ETA Spotlight Interview: Mason Patrick Winkie

by Sinia Amanonce

Next year, Mason Winkie will attend West Virginia University for medical school. This year, he is serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Uherský Brod, Czech Republic. Below Mason talks about his Czechoslovakian ancestry, crossing the Slovak border on skis, his experiences with Czech traditions, and the power of using memes in the classroom.

Fast Facts:
Mason Patrick Winkie

Hometown: Bridgeport, West Virginia
Age: 23
College, Major/Minor: West Virginia Wesleyan College, Biochemistry and Clinical Psychology
School in the Czech Republic: Střední průmyslová škola a Obchodní akademie Uherský Brod
Favorite Czech Food: Vepřo knedlo zelo
Favorite Quote: “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” - Ayn Rand

Tell me about yourself.
My name is Mason Winkie. I come from Bridgeport, West Virginia. I’ve lived in West Virginia my entire life. I attended West Virginia Wesleyan College where I got two degrees. The first one was a bachelors of science in biochemistry and the second one was a bachelors of arts in clinical psychology. In the future, I will be attending WVU (West Virginia University) for medical school next year. My dream is to be a doctor, hopefully an oncologist and maybe a pediatric oncologist. We’ll see if I can emotionally handle that.

You have lived most of your life in West Virginia and you plan to go back to study. Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright in the Czech Republic?
My grandfather’s family is from former Czechoslovakia. I actually included this in my grant statement. My mother came back from visiting her cousins who live in Žilina, which is on the Slovakian side. Anyway, It’s the closest family connection I had and I really wanted to go back and learn about my roots.

Have you been to Žilina?
Not yet. My family comes next week and my mom’s cousins are coming to visit us. I’ll see them and meet them for the first time in about a week and a half. I’m interested to meet them.

That’s exciting! How did you first hear about the Fulbright program?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know when I first heard about it but I have known about it for a very long time. I think someone told me about it when I was in high school. I don’t come from a small place, but it’s definitely not a big place. Bridgeport has a population of around 8,000 people and a lot of people around me have never left the state of West Virginia, let alone the country. I’ve always had a strong desire to explore as much of the world as possible and I love meeting new people, especially people who come from different cultures. When I first heard about the Fulbright, I knew I wanted to do it at some point in my life.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed or learned about Czech culture?
I don’t think anything has been overly surprising, everything feels normal to things back home. If I had to pick something, it would be the lackness of laws. I don’t mean that in a negative way at all but its like things are easier here. In the U.S. I feel like we have a very strict set of laws that if you were to step outside of those in the slightest manner, its an instant call for a lawyer or something complex. Here, in the Czech Republic, it’s like “You should have not done that, but no harm, no foul.” It makes school situations a lot more relaxed. The atmosphere overall is more relaxed - that’s been surprising to me.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you learned sooner?
I did a lot of research before arriving in the Czech Republic. I spoke to a lot of people... Oh! So this is what it is - there’s this app called IDOS. [Editor’s note: The IDOS app, also available through idos.cz, finds the quickest public transportation routes in the Czech Republic] Where I come from, there is virtually no public transportation. I try to be smart about these things and really read about what I’m doing but sometimes, it can be really difficult. Even my friends who have lived in the Czech Republic must have forgotten to tell me about this, but this IDOS app makes traveling in the Czech Republic so much easier. I know how to use the public transportation system and am more aware of the options for public transportation. I wish I knew about this app before I came here.

Where are you living this year?
I live in a town called Uherský Brod. It’s near the border of Slovakia and the southeastern part of the Czech Republic. My students think it's a small town. The population ranges from 10,000 to 12,000 people. They have incorporated the populations of smaller villages in the nearby area into the town so it depends on who you ask. We have a wonderful city center, a really beautiful church that sits there, and it has everything I need. As far as things go, it’s a very easy location to get out of. I’m actually closer to Vienna and Bratislava than I am to Prague. The great thing is, that since I live in south Moravia, it’s a lot more traditional and folk. People wear a lot of the costumes, come from very small villages, and speak regional dialects. I get a better view of what the Czech Republic is or used to be. Some people say tradition is dying here, but where I live, it is very much strong and alive.

Since you live so close to Vienna and Bratislava, have you been able to travel a lot?
Yes, I’ve traveled quite a bit. In Slovakia, there is a hiking trail I’d go on every couple of weekends or so with my colleagues to go cross-country skiing. I’ve crossed into Slovakia seven times in the span of a few hours because the trail is right on the edge of the border.

That sounds like a lot of fun. Can you tell me more about your experiences with Czech traditions?
I think it’s amazing. The biggest festivals have been wine festivals during the summer and student ceremonies throughout the year. Here, in southern Moravia, they take wine and slivovica (plum brandy) very seriously. In the fall, it’s the harvest and wine producing season, so they have these huge festivals. People from the local villages that have grown their own wine wore their traditional folk costumes and carried these caskets of their wine, and others had plastic cups. People that grew their own wine would give out little pours for others to try what they have made. There was traditional folk music, did folk dances, and everyone seemed very happy. The folk music is wonderful and very unique. The only thing that I thought was weird is they do this thing where they scream in the middle of the songs and that caught me off guard. My colleagues were laughing at me. But aside from the screaming, it’s all good.
For one of the student ceremonies for the fourth year students, I actually got to wear a traditional costume. I went with my mentor and other people from the community and it was a really nice experience. One of my students works as a mentor to teach younger students their local dialect from a small village that is a mixture of Slovak and Czech. This is something I really respect. Their culture and language has been around for hundreds of years and they work really hard to continue it for as long as they can. It makes for such a unique experience.

What are your other students like?
I teach at a technical vocational school that also has a business academy. The schools are very different. I’d say the technical school is about 95% male. The students at the technical school are the ones I see the most often. I see them four times a week verses only seeing the business academy students once a week. The guys at the technical school are very fun people. A lot of them work on computer programming, robot maneuvering, some of them do blacksmithing, and other traditional factory jobs. They have a very good sense of humor and outlook on life. One style I use with them sometimes is to teach using memes. I don’t know why, but the meme culture, especially in my school, is incredible. If I give them a good meme to laugh at, I know the rest of the class will be perfectly be fine. At first, they were very shy and overtime, I was able to build a strong relationship with them.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching English?

I like teaching English because it gives these students an outlet to really reach further than what has already been given to them. Being here reminds me of home in the sense that a lot of people haven’t left home or the area. Learning English gives them that opportunity to do more. I try to push my students to learn English so that they have this whole world in front of them to explore. The rewards I know my students will have in their futures as a result of learning English is the most enjoyable part.

On the flip side, what will you take from time in the Czech Republic?
When I was a kid, if I saw a house in the distance, I’d think “How does this person live there? What do they do? What makes them who they are?” Ultimately, I knew they’re American so I had some idea of what’s going on. But being in a totally unfamiliar setting and living in a country I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to live in, like this small village in the Czech Republic on the border of Slovakia - I’m able to see the traditions and make these connections with people. You see that people are the same no matter where you go. This is part of my desire of being a doctor - the idea that if I was a doctor in the U.S., I could still help people in Russia, China, or anywhere in the world. People are all the same and seeing that on a personal level is a really rewarding experience.

Mason, his students and colleagues in Uhersky Brod.

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