Get to Know a Grantee - Jennie Magner

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jennie Magner
Even though Jennie Magner hadn’t previously visited the Czech Republic prior to starting her Fulbright grant, she was already very familiar with Czech culture. This was thanks in large part to her Nebraskan hometown of 8,000 people, which has a vibrant Czech community, and even hosts a Czech cultural festival every year! This cultural connection inspired Jennie so much, that she applied for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant to the Czech Republic, and is now teaching for one year in the UNESCO heritage site Kroměříž. Here she discusses what it’s like to go on pilgrimages with the Catholic boarding school she teaches at, her many involvements with students, and what it means to be a Fulbrighter in 2017. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: York, Nebraska
  • University, Major/Minor: Abilene Christian University, Two-Dimensional Studio Art/Graphic Design, and Psychology
  • School in Czech Republic: Arcibiskupské gymnázium, Kroměříž
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do."-Mother Teresa
  • Favorite Czech food: Svíčková

Hi! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I’m from the small town of York, Nebraska. I actually only lived there for four years in high school. I was born in Michigan, and grew up in Texas most of my life, but I do consider York to be my hometown. In university, I studied fine arts. I started out originally in an interdisciplinary Justice and Urban Studies program, where I was studying social justice and sociology. But after a study abroad experience, and doing some thinking, I ended up changing my major to art a bit unexpectedly. I studied drawing, art history, painting, print making, and illustration.

And what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about making cross-cultural connections, about working with people. I’m passionate about visual arts, music, traveling, and promoting intercultural experiences.

Why did you choose to apply to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?

I studied abroad in England, and while I was there I took a trip to Vienna and to Budapest, and I really fell in love with Central Europe. I felt it was a really unique, and beautiful part of the world. During that trip I knew that I wanted to come back someday, I just wasn’t sure when. So when I started looking at different countries to apply to for Fulbright, I really focused on Central Europe. By reading through the different programs, I felt like I fit the best with the Czech Fulbright program, and also being from Nebraska, there’s quite a large Czech population. Even in the really small town I’m from, there’s a Czech festival every year! It’s a big part of the culture. Before I came, some different women from the Czech Club wanted to talk to me to tell me about their Czech relatives, and teach me some Czech. So, the ties with my community were also a part of the reason. And as I started researching more about the Czech Republic, I found the political history really fascinating. And the architecture! It just seemed like a beautiful, really interesting place to go.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?

I heard about it through the honors college at my university. Also, a girl who I worked with received a Fulbright to go to Malaysia, and I remember being really inspired by that! I thought it was really interesting.

And can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
It’s a really sweet place! It’s a town of about 30,000 people, so it’s small, but there’s still activity and life. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and my school is right next to the chateau. I actually live in the tower too, so where I live is connected directly to the chateau! It’s not quite as magical as it sounds, like ‘living in a tower,’ but it’s still really cool! I just really love the rhythm of life here. It’s a beautiful town; people are always outside walking, hiking, biking. I think my placement fits me really well. I connect really well with the town. I love it!

That’s wonderful! And how about the school you’re working at this year?

I’m working at a Catholic boarding school, and it is a grammar school gymnazium. Most students are here for four years, and some are here for six years. There are roughly 400 students, and approximately 200 of them are from Kroměříž, and the other half actually live at the school. I also live at the school, so right outside of my room are several of my girl students. Which is always fun, never really know what to expect on an average day!

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?

I have two different conversation clubs with students. One for more beginners who are a little less secure with their English, and one for more advanced students. I also have one for teachers, which I really enjoy. I’m also doing a pen pal program with a teacher in the U.S., who previously had a Fulbright in the Czech Republic! She contacted several of the grantees, and asked if we wanted to get involved. Basically, she gave me a list of her students, and I gave her some of mine, and they’ve been corresponding on their own now.

Other than that, I’ve tried to be really involved with the school, and the students. The first week I was here, because I’m at a Catholic school, there was pilgrimage to Hostýn church, a famous Czech pilgrimage site. That was one of my first experiences with the school, walking 40 kilometers with my students to this church! It was great, and actually the last two weeks of my grant, I will be in Spain with my students doing the Way of St. James pilgrimage journey! I’ve also taken dance lesson with my second year students; they just finished the last week, we had our final ball. And I have access to an oven now, so I’m trying to start baking with some of my students to teach them some American pie recipes!

That’s wonderful you have so many activities with your students! And what do you like about teaching English?
What I love about teaching English is that it’s all about communication, and getting to really know people. With English, since it’s a language, you’re able to discuss really anything in class and it still qualifies as English teaching! I love that you can really get to know your students through conversations in English, and make a lot of fun discoveries about English. There are a lot of things I took for granted about the language before I came, and now I appreciate it so much more, but my favorite thing is definitely using English as way to communicate, and get to know students better.

Speaking of communication, what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad for you?
Definitely the language barrier. I think it’s a struggle for everyone, I’m guessing. I think for me, the hardest part with the language barrier is especially when you’re in a group, and someone says a joke or something, and everyone starts laughing, and you just sit there and smile politely. That can be really hard sometimes. Since I live at the school though, I’ve had a less difficult time socially than I thought I would, but it has been hard to find peers, people outside of the school.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There are so many things! I think it’s just the ways that you learn. When you live abroad, you learn things about yourself, the world, and about people that you would never get the opportunity to learn about otherwise. These are things you can’t learn in school, or through a book, you have to experience them firsthand. I think the challenges that come with living or studying abroad are also the rewards. Just the way that you learn to be independent, but also to depend and trust people at the same time. There are so many positives, I think!

What was one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far?
One of my favorite things has been going home with students. I’ve gotten really close with a few students, who have invited me home with them, so getting to know their families, seeing the villages they’re from, getting to know their brothers and sisters, and just really experiencing authentic Czech life with them and making those deeper connections has been a lot of fun. Also, my mentor has been really incredible. She’s really gotten me involved with her family. One of the first weeks I was here, we went to her mom’s garden, and had a Czech cook out! Yeah, definitely spending time with people, and getting to know them better.

You are about halfway through your grant right now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
In a couple weeks for example, I’m going on a ski trip with my school! I’m looking forward to the other trips I’ll get to go on with the school. I’m also looking forward to deepening the relationships that I have, to continue making connections with different people, and to continue learning about Czech culture.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
For me, the Fulbright mission is really about giving a name and face to a nationality. There are so many really terrible things happening in the world today; people don’t trust each other, they’re angry at each other. And so with Fulbright, it’s really important to present yourself as an American, but also as a friend, and someone people can trust and rely on. I think it really builds bridges between people, and also between countries around the world. I think that’s what the Fulbright mission means to me.

Well said. And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
That’s a really good question! I’m hoping this will open up other opportunities internationally. I mean, my life has already been changed just by being here, thanks to the people I’ve met, and the things I’ve gotten to do.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

I honestly have no idea. Before coming, I thought I had much more definite plans, going to graduate school etc., but I’m kind of not sure of what to do next, because some of the experiences I’ve had, and some of the things that have happened, have changed a bit what I saw myself doing.

I probably still want to do something with international education, and study abroad programs, but since my major was visual arts, I feel like I need to somehow connect that back with everything else. So, I’m trying to figure out a way to tie in my different passions and interests and put them all together. I’m not sure what the near future will bring, though. That’s one of the reasons I wanted do Fulbright, as well. I really felt like I needed some space to do some things, and get some perspective to reflect on what I wanted to do.

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
I would just say, apply! Honestly, I had no idea if I would get accepted; I didn’t expect to. The application is difficult, but it’s really worth it. Even if you aren’t accepted, I think it’s still worth it, because all the things you go through in the application process really helps you to figure out what you want to do, and helps you to put your goals into words. So, apply if you’re interested! Just do it!

For my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling right now about where you are and everything?
I’m just so thankful to be here, honestly. Again this isn’t something I really believed I could do, so I’m really thankful to be here, thankful to be at my school. Yeah, just really grateful for the relationships I have here, and I’m hoping to continue to build those and work on them for the rest of the time I’m here.

Jennie Magner, third from the left, with students at her Thanksgiving Party

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