This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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 ----------------------------------------
Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
- 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.