ETA Spotlight Interview: Sarah Marie Kidder

Sarah Marie Kidder
by Sinia Amanonce

While attending Penn State University, Sarah Marie Kidder was part of a hip-hop dance team that hosted an event featuring Jaja Vankova, a famous Czech dancer, as one of their judges. As Sarah and Jaja spoke about dance, culture, and the Czech Republic, Sarah was inspired to apply for Fulbright in the Czech Republic. Read below to find out what Sarah has to say about building bonds with students and her experience living in Česká Lípa.

Fast Facts:

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Age: 24
College, Major/Minor: Penn State University, University Park, Biobehavioral Health
School in the Czech Republic: Obchodní akademie Česká Lípa
Favorite Czech word: “I really like “veverka” which means squirrel and the phrase “tak ahoj!”[bye]”
Favorite Czech food: Chlebíčky
Favorite Quote: “The sun is perfect and you woke this morning. You have enough language in your mouth to be understood. You have a name, and someone wants to call it. Five fingers on your hand and someone wants to hold it. If we just start there, every beautiful thing that has and will ever exist is possible. If we start there, everything, for a moment, is right in the world.” - Warsan Shire

Tell me about yourself.

My name is Sarah and I’m a Penn State University graduate. I graduated in 2016, worked in research for a year at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and then applied for Fulbright. I really like travelling, learning new languages, dancing, horseback riding, and I love photography.

Have you had the chance to dance or go horseback riding while being here? Have you had the time to do these things you like?
Photography, yes. I was really excited about being here because I knew I’d have time to improve on my photography. I bought a new lense since being here but I’m still just teaching myself. With dancing, I haven’t been able to do that yet. There is a hip hop dance group in my town called Tutti Frutti. One of my students is on the team, so I’m hoping to do a couple workshops with them, which would be awesome.

I feel like now I’m actually settling down, but the first few months felt like a whirlwind. Even though I have a lot of free time, I feel tired. I think being in a new place zaps your energy and you don’t even realize it.

I have to say, I love your Instagram! You post events and activities with your students, and everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves. How did you build this relationship with your students?
It’s actually kinda funny. We found out about our acceptance to Fulbright in March or April I think, and before I even knew which town I would be placed in, a girl messaged me through Twitter saying, “Me and my friend, Paja, are so excited to meet you in September. We can’t wait until you’re here.” I said, “Oh I’m really excited to meet you too, but who are you?” It turns out, they would be my students. The school told the students about me and posted an article on the school website. I found out the details of my placement through my students and Twitter messages before the Fulbright Commission told me.

A month after that, some of my classes sent me videos or PowerPoints introducing themselves. I didn’t know if it was because they had never met an American or if they really enjoy speaking English, but they seemed excited to meet me. Now, I say “hi” to everyone as I pass them in the hallways at school which is incredible. I don’t think I could have another experience of moving to a different country where I feel so welcomed by so many people. Also, I think I’m close to my students simply because I want to be and make the effort. When I’m friends with someone, and know what they like and care about, I think it’s much easier to teach them. I can tailor my lessons to what they are interested in and it’s always more comfortable to try to speak another language with a friend. In class, I am very much myself, and the school definitely allows for that, so it’s been nice.

Tell me about the town you’re living in this year.
Whenever I tell other Czech people I’m living in Česká Lípa, I get a weird “ugh” and then they always ask “why?” You know how they call Baltimore “Charm City?” Well, Česká Lípa is a place that grows on you. I can’t imagine being placed anywhere else now. At first I thought, “Aww, man. I’m not in Plzeň or a big city with a mall.” [laughs] But, it’s great. Once I saw that there was sushi and coffee, I knew I was going to be okay.

Not sushi and coffee at the same time, right?
No, not at the same time. But yeah, I live in an attic apartment above someone’s home. It’s actually one of my students, and her grandma, grandpa, and great grandma. They are all so great! Grandma and great grandma are always giving me food and hugs and grandpa is always offering me a beer, even in the morning. He also has full on conversations with me in Czech even though I don’t know what he’s saying.

What!? That’s great! Tell me more. How did you find that housing?
Before I came here, Niky and Tereza, my students, were helping me look for a flat. We couldn’t find anything as affordable or as close to the school as I’d like. So Nikki was living in the attic flat, decided to move downstairs, and said, “You can live with us.” I was nervous at first, but since I’m such a people person, I’m so happy there are others in the house. I’m really close with them now. I go downstairs often to just watch television with grandpa or hang out with Niky.

Wow, I’m glad it worked out for you. What about the school you’re working at? What is it like?
I’m at a business academy. I only teach at one school, which has been nice because I’ve had the opportunity to teach every class at least once and meet everyone. I’ve become more and more comfortable with teaching in a classroom. In the U.S., I was an ESL tutor, and the most I had was two or three students at a time. I was nervous because I didn’t know if I’d be able to command a classroom or not. I was also nervous about teaching teens because I am used to working with adults. I have so much respect for teachers who get up everyday and try to pull any amount of emotion out of teenagers.

How was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
I think the experiences I had before Fulbright, like studying abroad in Tanzania, prepared me for going with the flow and knowing that being uncomfortable is a fleeting feeling. Things don’t always work out the way you think they are going to and that’s fine. I adapt more and more each day and now, I really love the way of life here.

What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
This may sound selfish, but I think one of the most rewarding parts is being able to look back and know I lived in another country, functioned from day to day, and had the capacity to be able to do something like this. I’m proud of myself for doing Fulbright because I come from a family that rarely steps out of their comfort zone. I think being able to be independent and on my own are the main reasons I wanted to live abroad. It has been awesome. Also, I’ve made so many new relationships. I’m going to be devastated when I have to go home. I keep thinking “Oh no, I have only so many months left.” Then, I have to tell myself “Stop thinking about that and just be happy right now!” I have friends here who I care about and will want to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.

What is the most challenging part of being abroad?
I think it’s the same as the most rewarding. Being on your own, being independent, and trying to figure everything out. I feel like not being able to express yourself fully is also a challenge. I have to say things in different ways and I don’t know if I’m always getting my point across.

Why did you choose to apply to Fulbright Czech Republic?
I guess there are a bunch of smaller reasons that led me to choosing the Czech Republic. I was really interested in the history and culture of the Czech Republic, and had the chance to meet a few Czechs back in the States. I invited a Czech dancer, Jaja Vankova, to be a judge at my dance team’s big annual ‘jam’ at Penn State. So I got to talk with her about the Czech Republic, which made me even more excited to see it for myself!

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I have no idea because I’m not entirely sure what I want to do after Fulbright. I went into this academic year trying to make sure I was fully present in the moment. I didn’t apply to graduate school because I didn’t want to worry about that while I was here. I hate that I feel like I always have to think about the next year in life. I think it takes away from the experience of what you’re currently doing. I just want to be here, experience everything, say yes to everything, and see where that takes me.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?

Great! Each day has its ups and downs, but as a whole, I’m really excited still to be here. Maybe I’ll just stay and open up a taco shop because there is a serious lack of Mexican food in the Czech Republic. Not that I know anything about Mexican food, nor do I think I should be the ambassador for that, but I can learn!

Sarah and her students at the gym. 


Jak se dělá neuroscience na Columbia university a kdy chodí New York spát

Postřehy stipendistky Fulbright-Masarykova programu Petry Winnette

Mozek v New Yorku

Tak se konečně dostávám k malému zpravodajství. Už jsme se zabydleli na Broadwayi a trochu prozkoumali Manhattan. New York je velmi hlučný, plný lidí, ale taky úžasný. Hučí a žije ve dne v noci. Když se kolem druhé ráno, noční pták, podívám z okna, pořád se něco děje.

Columbijská universita je šestou nejlepší universitou na světě. Zabývám se oborem, který je zde skloňován ve všech pádech, i když angličtina pády nemá… Neuroscience! To znamená zejména zkoumání mozku, jeho vývoje a činnosti, která je za vším, co nás dělá lidskými bytostmi: za myšlením, emocemi, pamětí, chováním… Patřím do laboratoře, která se přímo zaměřuje na vývoj mozku u dětí a adolescentů, vlivu adversního dětství na vývoj jednotlivých mozkových struktur a jejich propojení. Jsem u zdroje.

Psychologie je na Columbijské universitě silný obor a neuroscience je tady samostatným oborem a zároveň už také zcela integrální součástí všeho psychologického myšlení. V podstatě všechny laboratoře a oddělení na zdejší obrovské katedře psychologie mají svoji laboratoř vybavenou mj. funkční magnetickou rezonancí... Zobrazování činnosti mozku je nedílnou metodou při experimentech, výzkumech i testování. Tradiční metody se používají, ale už se jim bez pohledu dovnitř, na činnost mozku, dost nevěří.

Studenti jsou zde skvělí, velmi motivovaní, chytří a kultivovaní. Zcela zjevná a všudypřítomná disciplína a zaměření na studium se jeví být samozřejmé. Každá samostatná práce prochází několika koly kolokvií, kde doktorandi presentují experimenty nebo výzkumný záměr a ostatní studenti a učitelé komentují, doporučují změny, ptají se na vše, co bylo presentováno. I když je zde vše na komputerech, učení a práce studentů probíhá za velmi intensivní osobní účasti jejich učitelů.

Mluví spolu, diskutují, řeší problémy. Všechny přednášky jsou na velmi vysoké úrovni.

Ještě jsem objevila další součást Columbijské university, nedávno dostavěnou obrovskou moderní budovu v Harlemu, kde nyní sídlí "Zuckerman Mind Body and Behavior Institute". Spoluzakladatelem a spoluředitelem je nositel Nobelovy ceny za výzkum paměti, autor řady skvělých knih prof. Eric Kandel. Je to velký výzkumný ústav, kde asi 40 špičkových vědců dělá jen primární výzkum mozku. Financováno ze soukromých zdrojů, takže vědci nejsou tak zavalení a řízeni grantovými pravidly a účelovou politikou. Úžasné! Zabývají se mnoha detaily, přednášejí a publikují.

Na Columbijské je takové pravidlo, že všechny katedry, ale psychologie a psychiatrie zvlášť neustále zvou vědecké kapacity z USA a světa, aby tady dělali veřejné přednášky pro učitele, studenty a odbornou veřejnost. Je jich několik za týden. New York hučí a člověk skoro neví, co dříve.
Zatím toho o skutečné fascinující činnosti mozku víme velmi málo, ale je strhující se tím zabývat. Jak napsal Eric Kandel: "Poznání o biologii mysli spojuje přírodní vědy s humanitními a objasňuje význam lidské zkušenosti."

Příště už více o tom…


ETA Spotlight Interview: Vandana Apte

Vandana Apte
by Sinia Amanonce

As a biotechnology major, Vandana was interested in becoming a high school chemistry teacher and aimed to do so with the prestigious Teach For America program. Instead, during this academic year, Vandana is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Nový Jičín, Czech Republic. Here, she talks about her experience living abroad, goofing off with her students, and “adulting” in a foreign country.

Fast Facts:

Hometown: Walpole, Massachusetts
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: Rutgers New Brunswick, Biotechnology/ Bio Science Policy and Management, Women’s and Gender Studies
School in the Czech Republic: Mendelova střední škola Nový Jičín
Favorite Czech Word: “Well, my least favorite Czech word is the word for closet [skříň]. It’s so hard to say!”
Favorite Czech Food: “My favorite Czech food is Svíčková and my favorite Czech candy is Fidorka - they remind me of Kit Kat.”
Favorite Quote: “I went to a Kooks concert and I like the title “She Moves in Her Own Way” it’s very captivating of this whole experience.”

Vandana, tell me about yourself.
I went to Rutgers University and I majored in biotechnology. I was going to be a high school chemistry teacher. Actually, I was going to do it through Teach For America, but then I got this offer and I decided to do Fulbright. I definitely want to teach when I get back, perhaps I will teach chemistry. I enjoy teaching my classes, but I don’t think teaching ESL is something I can do for the rest of my life. I want to teach science because it’s something I enjoy doing and it’s what I studied in college. After teaching for a while, I want to go to law school at some point. Either for health policy or human rights law, or something that combines the two areas.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
Well, for a few reasons. I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Europe and I knew the Czech Republic has such a rich history because of it’s communist background which played a very interesting role post World War II. Also, I’m obsessed with genetics and Gregor Mendel is from this area and I think that’s pretty cool. I knew that as an ETA in the Czech Republic, I would be placed in the countryside as opposed to being in the city. Being in the center of Europe appealed to me because I think it is really cool to witness the intersection of so many different European cultures in one country. Also, I’ve never been here before, so I wanted to go.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I think it's something I’ve always known about. My cousin is a few years older than me and she applied to a bunch of fellowships. She ended up doing Gates Cambridge, but she applied to Fulbright too. I think that is where I first heard the name. From then on, it always sounded like something I wanted to do. I thought it would be a cool experience to go abroad for a year, teach in a different country than what I’m used to, and experience their culture.

What is the town you’re living in this year like?
I don’t have anything to complain about! There is about 28,000 people so it’s not small. For me, it’s normal because I grew up in a similar sized town. The center was voted the most beautiful center square in all of the Czech Republic. It’s a gorgeous town. I like the variety of things you can do. You can go shopping in the center, go for nice walks, and we have great hiking trails and beautiful parks. There are a lot of picturesque towns around me, like Štramberk. It looks like something out of a medieval picture. I really enjoy my placement.

What about the school you’re working at this year?
My school is really nice too. The students are hilarious. I love Czech humor, I think it’s so funny. I was placed in a technical school. There are different branches to it and I alternate branches every few months. I was in the business section and in the next two months, I will be in the health section. I think the teachers are really nice. The school is organized. The students are motivated. They want to learn English and realize that speaking English is a gateway to a lot of different things, especially the IT students who play computer games and need to know English for those.

What do you enjoy about teaching English?
Honestly, the cultural exchange is my favorite part. For example, when my youngest students are not able to remember something in English, I’ll ask them to tell me the Czech word and I’ll try to say it. Then when they realize my Czech is really bad, they open up and speak English. They giggle, whisper to each other, and ask me to say other things in Czech. I think that is my favorite part - being a goof and having them be goofy with me.

With the older students I enjoy more discussion based things. I like when they ask me questions about the U.S. the differences between the U.S. and the Czech Republic on various topics like dating, high school, and college. Those conversations are interesting to me because I learn more about Czech life.

Speaking of Czech life, how was it adjusting to living in the Czech Republic?
It’s going really well. I was fortunate enough to have my dad here to help me settle in. I remember feeling this wave of anxiety and panic sweep over me as he left. I realized I was in this foreign country, I didn’t really know the language, and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I haven’t done the whole “adulting” thing in the U.S., let alone in a different country. I never paid a cell phone bill or an internet bill before, so figuring all that out in Czech was really difficult. Now, I feel like a superhero [laughs] and I can do anything! I feel like since I was able to figure it out here, I can “adult” in the U.S. and it will be super simple. In that sense, I feel like I have adjusted well. Also, I can convert very easily between Czech koruna and U.S. dollars, so I consider that a win.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of living abroad, aside from the initial adjustment period?
The fact that every encounter you have runs the risk of someone not being able to understand you. I think that in the U.S. we take for granted that if something happens, like getting lost, you will easily be able to explain what happened and get help. I think the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges for me. For example, I went to Tesco and the cashier asked if I had a Tesco card. I had no idea what she was saying, so I held up the line as I figured it out. This would never happen to me in the U.S. and it’s not a big deal, but it is an everyday hurdle.

On the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think it’s realizing you are way more independent than you thought you were. I realized I can live abroad and be a successful adult in a foreign country where I don’t know the language and didn’t know anyone. Now, I know a lot of people in town, I am very comfortable with the other ETAs and with traveling within the Czech Republic. I consider that a success. I think it speaks to my ability to adapt to different situations and my ability to “adult” - if that is even a real verb.

I think it “to adult” can be used as a verb.
Yes! I’m going to be a successful “adult” when I get back to the U.S. and I think that is the most rewarding thing about this experience. Also, meeting all of these new people! I have connections abroad with such incredibly smart people like my ETA cohort. I really admire them and I think they are really nice people.

Vandana teaches her students the "Thriller" dance.


ETA Spotlight Interview: Kelsey Gerbec

by Sinia Amanonce

Kelsey Gerbec
Kelsey Gerbec is a 22-year-old, Indiana University graduate who has spent time teaching English in Peru and Rwanda. This year, she is continuing her experience with international education by serving as an English Teaching Assistant in Litomyšl, Czech Republic. Read below to find out what Kelsey has to say about language education and acquisition, conquering imposter syndrome, and her experience introducing the Cha Cha slide to Czech teens.

Fast Facts
Hometown: Geneva, Illinois
Age: 22
College, Major/Minor: Indiana University, Secondary Math Education/ Spanish and International and Comparative Education
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnázium A. Jiráska Litomyšl
Favorite Czech word and food: “Oh! Svíčková! I don’t know if that counts as a word because it is food, but it is my favorite Czech food.”
Favorite Quote: “Keep moving forward” - Walt Disney.

Please, tell me about yourself.
I am from the Chicago suburbs and I went to Indiana University where I studied Secondary Math Education with minors in Spanish and International Education.

My dad works for an international company so I grew up always fascinated with living abroad and teaching abroad. I taught abroad for two summers, once in Rwanda and another summer in Peru. I always knew, that when I graduate, I want to teach abroad.

That’s really cool that you can speak Spanish.
Yeah! Peru really helped but it’s been about a year and a half since.

Are you learning Czech?
Slowly here and there. Basically, I studied a bit before like numbers and greetings. I talk to my mentors a lot, they gave me basic readings, and they said they will help me with the rest. We’ll go to a cafe and they’ll talk me through the menu or we will be at a store and they’ll point out new words. I’ve been learning on the spot and it’s way more helpful than any book or YouTube video. I always revert back to Spanish but I have to tell myself “No, no, no.” It’s really interesting thinking of language acquisition as I’m trying to learn a new language.

Why did you apply to the Czech Republic and not to a Spanish speaking country?
I wanted to work in secondary schools. That was my major and I have a passion for preteens and teenagers so I knew I wanted to be in a country where I would definitely be working in a secondary school. I really wanted to try something new. When I was in Rwanda, I learned completely different skills from what I learned in Peru. In Peru, it was completely different from what I learned in the U.S. I wanted to be in a different culture and education system, so while I love Spanish and it’s been a huge part of my life, I wanted to challenge myself.

What do you think of the school you are working at this year? What is it like?
I love my school. I am in a gymnazium with a 4-year and an 8-year program. I work with all the students in the 4-year program and the 6 oldest classes in the 8-year program. I mainly work on applying English and giving them a more cultural basis for language instead of just grammar. I am in a great school environment. My colleagues are constantly checking in with me, helping, and seeing if I need anything. We have high caliber students and they are eager, attentive, and they see the benefit of working hard to improve their English.

What do you think of the Czech Republic? How was adjusting to living here?
That’s a big question. It has been much easier and quicker adjustment than I expected. With knowing little Czech, I was interested to see how I would navigate grocery stores, shopping, and getting to know people considering I’m still learning the language. Everyone in my town is so patient and so kind. I tell my teachers I feel like Litomyšl has really become my hometown because I pass students and colleagues all the time. Being in a town of about ten thousand is perfect for an ETA because it is small enough to meet people but big enough to get I what I need.

Overall, I love the history, architecture, everything is beautiful and so well preserved. I am shocked at how fast it felt to be comfortable to be here, after a week and a half I thought “Okay, I got this.”

I think Fulbright has a reputation for being competitive, and it is! But when ETAs arrive they feel a sort of imposter syndrome and it is such a great feeling when you realize you can do this.
That’s what I thought! I thought I would feel like an outsider, but I have the best mentors that anyone can ever have. I literally went to dinner with them last night. Without them I don’t think I would have adjusted as well as I did. They help me with everything, yet they think I’m the most independent person. They are like my big sisters, moms, and friends. I still need them a lot. They really embraced me and made me part of the town.

What advice would you give an ETA on communicating with their mentors?
Don’t be nervous if your mentors are not communicative over the summer. My mentor took long spreads of time to answer and I was very nervous. But, they picked me up from the airport and from that moment, they have been nothing but the most helpful, supportive, encouraging people. Don’t be scared if you feel like things are not communicated well over email. You have to remember English is not their native language so they may be nervous to message you, just as you are nervous to message them. Don’t hesitate if there is a problem. I think, at first, I was scared if I did not know something. I would be scared to ask “How do I set up a bank account?” or “How do I tell my students this?” Once I realized it is okay to ask a million questions, and they want to answer, because they want you to feel comfortable, I was more relaxed.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have a bunch of English clubs because that is what my school really wanted. I have two actual clubs where we play games in English, listen to music, and last week we did the Cha Cha slide [laughs]. I have never seen 13-year-old Czechs so entertained in the two months that I have been here. Then I have another English club with coffee and conversation, so I basically sit in my favorite cafe and whichever students want to come, sit, talk, and it is very casual. A lot of them of breaking down their walls of what they are scared to ask or say. The teachers became interested so they asked me to start a “teacher coffee and conversation,” so we sit and talk, and I really like it. I feel like if I can help the teachers then that will help the students for many years past the time I’m here.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think the two biggest things are one, everyone in my school - the teachers, students, and their families, have been so welcoming to me. As an outsider, it makes me want to, when I go back to the U.S., if there is ever a foreign exchange student or someone new, wherever I may be living, it makes me want to be more of a welcoming person. The way it makes me feel when people reach out and make me want to feel at home, I think “I want to do this for more people, people who are going somewhere new, I want to make them feel welcome.”

The second thing, is as a teacher, I came here to improve and learn more about being a teacher. A lot of my content is based on application and how to take English in grammar classes and apply that to real life. I realize the value of getting to know students on a personal level. We talked about what my students are thankful for because we learned about Thanksgiving. I want to try to make more real life connections with students to make their learning more valuable.

How are you feeling about your experience with Fulbright at this moment?
I am loving my experience. I feel like as much as my days are starting to feel normal, I have moments where I have to pinch myself. I come home and I think, “Wow, I seriously get to live here and teach in this incredible school with these wonderful people.” I’m very thankful because not that many people get this experience and Fulbright is so well organized. You feel like you are part of something big and that feeling of being part of something big motivates you even more. I want to be a good representative in my school for the program, for the U.S., and for English speakers as a whole. I feel like knowing I’m part of something is important. 

Do you want to add anything?
I don’t know, I love it here. If I can move my family and plop them over here, I can definitely see myself staying even longer.

Kelsey's English Club during their Thanksgiving Feast