Get to Know a Grantee - Ariane Willson

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ariane Willson
Ariane Willson just completed her grant year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Czech Republic, where she lived and worked for ten months in the famed city of Karlovy Vary, famous for its spas, rich history, and film festival. A native of Arizona, Ariane had much to adjust to, weather-wise and more, upon arriving in Karlovy Vary. Here, she reflects back on her grant year, the challenges she faced, and her Fulbright experience living in one of the most famous Czech cities.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Scottsdale, Arizona
  • College, Major/Minor: Arizona State University, English Literature/Economics
  • School in Czech Republic: Střední průmyslová škola keramická a sklářská, Karlovy Vary
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Czech Word: okurka (cucumber)
  • Favorite Quote: "But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because, 'Thou mayest.'" -John Steinbeck on the power of free will, East of Eden

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself? 
Yeah, so, I’m a big nerd. I’ve always been a massive reader and writer, that’s why I studied words in college. I’ve been all over the place in terms of my work experience. I worked for two years as a content director at a marketing firm in Phoenix, and then I was the vice president for a fashion club on campus as well, which was kind of a shot in the dark for me, so it worked out nicely that I ended up teaching at a fashion school here in Czech Republic.

And what are you passionate about?
I like making people have joy, making people happy. Not in the people-pleaser sense, but I just enjoy loving people and serving them. A lot of times it’s with food, because I love to cook, but it’s also just through conversation and things like that.

Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to Czech Republic specifically? 
A big passion of mine is art analytics and art history; I wrote my thesis in college on destructive and grotesque forms of beauty. I argued that there’s a beauty scale and that that scale does not include anything that is considered ugly. I think the Czech Republic was fascinating to me, because as a landscape and as a united group of people, they have such a tumultuous past, and a lot of the art and the personality of the place is reflected in that. I thought it was fascinating.

What is it like living in Karlovy Vary? 
It’s awesome! I feel really, really blessed, because I got placed here. It’s just a gorgeous little city. I think the history and the beauty of Karlovy Vary is interesting, how it was right on the border of the final push from the Allies, and how it was kind of like the crown jewel of the various administrations that were in power over here. There were a lot of Nazi balls and parties, and monuments to communism that are kind of still around. It’s just fascinating, it’s very layered.

What’s the school that you’re working at this year like? 
It’s a cross between a science and an art high school. It has fashion, ceramics, and we work with Moser glass factories, some of our students are apprentices there. There’s also chemistry, ecology, graphic design. It’s an interesting divide between kids, certainly. You can definitely tell the difference between the fashion kids and the ecology kids, and it’s not bad in any way, it’s just funny to be back in high school in the sense that there’s fashions and stuff.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year, like an English club?
To be honest, it never took off. I attempted a couple of things in the beginning, but they didn’t get enough organization or support, and there wasn’t a good schedule fit for clubs, but I hang out with a lot of the students privately, either doing tutoring, or just getting drinks. It’s like a non-official English club.

You also attended a conference earlier this year in Stockholm on beauty, is that right? 
Yeah, I presented some research in Stockholm and that was really cool. I was the youngest person in the room. For college, I wrote a massive, exhaustive paper on for my thesis on themes of grotesque female beauty and modern art and fashion, and so I presented one of my chapters, which was on the trope of the female vampire, and how it’s threatening to gender and beauty stereotypes.

Very interesting. And what do you like about teaching English? 
I like that it brings out a lot of positivity in me. I’ve changed a little bit. I’m not as quick to make critical comments, for example, or have negative thoughts, and I definitely am grateful for that, that’s really cool.

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad? 
Winter. Without a doubt, and not just the snow, but the darkness in more ways than one. Certainly, being really far from a support system that I’m familiar with, when also experiencing bouts of depression. It definitely was a challenge to learn to be alone and learn to make new connections and family, while I didn’t necessarily feel strong in myself.

How did you push through that? 
Conversation. Conversation with people here, I think I would highly emphasize, while also getting support for people back home, although no one there is going to really understand what you’re seeing and feeling, and the atmosphere you’re moving around in. I definitely got a massive amount of support from my friends both in the ETA program and in town here, so I just think it’s cool, because the demeanor and the type of people who live and work abroad, I find that a lot of us are very flexible, kind, open, and friendly, and we all have our moments of doubt and our low moments, so it’s easy to talk to people like that.

And what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
The people that I’ve met. Within the 20 ETAs here, we were incredibly close and there’s been no disagreements, everyone likes each other. It’s a very supportive, kind, and inspiring group of people to be around, and on a personal level, I’ve met some really wonderful expats in Karlovy Vary and created a little life for myself, which was definitely worth it.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced during your grant year? 
Two things, getting to know Prague like the back of my hand. That’s cool to know one of the most famous cities in the world as if you’ve lived there. Another thing, I’ve had a relationship here, and that’s been really wonderful.

What places in Czech Republic did you enjoy traveling to? 
I really loved going down to Mikulov in Moravia in September, right when the wine season was coming to an end. That was definitely a top trip, and I definitely recommend road tripping. Even if it’s just an aimless drive, I’ve really enjoyed driving through the cities and countryside.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you? 
I find myself having to believe and defend it more often, given our current situation financially with the administration. I think it means giving countries a face and a name, and personalizing the world on a small scale, because you have to start somewhere. If you think about it, it’s a bigger scale than we give it credit for, because I’m one person, but I work with almost 300 people, many of whom had never met an American, and vice versa, I’d never met a Czech person before. I think it’s incredibly valuable to learn things about yourself, and sort of force perspective on people and challenge worldviews, not necessarily in an argumentative kind of way, but in a way that you can see beauty, and you can identify humanity in others.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright? 
I no longer feel any fear and intimidation with moving somewhere new and knowing no one. I know that I haven’t gotten a job for next year yet, but I will be in the process of applying for nonprofit work, and I literally say I would go anywhere in the world at this point. I actually would like to challenge myself more with the next move, and get more of a culture shock by moving somewhere in southeast Asia or South America. I seek kindness in people more, I think, and I’m not doubtful of people I don’t know or understand.

And do you have any advice for the next group of ETAs, or for people considering applying for a Fulbright? 
For the next group, I would say, don’t doubt yourself and your decision. Definitely this position requires emotional strength, and you have to know that you’re enough for the task. There were certainly days that I needed to remind myself that I got here and I’m enough for that. And for people considering applying, either to Czech Republic or other places, don’t be afraid of applying somewhere that you don’t know anything about. I know when I first started researching Fulbright, I was only looking at countries that I recognized, in the sense that I would know a bit about the culture and the language, and I’m really appreciative that I ended up in a place where I didn’t know that much about the history or the language, and it’s certainly more eye-opening and world-rocking.

If you could sum your Fulbright experience using only one word, what would it be? 

And is there anything else you would like to add? 

Good luck going back to high school to whoever is coming next, because it’s certainly hard not to feel like a kid again!

Ariane Willson with friends in Prague

Get to Know a Grantee - Max Gollin

By Maureen Heydt  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Max Gollin
Max Gollin is a Princeton University grad, and has just finished up his grant year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic. Max spent this year teaching at a gymnázium in Jihlava, a prominent provincial capital that straddles the dividing line between Bohemia and Moravia. Max is also an avid musician, and frequently incorporated music into his classroom to help make lessons fun and exciting for students. Read below to find out what Max has to say about his grant year in the Czech Republic, his advice for future Fulbrighters, and what he plans to do next.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Bowie, Maryland
  • College, Major/Minor: Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium, Jihlava
  • Age: 22
  • Favorite Czech Word: “Panelák” (apartment block)
  • Favorite Quote: A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”- William Shakespeare

Hi! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself- where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are? 

I’m from Bowie, Maryland; I’m 22 years old. I graduated last spring with a degree from Princeton School of Public and International Affairs with a focus on Conflict Resolution. I’m really into writing and performing music, distance running, and rock climbing.

And what are you passionate about? 

Music is definitely a big one for me. I think it’s one of the best ways you can express yourself creatively, and it’s an awesome form of cross-cultural communication. It really works in any language. I’m also passionate about traveling, and getting to understand different cultural perspectives and seeing things in new ways. I’m also really passionate about getting out into nature and experiencing the natural world.

Why did you choose the Czech Republic specifically when applying for a Fulbright grant? 
It started with my uncle, because he’s Czech, and his family immigrated to the U.S. back in 1968, during the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion. His life story was always inspiring to me, and he actually organized for several summers this English teaching program for university students to go overseas to the Czech Republic. I was too young to go at the time, but he always brought back these great stories and talked about all these awesome experiences they had. It was also just an adventure for me; I hadn’t been east of Germany before that, and the fact that it’s in the dead center of Europe is perfect. Also, it let me be closer to my girlfriend, Isabelle, so that was a really nice bonus, too.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic? 
The summer before, I started reading everything I could about my town and the Czech Republic in general. I tried to learn a bit of Czech through some audio learning CDs I got at my local library, and actually it was really sweet, some of my students before I even met them or got there emailed me a PowerPoint welcoming me to the school and telling me about the facilities and what to expect. That was really nice.

That’s so nice! And what is the town like that you are living in this year? 
I’m in Jihlava, a small city of around 50,000 people. It is the capital of the Vysočina, or ‘Highlands’ region. Historically, it was a German-speaking, silver mining town, so it’s sort of a unique island within the Czech Republic. There’s a lot of naturally beautiful areas, and the historic town square; it’s really pleasant. It has pretty much everything you need in terms of shops, restaurants, and local culture.

What’s the school that you’re working at this year like? 
It’s a gymnázium, meaning that the students there pretty much all intend to go to university. It’s this really beautiful 19th century baroque building, and the students are just so smart, funny, and motivated, and I can tell that the teachers really genuinely care about the students, and are invested in their education. It’s a really great school.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year? 
There’s a couple of things I was doing. For example, I do have an English club that meets weekly in this local tearoom we have which is a really nice peaceful place where we drink tea and do some fun activities together. I also teach English lessons to other teachers in my school, who were interested in learning, but didn’t really have other opportunities to learn English. And as a smaller side thing, this spring I rehearsed for and performed with a group of my students in this spring charity concert at the school. We performed a bunch of Irish folk songs for an audience of the school and the local community.

That’s wonderful. What instrument did you play? 
For that performance, I was playing guitar. I normally use the guitar in my classes, just because it’s so portable, but I also play piano and electric bass. Also formerly a trumpet player, but it’s not the easiest to maintain.

That’s a great idea to use the guitar in your classroom! 
Yeah, I know there’s this saying, “Co Čech, to muzikant, meaning “Every Czech is a musician,” and I find it’s really true! Even my students who say they aren’t really into music, they all can hit the pitch and remember lyrics, and it’s just a great way to bring some English into the classroom and have fun with it. We do singalongs in class. Especially around the holidays, I remember we exchanged the English and Czech versions of some Christmas songs, and I even brought some Hanukkah music for them to check out.

And what do you like about teaching English? 
There’s a lot to like about it! I think partly it’s just such a flexible subject, so whatever the students are interested in and whatever I’m feeling would be fun or unique, there’s a way of weaving that into an English lesson, which I think is great. I also just think it’s really valuable. It’s something the students will almost invariably need in their lives or future careers, so just as a subject it’s something great to be able to pass on and have fun while you’re doing it.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
 My girlfriend and I went to the Svatý Martin, or Saint Martin’s, celebration in the Jihlava town square. I had no idea what it was about; some of my students and teachers had told me about it during the day, but I really thought that it was just this wild parade, with these enormous puppets marching through the street by torchlight, children running to pick up chocolate coins that this guy was throwing from the top of a horse, while dressed as a roman soldier, and there were these wonderful holiday markets with all this food, and then this crazy fireworks display, that went off over the whole city. It was a really unbelievable cultural event to be a part of.

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I think just the language barrier, especially when I first got here. It made everything that was already logistically difficult a bit more challenging, and if I could do it over again, I think I would have studied Czech a little more intensively before I got here, and been more dedicated to improving my language level as soon as I arrived.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think it’s really the people I’ve met here. I’ve interacted and become friends with people I just never would’ve met otherwise. I confronted cultural perspectives and beliefs that I never would have in another circumstance, and I think I’ve become more open-minded and a more mature person as a result, so yeah, that’s been great.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience? 
I think it’s a chance for you to look beyond your normal day-to-day routine and realize that there’s more than one way to approach every issue and think about the world. I think that participating in a program like this has made me more independent, self-reliant, and adaptable, and I think that’s something that would really benefit anyone interested in a program like this.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you? 
To me, the Fulbright mission means not just conveying your own perspective in an understandable and sensitive way, but really listening to what people on the other end of the exchange have to say and internalizing that, and taking it back with you.

Have you traveled anywhere in the Czech Republic that you really liked?
Yes, where to begin! I was in Kutná Hora with Isabelle visiting Sinia, another Fulbrighter, and the city is just absolutely gorgeous. The St Barbara’s Cathedral, that looks over this sunlit valley all the way to the nearby Sedlec Ossuary, which is this chapel decorated with human remains. I think there is something about that city that is so beautiful and so fundamentally Czech and unique.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think that in the future I will definitely be less hesitant than I was before to pursue opportunities abroad and to go outside of my comfort zone and travel more. I think being more flexible in terms of listening to new ideas, learning languages, and adapting to local circumstances. I’m also interested in global education development and education policy, so this experience working on the ground among teachers for a year has given me this new understanding and respect for what teachers really do in a classroom setting.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year? 
I’ll probably spend the summer reconnecting with friends and family back home. In the fall, I’m hoping to join Isabelle, who will be pursing her Master’s in Geoinformatics at the University of Copenhagen. I’m looking into international development work or future English teaching positions in Copenhagen.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright grant? 
I would say do it, but definitely do your research and find what would be a good fit for you personally and culturally, and be prepared for some logistical or personal struggles or difficulties, because it’s just sort of the process of getting adjusted. I think in the end, anyone who has had a similar experience would say it’s a such a process of growth and personal development and that it’s absolutely worth it.

And if you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be? 

And is there anything else you would like to add? 
I would like to give a shout-out to my friends and family for supporting me while I’m over here, to Isabelle for being an awesome partner to have every step of the way here, to my fellow Fulbrighters, who have all been so fun and cool to get to know better and hang out with, and to the Commission for helping me out and supporting me whenever any issues came up.

Max Gollin with Isabelle