Get to Know a Grantee – Clara Cushing

Interview By: Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Clara Cushing
Clara Cushing is a 22 year-old American working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the historic town of Benešov, Czech Republic. Cushing arrived to the Czech Republic by way of California, but before that she spent five years living with her family in Germany on an American military base. This early exposure to travel and new cultures instilled an appreciation for diversity and cultural exchange in Cushing, experiences that inspired her to teach abroad after graduating earlier this year. Below, she describes living in the town that was once home to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and what it is like to work at an agricultural high school—Surprise! It involves going horseback riding once a week.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

Hometown: Monterey, California
University/Major: Santa Clara University, Classical Studies/English
School in Czech Republic: VOŠ a střední zemědělská škola, Benešov
Age: 22
Favorite Quote: “Learning to dance in the rain."
Favorite Czech food: “I like it all. It's all good.” 


Where are you are from, and what did you study?

I’m from California, and when I was seven years old, I moved to Germany for five years because my dad was a doctor in the army. When I was 12, we moved back to California, and we’ve been there for ten years now. I graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies and English from Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California.

What are you passionate about? 
I think I’m most passionate about writing. I enjoy writing my own stories and essays, but I also like helping other people write. At my university, I worked as a writing partner for three years helping ESL students with their writing. My roommate was from Shanghai, China, so I helped her a lot with her papers. I think that’s where I found my purpose in helping other people communicate and express themselves with the written word. I’m also passionate about literature, communication, cultures and food too, but just eating it, not cooking.

Why did you choose the Czech Republic?
Part of the reason is because I lived in Germany for five years and I’ve always wanted to come back to Europe; it was really hard for me to leave. I also studied in Italy for four months during my university studies, so I wanted to see another side of Europe after seeing Germany and Italy. I also have family that is from the Czech Republic: my grandmother’s grandmother immigrated from Czechoslovakia. My other grandparents are from Hamburg, Germany. They grew up during the war where as children they were sent to the Czech Republic in an effort by the Germans to preserve the brains of the country. The history is really interesting, and it ties to my family history as well. I wanted to learn more about it and come back to Europe.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I first heard about it my junior year of college. I was in an Argumentation class and my professor, who had done Fulbright somewhere in the Caribbean, was telling us about the program. I’d been thinking about teaching after my university studies, so I had the Fulbright program in the back of my mind from my professor. Then, when I started researching more, I realized that I really wanted to go back to Europe. My sister also pushed me to apply for the Fulbright program.

In what ways did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I spent a lot of time with my family because I knew I would be away for a whole year. I also took a couple of trips by myself to get used to solo traveling, and I visited my grandparents. My 84 year-old opa did a lot of research for me. He Googled my school, he Google-walked all the streets of my town, he showed me everything! I also bought a Czech textbook, and I tried to start learning, but it’s a difficult language. I’m still struggling with it.

How about the school you’re working at this year?
It’s a specialized agriculture school. They have a few different branches, mainly agriculture, veterinary and natural sciences. They have gardening, golf, horse breeding and horse riding. The school is about 400-500 students. All of the students have practical training in addition to their classes, which is interesting, because Czech school timetables change a lot more than American ones do. This school especially changes a lot, because as far as I understand, the practicums depend on the weather. There has to be a lot of flexibility. It’s an interesting juggle of the school and practical work. They practice driving tractors in between the lunch and the school buildings. They have a farm that they practice on too, which is really cool because I get to go horseback riding every week.

I also teach special English classes, like veterinary English. It’s been difficult, but also really interesting because I get to learn anatomy and things like that. It’s pretty cool so far, and I don’t have to go to dissections or anything, so I’m okay with it. 

What town are you living in this year?
Benešov is about 40 kilometers south of Prague. The population is about 16,000 people. The town has pretty much everything I need in it. Everyone I’ve met has been really helpful and kind. The town also has the castle Konopiště, which was Franz Ferdinand’s castle. It has some interesting history because it was also the Nazi SS headquarters during the war.

What was it like adjusting to life in your town?
Surprisingly, it was not very difficult. I was afraid I was going to be lonely, but when I got here my mentor was super helpful and friendly and their family kept me busy. I just didn’t feel alone at all, and all the Fulbright people are so cool. We all have similar interests, so it makes it easy to hang out and get along. It hasn’t been difficult because I’ve met so many amazing people. However, winter is coming, and that might make things more difficult [laughs].
[Editor’s note: Clara is from California, and has no concept of what winter is].

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have two coffee clubs: I meet once a week with students and once a week with teachers. They all have different levels of English and it’s fun to get everyone together. The stronger ones can translate back and forth and help the other students. The teachers have different levels also. In both clubs, we talk mostly about cultural differences between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. It’s just a great chance to talk outside the classroom in a more informal setting.

What do you like about teaching English?
I love English and I love grammar. I’m probably one of the only people who does, but I really feel strongly about it! I like being able to help people express themselves and realize that they can communicate their ideas, because I think everyone has ideas and opinions that are worth hearing. It’s frustrating when you can’t communicate in speech or in writing, so I like that side of helping people realize that they can communicate. It’s really fun here, especially because with the cultural differences, we get to come to cultural understandings while we’re also learning the language.

What do you hope to accomplish during your grant year?
I hope to make a difference, an impact in the people that I meet here... I know that in teaching English, I won’t be able to make any one student fluent in English by the end of the year, but I think mostly I can help by promoting cultural understanding. I want to learn from other people, and I want that exchange. I want to make an impact and show them what another lifestyle or culture is like, and help them make the same cultural connections that I really like to make. By seeing another culture, you learn a lot about what you want, what you value and what you don’t value, so it goes both ways. I want my students and the teachers I work with to see that even as they’re learning from me, I’m learning from them at the same time.

What do you think is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Language barriers and cultural differences. Living on my own in a foreign country and figuring out what to do when things break and my landlord only speaks Czech. That’s been difficult.

A cultural difference that was a challenging, or it was important for me to realize early on was that we have different ideas of things like hobbies and how interested you are in something. I think for Czechs, when they’re interested in something, they’re really interested in it. I’m more spread out and dabble more into hobbies. For example, I said I was interested in hiking or biking, and I ended up going on a 40 km bike ride through plains, rocks, and rivers. It was the same with the hike: I thought it would be like a two-hour hike, and it turned into a whole day hiking! Little cultural differences like that. It can be difficult to navigate them, but the difficulty is figuring out those differences and staying positive even when you’re in the 35th km of your bike ride. You have to stay calm and positive, and just enjoy where they take you. 

What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?

That’s probably also the most rewarding part: overcoming the challenges of different barriers or cultural differences. Getting to know people, and seeing how totally different their lives are, but also how similar they are. Finding value in the different lifestyles. I think it’s nice to be able to see the pros and cons to both lifestyles; it’s rewarding to see the other side.

What places in Czech Republic do you want to travel to?
I want to see as much as I can! I really want to go to the Trosky Castle. Also Karlovy Vary and Český Krumlov are at the top of my list.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
It’s about everything that I think is really important in learning a foreign language, and that’s cultural understanding. It promotes cultural understanding between everyday citizens, and getting to know people on a personal level where you’re giving your actual opinions and showing actual American values through everyday interactions. It’s much different from reading about Americans, or meeting American tourists, because this is about creating friendships. I haven’t been as afraid of being imperfect, because the idea is to get to know our culture on a personal level, including flaws and different opinions. It’s about communicating and exchanging different ideas.

What was one of your favorite things that has happened so far?
There have been so many! I’ve gone to some really cool events like Velká Pardubická, which is the steeplechase event. Seeing cultural events like that has been really cool. I think one of my favorite experiences was when I lived with a family for the first month. It was a teacher’s family, and her husband and two boys, who are five and seven, do not speak any English. They took me into the family completely, they called me their third child and it was great to be taken in like that. I went to a wedding with them, and I took the boys to school in the morning before work. The boys actually taught me my first Czech words! My Czech vocab comes from playing Legos with the boys.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’ve already changed a lot. I’ve become more comfortable traveling by myself, and more reliant on myself for figuring things out, but also more willing to ask for help. That’s something at home I kind of hesitate to do, but I got over that here because you have to ask for help. I’ve also gotten more comfortable talking to people I don’t know, and accepting help in addition to asking for it. I think all those things have changed me a lot, as well as learning more about different cultures and historical backgrounds, like different governments between communism and democracy. I’ve definitely learned a lot. I’ve gotten a lot better communicating, and it’s increased my appreciation for cultural differences as well. I would love to continue working with other countries and cultures.

Do you have plans for what you’ll do after your Fulbright year?
I have no plans! I’m open to the possibilities. I’m hoping I’ll have an epiphany this year in realizing what I want to do next year. I’ll probably go back to be around my family in California, although I would like to stay in Europe. I’ll probably work a bit in editing and publishing before going to graduate school, something with writing and cultures.

Anything else you want to add?
I think growing up in Germany changed me a lot. I feel like my childhood was spent in Germany. I’m not sure I would have gone for something like this year abroad without that experience. If it hadn’t been forced on me, I wouldn’t be here now. It made a big impact on me to realize when I was young that I’m not the only culture and to realize there are different ways of doing things and different languages, and to realize there’s no right or wrong associated with it, which when you’re young, can seem that way. It was normal to me to not be able to communicate with my neighbors.

My family are my favorite people in the world, which maybe my siblings would not say the same about me, [laughs], but they’re my favorite people. I think part of it was growing up in Germany in a military community where there was a lot of change and moving. We spent a lot of time together and they have always been my best friends.

Clara Cushing (second from left) with her students

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