2017/03/29

Get to Know a Grantee - Becky Schwartz

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Becky Schwartz
If you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you can see an interestingly shaped deviation along the western Czech border, where the line breaks and forms a small pocket. This pocket area constitutes the most western reaching area of the Czech Republic, and is surrounded on three sides by Germany. And here within lies the border town of Aš, home for one year to Becky Schwartz, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic. Becky, a music aficionado, spends her time teaching eight different grades in the local gymnazium, and experiencing an unexpected multiculturalism in this crossroads town. Read below to find out more about Becky, and her unique experiences living in a Czech border town.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: West Hartford, Connecticut
  • College, Major/Minor: Bates College, American Cultural Studies/Music
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium, Aš
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “Life is a journey to be experienced, not a problem to be solved.” –Winnie the Pooh
  • Favorite Czech food: “Svíčková!”
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Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself, and tell us where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut; I lived there my whole life. I studied American Cultural Studies and Music at Bates College, and was really involved in the music scene there. Music is one of my biggest interests and passions, and a big reason why I decided to come to Europe my first year postgraduate.

And what are you passionate about?
One of my biggest passions is definitely music. I play the flute, and whether it’s classical music, or jazz, or really anything in between, I would say that this is a really big passion of mine. Another passion would be social justice issues, especially women’s reproductive health, reproductive rights, and feminism in general.

Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
I had studied music abroad in Vienna my junior year, so having been to Central Europe before, I knew that I really liked this region of Europe, that the location is great, it’s easy to get to a lot of other places, and generally, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany have a really rich history with arts and music. I love both the Czech composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana! And because I like Czech music and Czech composers, I decided to come to this country, in part because of the history of music that it has.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?

I heard about it my freshman year at Bates. A lot of people from Bates apply for Fulbright Fellowships, because the school is very supportive of it from early on. I thought it would be something cool to do, and then once I realized how much I loved studying abroad, I thought I should do that again a second time. The Fulbright was a good way to both get abroad, and also to explore doing something I had never done before, like teaching. I was ready for a new adventure.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?

I talked to Molly Pailet [Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic, 2015-2016], who I knew from Bates College, about what to expect, and she was really helpful! I also did try learning Czech, because when I had studied abroad in Vienna, I didn’t know any German before going, and I didn’t like that feeling. So, I downloaded an app, and I was practicing Czech all summer. I learned about 300 phrases! And I looked up some lesson plans, but I didn’t really have a great idea of what my role would be here, or what level my students would be, so it was a little hard to prepare the teaching aspect, but I did try to learn Czech, and ask a ton of questions to the previous ETA.

And what is Aš, the town you’re living in this year, like?

It’s a small town on the German border. Germany is about 10 kilometers away from my flat, and there are about 14,000 people living here. It’s interesting living right on the German border, and culturally it has been cool living here, because there is a pretty big Vietnamese population and community. That’s been really cool to not only experience parts of Czech culture, but also to observe and partake in Vietnamese culture and tradition. For example, back in September, I went to a big Vietnamese celebration that the community has every year, where I ate great Vietnamese food, and saw fun dances and songs. It’s been cool being on the border, and never knowing if the people around you are Czech or German, but also having this Vietnamese community here as well. It’s more multicultural than I was expecting, in the best way possible. I also go grocery shopping in Germany.

Very interesting! And what’s the school that you’re working at this year like?

It’s an eight year gymnazium. It’s pretty small, it only has about 200 students. I work with every class from the youngest all the way up to the oldest, which is really fun! It’s nice to have a mix of younger students and older students, and have that constantly changing classroom experience. I also work with three other English teachers.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
My one consistent outside of school project is that I’m involved with the music school in town. I’ve taken lessons on and off with the flute teacher, and I’ve had a few concerts with the music school as well. I had one two weeks ago, where I played a duet with the other flute teacher and with the piano. It’s been nice to keep up with music to some degree while I’m here.

And what do you like about teaching English?
I would say one of my favorite teaching moments or experiences is when the students ask questions. Any question at all, is so great to see them taking in information, thinking about it, and coming back with a question, whether it’s a student in second class asking a question about what’s the difference between ‘have to’ and ‘must,’ or a student in the seventh year asking me how do we define music in today’s society. They don’t even realize how intellectual they’re being, so when they ask questions about anything whether it’s the younger kids, or the older ones, that’s really exciting and great. One other exciting thing about teaching English this past year, is seeing some of the quieter, or shyer students get more confident, and start to participate and speak in class more. Seeing that transformation happen is really, really inspiring.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
Back in October, I had a Halloween party for my students. It was only the second month into my grant, and I was still slowly getting adjusted to being here socially and culturally, and I had this party and didn’t really know if any students would show up, but it ended up being a huge success! I would say throughout the afternoon and evening, over 100 students came, and they all had such great costumes! It was great, there was so much chocolate, and sweets, and costumes! It was really exciting to see the students respond so positively to the event that I had. That was a turning point for me, with feeling connected to the community here.

That’s wonderful! And now you’re more than halfway through your grant already. What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

I’m really lucky, because in June I’m going to England with the school! it’s going to be a week-long trip, and I’ll be with students from all different grades. I’m really looking forward to that trip, as well as just continuing to grow relationships with different people in the town, and with students. In the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of baking with students, and I’m thinking maybe I should start a baking club, because the students love all American sweets!

A baking club is such a good idea!
Yes! And it’s perfect, because I’ve been reluctant to buy all of the necessary baking supplies, like muffin tins and all of these things, but the students already have these supplies. So, I tell them, ‘hey come over, and bring this, and I’ll show you how to make American sweets!’ It’s been a good trade-off!

That sounds like so much fun! Food is the universal connecter, for sure.

Definitely!

But what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
At first I thought it would be the loneliness, because I’m in a totally new place, and I’m probably the only native English speaker for an hour and half all around, but what’s been more challenging for me is having to be dependent on other people for assistance, especially because of the language barrier. For example, if I need to go to a doctor, there’s not really any English-speaking doctors in the area, so I would have to have someone accompany to me the doctor’s. Or, even something as simple as going to the post office, can be challenging because of the language barrier. It’s tough having to depend on someone else to translate, or assist you with little things, and that can be challenging.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?

I would say that the most rewarding part is having new adventures almost every single day. Whether I stay in Aš, and have a teaching adventure, (because every day in the classroom is different), or going with the school on field trips, like in December, we went to the Nuremberg Christmas markets. I can also hop on a bus to Prague, so having the flexibility and the freedom to travel and connect with new people and places, has been really, really exciting and rewarding.

And with that, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I would say the Fulbright mission means not just teaching the easy stuff, but also trying to address the hard stuff too, with the students. For example, I’ve tried to introduce feminism to my students, even if it’s sometimes met with pushback. But it’s planting seeds for different types of change, whether that’s showing what positive reinforcement in the classroom looks like, showing them new ideas or a new perspective about different politics, or teaching them about issues or topics they would otherwise not have exposure to in high school. It’s about showing lots of different parts of American culture, not just the simple stuff.

And why do you think international education and exchanges are important?

I think the best way to get to know a culture and really know it, is through meeting the people, and it’s totally a two-way street. So hopefully the students and people in Aš that I’ve met have new perspectives and insight on Americans or American culture, and I’ve definitely gained insight on Czech culture and Vietnamese culture too, which has been really exciting. I think international exchange is essential to understanding the relationships between people and countries, and really the whole world.

Well said. And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?

I feel like I’ll have the confidence and the independence to try and do anything that I really set my mind to. After this year of living alone and ‘adulting’ by myself in a foreign country where I don’t really know the language, I feel like I’ll be ready to tackle any challenges that come my way with more confidence and excitement.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

It’s still up in the air, but I’ll move back to the United States, and hopefully work for a company that’s trying to improve women’s reproductive healthcare, and access to healthcare in general. That’s a social issue I feel really passionate about, and would love to be working for a company that addresses those issues. After Fulbright, I definitely realized I want a job that deals directly with people, and has some components of teaching and mentorships. I’m looking for a job that deals with women’s reproductive health, and utilizes the skills I’ve gained with Fulbright. That would be the dream!

That sounds wonderful, and do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?

It’s an amazing opportunity, and just know that everyone’s experience is going to be so different, so go in with an open mind, and embrace the uncertainty and the unknown that you’ll have for a while. I also advise learning Czech before, and to really just love every moment. One other advice I have is to connect with the other ETAs. Whether that’s before, over the summer, or when you get to orientation, look to make connections with them, because the ETA community that you’ll have during the year also provides incredible and invaluable support throughout the entire experience.

And lastly, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything at this moment?

I’m feeling good! I can’t believe that seven months or so have already gone by of doing this, and I feel like there’s so much more that I want to do here. Whether it’s teaching or clubs or interviewing people that live here, there’s just a lot that I still want to do with the time left here, which is exciting. Overall, I feel good. I love teaching at the gymnazium, and feel really connected to every class, so I’m feeling happy about the teaching experiences, and I’m excited for spring to finally be here!

And is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the last thing I want to add is just how grateful I am for this experience, and also how grateful I am for the other ETAs on this program. Even though we all live in different places, we’re all in the same time zone, going through the same things, and having them makes this experience so much easier, and more exciting.


Becky Schwartz with students

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