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.

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