ETA Spotlight Interview: Madison Sewell

by Sinia Amanonce

Madison Sewell
Madison Sewell is spending a year abroad as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Benešov, Czech Republic. Below, Madison talks about her experience in the classroom, the mentor that encouraged her to apply for Fulbright, and advice on how to prepare for a year abroad.

Fast Facts 
Hometown: Texarkana, Texas
Age: 24
College, Major/Minor: University of Central Arkansas, Health Science/ Interdisciplinary Studies
School in the Czech Republic: SOŠ a SŠ zdravotnická Benešov
Favorite Czech food: Svíčková
Favorite Quote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” --Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Madison, it is so great to finally meet you. Please, tell me about yourself.
My name is Madison Sewell. I am 24 years old. I am from Texarkana, Texas. I went to university at the University of Central Arkansas and it is about 30 miles from Little Rock. When I was there, I studied Health Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. I ran track and cross country. I also worked as a writing tutor. My hobbies are running and reading.

What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about education in every sense. I like keeping abreast with political and social justice issues, and talking about these topics with friends and family. I like being in the classroom and working one-on-one with people to help them in any way that I can. I, myself, am passionate about learning and I love being a student as well as a teacher. I think I feel most happy when I’m working with someone and I can see that things are starting to click. That is probably the best feeling for me.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I chose the Czech Republic because when I was in university, I had 4 roommates and friends who either immigrated themselves or their parents were from countries that spoke Slavic languages. I learned a lot about their cultures, countries, and languages with them. I was curious about these places because when I was in high school we didn’t study Eastern Europe very much. Meeting them was my first experience with Eastern Europe. When I was look at countries to apply for Fulbright, I looked at all these countries, but with the Czech Republic, the commission supported all of the grantees really well.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA Program?
I had a great advisor who was a mentor to me. She happened to be the Fulbright advisor for my university and when I was a senior, I had a seminar class that was about environmental and economic sustainability. As part of one of our projects, we had to present on a topic to our class. Afterwards, she took me aside and said “I think you’d be great in classroom. Have you ever thought about applying for a Fulbright grant?” I didn’t know what it was, so I looked into it.

Very cool. What is her name? Maybe she will read this post one day.
Dr. Allison Wallace. My university has an honors college and to finish the honors college, we have to minor in Interdisciplinary Studies. She was the first professor I had while studying for this minor. She interviewed me for this program, so we had this 4-year mentor/mentee relationship. She always pushed me to be a better writer and critical thinker, and she was a really tough professor. When she gave you praise it meant a lot. When she recommended that I apply for Fulbright I was like, “Wow, I really have a shot at it if she is telling me to do it.” I really appreciate her thoughtfulness for all of her students. She always encourages us to be the best we can be. It sounds really cheesy, I know.

Speaking of how someone has helped you, what advice would you give to upcoming grantees on how to prepare for the Fulbright ETA experience?
I think the best part about this grant has been learning about new things. I would not try to overly prepare if you know you’re coming to the Czech Republic because the discovery and the small things I did not know, and learned about by coming here, have been better to learn than to prepare for.

I understand that! Learning through experience is different from learning about others’ experiences through reading.
Yeah, it is more fun. If you were to prepare, something I did was make a list of things I was anxious about. I was very anxious to leave the U.S. because I was stepping into the unknown. I wrote about all these things like being lonely and the language barrier being too difficult. Then, in a separate column, I had a list of things I could do to mitigate that anxiety. If I felt lonely, I would say “yes” more to invitations or make an effort to connect with people in my cohort. The condensed version of that is to think about problems you may run into and then have a plan and a way to remind yourself so you don’t get lonely or homesick.

But it is so hard to be homesick in Benešov, it’s a beautiful town! How was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
I honestly think it hasn’t been too hard to adjust. I thought it would be harder. I think the hardest thing is not speaking Czech and going to the grocery store for the first time. I remember I was trying to find flour, and there are so many different types of flour. I didn’t know what to do. I had to go home and use Google. That’s the main thing - adjusting to the language barrier.

What is the school that you are working at this year like?
I work at a technical school and it trains future nurses, dental technicians, social workers, and there is also a branch for public administration.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
I think the thing I enjoy the most about teaching English is there are so many different ways to learn. Learning a language is multi modal. For example, you can read, listen to music, play games, do projects, and practice by speaking. There is a lot of flexibility in the classroom and I can always do something new.

What has been the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
You get a different perspective on how to do things. Working abroad, especially in the classroom, and experiencing what a Czech classroom is like, makes you think about your own experiences. Sharing meals or celebrating holidays with my mentor and her family is more enriching than just reading about a different culture. It’s the experience.

What has been the biggest surprise of your experience thus far?
Last Tuesday, my mentor and I were doing a lesson on cultural differences. For a warm-up activity, my mentor asked the students to brainstorm what stereotypes they had about Americans. Then, she asked me to brainstorm stereotypes what Americans thought of Czechs. What came to mind was that Czech people are cold or rude. During that same week, some of my students returned from a class trip to Switzerland and they brought me chocolate. It was super nice and I wasn’t expecting it!

Later in the week, one of my coworkers brought me homemade food stuff like pickles, spicy peppers, and pressed juice. Then, that Friday, I went to my students’ ribbon ceremony. They made me a ribbon and pinned it on me. They thanked me for being here and it was so touching.

Over the weekend, I was thinking about all of these things. Most of the Czech people I have met are warm, friendly, giving, and I thought “Yeah, this is what Fulbright is about. I’ve never met a Czech. Most of my students have never met an American. But here we are, sharing experiences, learning about each other, and realizing we are more than the stereotypes we read on the internet.” I feel so overwhelmed with kindness every day. People have welcomed me, and have been so helpful. I think, “Do I really deserve this?” I think that is why the transition has been so easy for me because I never really felt alone in the process.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I feel great. I feel like time is moving really quickly and every time a month passes, I get sad that it is already over. I am loving every minute and new experience.

Ribbon ceremony