ETA Spotlight Interview: Danielle Mueller

by Chloe' Sky

Danielle Mueller

Danielle Mueller is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the little town of Sušice, Czech Republic, near the Šumava mountains. An educator with a Bachelor’s in Sociology and English, Danielle studied abroad in Prague before Fulbright. Read below to find out how many Statement of Purpose drafts Danielle had to write, how Fulbright has impacted her self-image for the better, and what unexpected faux pas she’s committed by drawing basic shapes! 

Fast Facts
Cortlandt Manor, New York
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Sociology and English plus completion of an Education track
School in the Czech Republic: Gymnázium Sušice
Favorite Czech word or phrase: “Kočička” – meaning a small cat or a pretty girl
Favorite Czech food: Svíčková
Favorite Quote: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Tell me about yourself.
I’m 23 and I’ve lived in Westchester County my whole life. This is the first time I’ve lived abroad for so long, not like study abroad in college, but in the sense of having this permanent home for a year. I’m very athletic, I love music and singing, and I’m a very social person. I love to be around people. It’s a hard question!

The simplest things can take us by surprise sometimes! So here’s another one: Why did you choose Czech Republic?
My college really stressed the importance of going abroad. I was lucky enough that I could fit a semester study abroad into my schedule, and I chose Prague because (1) I wanted to go to Europe, (2) the classes I took there fit nicely with my major, and (3) I was so impressed by the city’s beauty. So I did one semester at Charles University in which I took courses about essential European writers, including one specifically on Kafka; “Comprehending the Holocaust”; the history of the Czech Republic, and Czech language. I loved being here and four months was simply not enough, especially in such a big city where I could easily speak English with the many foreign students. I didn’t get enough of my experience, so I knew I had to come back and that when I did, I wanted it to be a much more meaningful and immersive experience.

What advice would you give to those writing their Statements of Purpose?
I would say to let your authentic self shine through. Writing applications are difficult and they often feel forced. I remember I wrote about fifteen drafts before I got it right! Keep pulling the strings and when you hit on the anecdote that’s just right, hone in on it.

Do you have any advice in general for those coming to Czech Republic?
I would want people to know that in Czech Republic you’ll be received with open arms. There are a lot of stereotypes about how Czech people are cold. Of course, don’t expect warm and fuzzy at first, but when you go a bit deeper, you’ll find that this is the furthest thing from the truth.

In terms of fitting in with your community, your fate is being chosen for a year based on what your application tells the Commission. Be prepared to be flexible no matter what cards you are given, but get involved! Say yes to every opportunity you feel comfortable with. Go to concerts and plays to support your students. The Czechs will open their hearts to you – you can trust that.

How big is your community, and what’s interesting about the area?
Sušice has a population of 11,000 people. It’s in a valley near the Šumava mountains and the Otava river. It’s so easy to be active here because everyone in my town is so active. Everyone knows everyone here and everywhere you look, people are cross-country skiing, hiking, and biking. Another interesting thing is the former Solo factory, which made safety matches. It’s closed now and you can see the ruins of the factory and its smokestacks. (I interrupt and say: Wow! I think I actually have a box of matches somewhere by them; it even says Made in Czechoslovakia.) That’s the one!

What about at school?
For a small town, Sušice is always buzzing. And the Gymnázium I work at is great. It has four- and eight-year tracks and a wonderful English department, which is always looking to improve itself. For example, we are currently taking part in an international Erasmus project called “Fight for Tolerance.” Overall, it’s a very welcoming environment, and I felt welcome from the first day.

I feel that I can really fulfill my interests here. I’ve joined a choir and a football team, and I’m taking ballroom dancing classes. At school, I have started a beginner English club for teachers to encourage alternative ways of learning.

What’s interesting is that in my school environment, age doesn’t really matter. This is different from American schools. I remember being in high school and clearly noticing the difference between freshmen and seniors. But everyone gets along here, and the students treat each other well.

That’s amazing; I’m so happy to hear it. Can you tell me about the adjustment process you went through?
Adjusting was easier than I thought! The thing that terrified me most was the idea of being alone. It was like jumping into a dark swimming pool with no idea of what’s below the surface. However, I was embraced within the first couple of days. The first night, I remember playing UNO with my mentor’s kids. She also invited me to lunch every Sunday, and though it’s a 40-minute walk from me, I went. I didn’t realize until later what a big step that is for Czechs. I got to practice saying those basics, Dobrý den, čau, ahoj – even though that last one will always be strange for me since I will always associate it with pirates J (Interviewer’s note: These are different ways to say „hello/goodbye“ with varying levels of formality. Čau is the Czech version of ciao, and ahoj (ahoy) is in fact a normal greeting!)

It sounds like it wasn’t so bad! Did you face any challenges?
On the adjustment front, it was difficult dealing with ties back home, as well as social expectations here. In the end, [making friends and fitting in] was rewarding, like – I can do this! I could have easily stayed at home – it would have been so easy. I wake up some days and say to myself, I’m living in a foreign country. And I think I’m doing a very good job. It gives you the opportunity to be alone with yourself. Not everyone has a chance in life to do it, to relocate and in a different sense, really meet yourself.

How do you think Fulbright has impacted you?
Fulbright has shown me the power of intercultural exchange. Before I went abroad in my Junior year of college a member of the Global Education team, they gave us a quote to consider: “There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.” And I really believe in it. Here we have a support group of 26 other Americans and the Commission and it’s not so difficult. The program gives us structure – and yet there’s a lot of freedom – and there are people to fall back on; you’re never truly alone. At the same time, every one of us has a unique experience. I think it’s helped me advocate for myself growing as an individual, which can be frustrating for some but not for me. It’s improved my communication skills, and I’ve gotten to know my own language better – that’s a side effect of teaching to non-native speakers.

Give me a funny anecdote from your time here.
I’ve got two, and although the second one may not be so appropriate, it will definitely be educational for incoming Fulbrighters…

The first one wasn’t so funny at the time. It’s about Czech eating habits. When I was at [my now-boyfriend] Pepa’s house for the first time, it was Sunday lunch, and I was being my normal American self, cutting with the knife in my right hand and then switching to eat with the fork. And so, his dad asked, “Is she left-handed?” It was just this huge mess and I ended up being so embarrassed because everyone was laughing at my method of switching hands. Now I’m hyper-aware of how I eat and am training myself to eat like a Czech. When I go to switch hands, I say, No, Danielle, focus…

The second one is about a sports lesson I was doing in class with a lower English level while co-teaching. We were talking about baseball and I was explaining the baseball field, so I drew a diamond on the board. But in Czech, a diamond represents the vagina. I was labeling it: Here’s home base; first, second, third; here’s the pitcher’s mound… And my colleague was saying quietly, “No, no…” Of course she couldn’t tell me because we were standing in front of the class and everyone was laughing. I felt so awkward, but I was also frustrated because I only wanted to describe baseball!
Czech Christmas-themed class by Danielle.