2013-14 U.S. Fulbrighters Comment On Their Experience in the CR

At the end of their stay in the Czech Republic, Fulbright grantees are required to submit a Final Report where they reflect on their experience. Here is an excerpt from these Final Reports from the academic year 2013-14.  The comments can be also found in our Annual Report.

The traditional cultural setting of the Czech Republic attracts many U.S. students. Matthew Goodheart conducting research at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague strengthened previous relationships with local artists through collaborative projects and concerts.  He also made professional connections with his host institution and the Institut Intermedii through a series of lectures, workshop, and private work with students.  Finally, Goodheart gave a presentation at a conference in Brno, and it strengthened his professional connections through attendance at both the Ostrava Days and Contempuls music festivals.

A growing number of U.S. students come to pursue their research at Czech scientific institutions. Thuy Hua researching at the Institute of Physiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences was very satisfied with her host: “I learned and perfected many techniques that will be critical to my success in my graduate program in the future and opened my eyes to how this lab operates and I can’t wait to transfer the techniques that I learned here to my future work.”

The position of teaching assistants can be much more demanding than that of research students. Quite often, they come from big U.S. cities to small Czech places where only few people can communicate in English. Getting used to the kind of language isolation can be difficult. Lori Dougherty teaching in Strakonice comments on that: “The biggest cultural adjustment was coming from New York and living in Strakonice, which in my viewpoint, is an extremely small town. Of course, being in a small town I had to learn Czech quickly, at least the basics in order to survive, and challenge myself to leave my comfort zone. Though there are many activities for students to do and clubs to join in Strakonice, there aren’t many opportunities to join sports or social activities for adults in my town.”

On the other hand, a teaching assistant can have a very unique position at a small place where he/she may be the only American.  Davis Holter was affiliated with the secondary school in Kyjov in 2013/14.  Holter said, “I suppose the most impressive thing about my time here has been how consistently generous so many people have been toward me. On many, many occasions, both acquaintances and strangers have gone out of their way to assist me or expose me to special things that I otherwise wouldn't have seen. I certainly won't forget that.”

Lori and many other teaching assistants also point to a number of differences teaching assistants have to cope with: “The education system is so different here, especially coming from a Title I, low-socioeconomic school in Brooklyn, NY. There are no security personnel at schools, no dress codes, and it seems like hardly a disciplinary code, mainly because students behave exceptionally well (for the most part). Teachers arrive at school a few minutes before their first lesson, and leave immediately after the last one ends. There’s not much for faculty camaraderie when teachers mainly stay in their own offices while at work. Students hardly ever get homework, and they finish school exceptionally early. Moreover, I had to teach students how to be creative, think outside the box, and question things. The school system here is very much based on memorization of facts rather than real world application.”

David Tykvart placed in Brno notes: “I was most shocked with the openness of my students. They often told me things I would have never said to a teacher. They would sometimes criticize the other English teachers, which I would not allow. It was hard to know where to draw a boundary since things that would not be acceptable in the US are not taboo here.” 

Also Emily Jensen teaching in Klášterec nad Ohří was surprised by the relaxed student-teacher relationships.

Most teaching assistants value the Fulbright grant for becoming confident in their cross-cultural communication skills: adaptability, organization, independence, and time management, just to name a few. Mariel Tavakoli teaching in Znojmo notes in her report: “I really feel like I have grown a lot this year and am proud of the relationships I have formed with people in Znojmo. It’s hard to imagine how much has changed since the beginning of the year and yet how fast the time has gone. Living in a smaller town and in Moravia has meant an entirely different and wonderful experience. Even after spending another 10 months here I feel I still have so much to learn between the language and the culture. I have really enjoyed soaking up as much as possible and hope that I will continue to visit and keep in touch with the people I have met here.”

David Tykvart tells about his experience: “I have strengthened my public speaking abilities and have become more comfortable with taking risks without being afraid of sounding stupid. My time in Brno helped me create new friendships and strengthened my relationship to the Czech Republic- one that had begun to dwindle as my grandparents grew older.”

It is not only teaching English but also a number of extracurricular activities that teaching assistants pursue. Many become engaged in volunteer work, e.g. Lee McKinstry teaching in Bohumín in 2013/14 got involved with volunteering in the Roma community, which was one of her goals for the Fulbright: “I volunteered at a Roma community center, Majak, that one of my friends teaches at. I helped with crafting activities there, gave presentations about United States customs, and helped facilitate parties for the children and talent shows. I met some of my closest friends there, and the experience was deeply rewarding.”

U.S. research scholars come to the Czech Republic because their project is focused on some aspects of Czech history and culture or because they want to collaborate with a specific research team here or a research topic is of a global nature. Thus, Daniel Donato affiliated with the Czech University of Life Sciences and studying forest disturbance gained a significantly new perspective in his field of study: “In short, I learned there is a surprising amount of parallels between forests in Europe and those in my home region, and now I can use published studies from here in an informed way, to better understand my studies in my region.  Also I now have a new set of collaborators and projects that will contribute to my overall research program.” 

James Lewis conducted research in a team with Dr. Jelínek, Czech Fulbright alumnus at the Institute of Physics in Prague, and believes “that being associated with the group of Pavel Jelínek is outstanding and there will be many publications that will come out of this association.”

Linney Wix affiliated with the Jewish Museum in Prague summarizes in her report: “My work serves memory and the lives and remembrances of children who created art in Dicker-Brandeis’s classes in Terezín. Increasing my understanding of European history, especially in relation to memory, has been and will continue to be a large part of the cultural and international understanding that I take from the Fulbright research experience. My research is one very small piece of the much larger issue of remembrance in Europe’s history.”

U.S. scholars lecturing at Czech universities help internationalize their programs and ways of teaching but on the other hand they also gain a lot. Jimmy Gore, who taught a graduate course at Charles University, anticipates adopting what he learned to teach at Gallaudet University: “In addition, I expect that I will be featuring more material drawn from the Czech Republic in my future courses. I will be able to offer a more international perspective and experience in my courses. I will also encourage my students to study abroad in the Czech Republic because of its richness of history and culture.”

Eric Ugland lectured at Masaryk University. Ugland writes in his report: “I would love to return to the United States and begin teaching a course on comparative media law and policy. Regardless, I will certainly begin to incorporate more examples from the European experience to show my students how other countries are addressing these issues. Another idea I would like to pursue is a collaborative teaching project involving both my students in the US and some students in the Czech Republic in which both groups of students would investigate, debate, exchange ideas about and ultimately seek to solve a current media law problem or dilemma. This would give students from both countries a chance to exchange ideas with people who might approach these issues from a different perspective and would give them some exposure to the laws and traditions in other jurisdictions. I expect to maintain a closer connection to the Faculty of Law and particularly to the faculty members associated with the Institute for Law and Technology. I have developed several close connections with the faculty there and I expect to maintain those friendships after I return to the United States.  I also expect to continue to work professionally with those colleagues as well. My hope is to return in the fall–if not this fall then the next one–for a conference hosted by the Institute. But whether that happens or not, I will stay in touch with these faculty members who have interests and areas of expertise that connect nicely with mine.”

Rory Stuart lectured at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts. Stuart finds his experience excellent and said, “making personal connections with people in the Czech Republic, and with jazz musicians here and from other parts of Europe; meeting students whom I can help in their future career decisions”.

Jessica Wilson who gave courses at Charles University states that she had never worked at a foreign university and been integrated into another culture to the extent that she was able to through the Fulbright program: “I learned much more about culture living from inside it, which is what the Fulbright program inspires. Not only has my interest in the history of Prague been piqued, but my interest in countries that were occupied following World War II has increased. I want to challenge my students more after teaching in this system to apply what they are learning to issues in the broader world. I have already asked the chair of my department about ways to teach the two courses I developed over here. I plan to include more Czech authors in my world literature courses, to create a course solely focused on the literature between 1939-1989 in which students will also get to travel to Prague,and to encourage my students to study in Prague post-graduation.”

Patricia Dyk, Fulbright-Masaryk University Distinguished Chair appreciated being immersed into a daily life and local culture: “I have an even deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Czechs under totalitarianism. I have tried to equip the next generation of young scholars to be engaged citizens and we have learned from one another. This experience will further enhance my education abroad course ‘Leadership Lessons from Prague.’ Also, I believe I will have less tolerance for students who do not take their education seriously after having observed what students and their families have gone through to be able to pursue higher education in other countries.”

It is not only grantees themselves but also their accompanying families who benefit from the Fulbright Program. Jimmy Gore says in his report: “Being together with my two deaf sons in the Czech Republic was an extraordinary experience for all of us.  My sons got to experience the disorienting challenges and pleasures of travel and immersing oneself in a different culture.  My sons wrote a collective blog about their time here – thus sharing their experiences with their friends and school back in Maryland and Louisiana and establishing a record life in Czech Republic for themselves. I am confident that the effects of living here in Hradec Kralove will be very positive and long-lasting.  My youngest son now has a consistent refrain: ‘I want to go everywhere and do everything.’ It has added new dimensions to our lives.“

Also, Erik Ugland reports on a very invaluable experience for his family: “My wife has loved her time in the Czech Republic and she cannot wait to return. My kids have also had a great time. This was their first trip outside of the United States and I cannot even begin to list all of the things they have learned, sites they have visited, people they have met, and new things they have tried. Breaking them away from their home environment and forcing them to live in a different culture has been very valuable for them. Their experience at the international school was particularly enriching and gave them a chance to meet other kids from all over the world, and they established friendships that they hope to sustain even after we return to the United States.”

Fulbright specialists bring expertise and contacts that are much needed at Czech universities. They represent a different teaching style, which stimulates critical thinking among students. Simultaneously, specialists themselves find the participation in the program enriching. They are able to learn about different cultures and establish new partnerships.  The program has been particularly crucial for universities outside the capital which may experience difficulties in attracting international scholars. It has also been very important for introducing the fields not developed in the Czech Republic.

The program brings rewarding experience to grantees and leaves positive traces at host universities. Prof. Lukeš notes how pleased he was by his ability to empower the students: “When I started, most were unwilling to speak in the classroom -- even when invited to do so. Their attitude changed -- improved -- within a few days.”

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