 50 countries by then. I think also this will hopefully open doors for me for the future.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I am currently applying to graduate schools, and hopefully I will be accepted somewhere, and I’ll go from there.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
I think that if you want to do this, be sure that you are willing to do the emotional, personal work. I think that most college graduates are probably capable of the work ethic, and the effort required to be successful as an English teacher in a small town, but it’s going to be challenging to live by yourself in a place where no one speaks your language and there’s no one your age, and if you’re not open to learning more about yourself, then it’s probably not something for you.

As far the actual teaching, I would just recommend looking up what is developmentally appropriate for people the age you’re going to be teaching, because I am very familiar with what is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten through fourth grade, because that’s what I taught in New Orleans. I think that it would’ve been helpful to me to study how to engage older minds, because I think at first, I really struggled with thinking, ‘I’m five years older than these kids, why would they listen to me?’ But that’s not true, they do listen to me, but I had to get over that hump.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for interviewing me! I’m really loving this so far. I’ve grown a lot personally, and I’ve learned so much about Czech culture, and it’s been a life-changing experience. I’m honored to be a part of the Fulbright ETA program.  

Lianna Havel, center, with students, on a school ski trip.


Get to Know a Grantee - Sonam James

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sonam James
Zlín is a picturesque, bustling Czech city, nestled in a valley deep in southeastern Moravia. The hometown of many famous Czech people, including Tomáš Baťa and of course, Ivana Trump, ex-wife of President-elect Donald Trump, Zlín is also home this year to Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Sonam James. As a political science major, Sonam was interested and bemused to learn about this political connection to her placement town. A native Texan, she is also passionate about different cultures and international relations, so much so that she even started a Model United Nations club at her school. Here, she talks about her Fulbright experience, and what it’s like to live in a town that’s having a political moment in the sun.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Montgomery, Texas
  • University/Major, Minor: Trinity University, TX/Political Science, Economics/Spanish
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Zlín
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: "Not all those who wander are lost." -J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Favorite Czech food: Schnitzel and potato salad

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

I’m from Montgomery, Texas. It was a small town when I was growing up; there wasn’t much to do. There wasn’t any diversity. I was probably the only diversity there, so at a young age I was really interested in travelling and different cultures. I like politics, political science, and social sciences. It allows me to explore policies and laws in different countries, and that’s always been interesting to me. I later studied abroad in Barcelona my sophomore year. I think the one thing I did in college was I took advantage of every travel opportunity I could; I studied abroad, and I did a class where I spent two weeks in Berlin this past summer. 

And what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about traveling, and getting to have different experiences. I try not to spend my money on too much material stuff, and more on experiences, like going to events with people, traveling, and going to music festivals. I’m really passionate also about learning about other cultures, and trying to immerse myself in different cultures as well. And I have to say, I’m one of those people who really likes politics; I read the news every single day. 

Why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I chose the Czech Republic because when I was thinking about a few other countries, and googling them, I found the Czech Republic to be one of the most interesting. It is a post-communist country just finding its way out of that era, and kind of in transition where the older generation was experiencing something very different from what the younger generation is, and as a political science major that is really interesting to me, and of course the beer [laughs], I like the beer, I’m not going to lie! And also whenever I mentioned the Czech Republic to people, they always said how beautiful Prague is, that was probably the number one thing people said. And Prague is just so beautiful, it is one of my favorite cities. So, I did a bit a more research, and I decided that this is the country that I wanted to apply to. 

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I was planning on teaching abroad after graduation anyways to have the experience of living abroad and being in a different country and culture, and someone just happened to tell me about the Fulbright. After that, I immediately went to the professor in charge of it, and applied. I always wanted to do something like this. 

Can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
Zlín is quite a sizeable town, it’s probably 70,000 people. I have to say I’m really lucky! I do see a bit of diversity here; I see why they placed me here. There are a lot of the things that remind of me of home, like H&M and certain brands in the mall, a movie theater that plays movies in the original English, and there’s McDonalds and KFC. So, I don’t feel completely at a loss, like so far away from the U.S., and for the most part, I’ve found people to be friendly. It’s definitely a bigger town, so it’s not as isolated. 

Zlín is also famously the hometown of Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana. Has that come up at all?
Yes, my town has a history with Donald Trump. Ivana is very famous here. She actually went to the school where I teach at, and one of the teachers here remembers her from when she was a student. They have their house here, and I’m pretty sure Donald Trump has visited here just because it is her hometown. I think it’s kind of funny for them just to have that weird connection. Like, there’s only three degrees between me and Donald Trump, and it would be really funny to see if Ivanna got the ambassadorship to the Czech Republic. It’s going to be interesting to see what things are like after January 20th, and what kind of standing the Czech Republic will have with Donald Trump, because he does have a personal connection to it. And I’m the most pro-Hillary Clinton person, and for me to be in this town where there’s this personal connection to Donald Trump, it’s kind of funny.

That is pretty crazy! And what is the school like that you’re working at this year?
The school is Gymnazium Zlín, and it’s great. I love the school I’m working at. The students, their English is amazing. A lot of them are really well traveled, and quite a few have studied for a year in the U.S., which was really surprising. Some of them are completely fluent, so I can have really high level conversations with them.

Teaching was something I had to learn to get into. I have done a little bit of teaching with refugees and ESL classes in San Antonio and Houston, but this was a little bit different, obviously. I had to get into the way of making sure it’s interesting for them, and they understand what it is. It took like a month to get into the flow of teaching, and getting to know my students, but after that, I think I have a great interaction with my students. I do get to learn a lot of interesting things from them, too. 

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I did Model United Nations for four years at university. I was head delegate on the team by my senior year, so I really wanted to take some of those experiences from Model U.N., and do it at this school. I started a team, and we’re actually going to Prague this April to compete! I have a team ready of twelve students, and I’m really excited. For some of them, this will be the first time they’ve done something like this, so it’s really interesting for them! They’re really interested in international affairs, and possibly doing something with it in school, or in work. It’s a really great opportunity, as the school does not necessarily have things like this.

And whenever a holiday comes up, we do holiday based things. So for Thanksgiving I had a party for the students, and for Valentine’s Day, we might have another one. 

What do you like about teaching English?
I enjoy really talking to my students! They make me laugh, and we learn from each other. One of my favorite things is talking to them, and having a good conversation about something interesting. I do like teaching them about weird topics, or interesting things they’ve never heard of, to open up their understanding of the world by showing them something new. It makes me really happy when they enjoy the lesson, because I put work into them for the most part. 

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Communication is one of the biggest ones, obviously. Zlín is a big town, and the students speak English really well, but communication can be tricky when you’re trying to say something or you need something. The majority of the older people don’t speak English well, so it’s harder to say exactly what you want. Trying to figure out how to get you want is really hard, but I am taking Czech language lessons for free at the integration center, which is really nice. 

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There’s a lot! There’s the learning about being able to live in a different culture that I didn’t know very much about, and being able to just find my way through it. The confidence from being in a different culture, and being able to really do it by myself is a big part, and also having help from other people. I think the human interaction too, like seeing the Czech Christmas with my student was really great, and these random little, happy moments I have with people are really good. 

You are halfway through your grant, what is something you’re looking forward to that is still to come?
One thing I am looking forward to is the springtime, and being able to really travel a bit more through the country. For the first half, I’ve been trying to adjust to where I am, and I would like to see more of the Czech Republic. I’d like to learn more about the history of the different areas, and why they’re different for what reasons. 

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think it means to be an ambassador of the U.S., but also to show the diversity that exists in the U.S. I’m from Texas, people are from California, we have all had very different life experiences. As a Fulbright ambassador and grantee, I want to show them that the American experience is a diverse experience, and a different one for everyone. 

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’m going to have so much of a wider perspective. I’m definitely going to have something that a lot of people don’t have, the opportunity and the ability to live abroad and be in another culture. That is something I can take back with me to the States, and bring a little bit more of a global perspective to whatever I do when I get back. When you live abroad, you have to be flexible with everything that’s going on, and you can’t expect everything to happen perfectly, so I would say I’m much more of an adaptable person. I can adapt to things so much better, because you have to, and situations change very quickly, so that’s one thing I’ll be able to take back. 

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’m hoping to either work in law or policy, maybe with an international aspect to it, so hopefully that. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Don’t be afraid to do it! Just do it, and remember to have a very open mind when you do it, because you never know where you’ll be placed, or what you’ll be doing. Really go with an open mind, and be ready to adapt to any situation. And if you can do that, the experience is so rewarding. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really happy with the placement of my town. I’m happy here, and the people have been super helpful. I have to say that my mentor was really a great help in getting me settled in immediately, so I’m really grateful to the teachers at the school for being really helpful!

Sonam (third from left) with a student’s family over Christmas