Get to Know a Grantee - Sonam James

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sonam James
Zlín is a picturesque, bustling Czech city, nestled in a valley deep in southeastern Moravia. The hometown of many famous Czech people, including Tomáš Baťa and of course, Ivana Trump, ex-wife of President-elect Donald Trump, Zlín is also home this year to Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Sonam James. As a political science major, Sonam was interested and bemused to learn about this political connection to her placement town. A native Texan, she is also passionate about different cultures and international relations, so much so that she even started a Model United Nations club at her school. Here, she talks about her Fulbright experience, and what it’s like to live in a town that’s having a political moment in the sun.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Montgomery, Texas
  • University/Major, Minor: Trinity University, TX/Political Science, Economics/Spanish
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Zlín
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: "Not all those who wander are lost." -J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Favorite Czech food: Schnitzel and potato salad

Hi! Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, what your interests are?

I’m from Montgomery, Texas. It was a small town when I was growing up; there wasn’t much to do. There wasn’t any diversity. I was probably the only diversity there, so at a young age I was really interested in travelling and different cultures. I like politics, political science, and social sciences. It allows me to explore policies and laws in different countries, and that’s always been interesting to me. I later studied abroad in Barcelona my sophomore year. I think the one thing I did in college was I took advantage of every travel opportunity I could; I studied abroad, and I did a class where I spent two weeks in Berlin this past summer. 

And what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about traveling, and getting to have different experiences. I try not to spend my money on too much material stuff, and more on experiences, like going to events with people, traveling, and going to music festivals. I’m really passionate also about learning about other cultures, and trying to immerse myself in different cultures as well. And I have to say, I’m one of those people who really likes politics; I read the news every single day. 

Why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I chose the Czech Republic because when I was thinking about a few other countries, and googling them, I found the Czech Republic to be one of the most interesting. It is a post-communist country just finding its way out of that era, and kind of in transition where the older generation was experiencing something very different from what the younger generation is, and as a political science major that is really interesting to me, and of course the beer [laughs], I like the beer, I’m not going to lie! And also whenever I mentioned the Czech Republic to people, they always said how beautiful Prague is, that was probably the number one thing people said. And Prague is just so beautiful, it is one of my favorite cities. So, I did a bit a more research, and I decided that this is the country that I wanted to apply to. 

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
I was planning on teaching abroad after graduation anyways to have the experience of living abroad and being in a different country and culture, and someone just happened to tell me about the Fulbright. After that, I immediately went to the professor in charge of it, and applied. I always wanted to do something like this. 

Can you tell me about the town you are living in this year?
Zlín is quite a sizeable town, it’s probably 70,000 people. I have to say I’m really lucky! I do see a bit of diversity here; I see why they placed me here. There are a lot of the things that remind of me of home, like H&M and certain brands in the mall, a movie theater that plays movies in the original English, and there’s McDonalds and KFC. So, I don’t feel completely at a loss, like so far away from the U.S., and for the most part, I’ve found people to be friendly. It’s definitely a bigger town, so it’s not as isolated. 

Zlín is also famously the hometown of Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana. Has that come up at all?
Yes, my town has a history with Donald Trump. Ivana is very famous here. She actually went to the school where I teach at, and one of the teachers here remembers her from when she was a student. They have their house here, and I’m pretty sure Donald Trump has visited here just because it is her hometown. I think it’s kind of funny for them just to have that weird connection. Like, there’s only three degrees between me and Donald Trump, and it would be really funny to see if Ivanna got the ambassadorship to the Czech Republic. It’s going to be interesting to see what things are like after January 20th, and what kind of standing the Czech Republic will have with Donald Trump, because he does have a personal connection to it. And I’m the most pro-Hillary Clinton person, and for me to be in this town where there’s this personal connection to Donald Trump, it’s kind of funny.

That is pretty crazy! And what is the school like that you’re working at this year?
The school is Gymnazium Zlín, and it’s great. I love the school I’m working at. The students, their English is amazing. A lot of them are really well traveled, and quite a few have studied for a year in the U.S., which was really surprising. Some of them are completely fluent, so I can have really high level conversations with them.

Teaching was something I had to learn to get into. I have done a little bit of teaching with refugees and ESL classes in San Antonio and Houston, but this was a little bit different, obviously. I had to get into the way of making sure it’s interesting for them, and they understand what it is. It took like a month to get into the flow of teaching, and getting to know my students, but after that, I think I have a great interaction with my students. I do get to learn a lot of interesting things from them, too. 

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I did Model United Nations for four years at university. I was head delegate on the team by my senior year, so I really wanted to take some of those experiences from Model U.N., and do it at this school. I started a team, and we’re actually going to Prague this April to compete! I have a team ready of twelve students, and I’m really excited. For some of them, this will be the first time they’ve done something like this, so it’s really interesting for them! They’re really interested in international affairs, and possibly doing something with it in school, or in work. It’s a really great opportunity, as the school does not necessarily have things like this.

And whenever a holiday comes up, we do holiday based things. So for Thanksgiving I had a party for the students, and for Valentine’s Day, we might have another one. 

What do you like about teaching English?
I enjoy really talking to my students! They make me laugh, and we learn from each other. One of my favorite things is talking to them, and having a good conversation about something interesting. I do like teaching them about weird topics, or interesting things they’ve never heard of, to open up their understanding of the world by showing them something new. It makes me really happy when they enjoy the lesson, because I put work into them for the most part. 

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
Communication is one of the biggest ones, obviously. Zlín is a big town, and the students speak English really well, but communication can be tricky when you’re trying to say something or you need something. The majority of the older people don’t speak English well, so it’s harder to say exactly what you want. Trying to figure out how to get you want is really hard, but I am taking Czech language lessons for free at the integration center, which is really nice. 

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
There’s a lot! There’s the learning about being able to live in a different culture that I didn’t know very much about, and being able to just find my way through it. The confidence from being in a different culture, and being able to really do it by myself is a big part, and also having help from other people. I think the human interaction too, like seeing the Czech Christmas with my student was really great, and these random little, happy moments I have with people are really good. 

You are halfway through your grant, what is something you’re looking forward to that is still to come?
One thing I am looking forward to is the springtime, and being able to really travel a bit more through the country. For the first half, I’ve been trying to adjust to where I am, and I would like to see more of the Czech Republic. I’d like to learn more about the history of the different areas, and why they’re different for what reasons. 

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think it means to be an ambassador of the U.S., but also to show the diversity that exists in the U.S. I’m from Texas, people are from California, we have all had very different life experiences. As a Fulbright ambassador and grantee, I want to show them that the American experience is a diverse experience, and a different one for everyone. 

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think I’m going to have so much of a wider perspective. I’m definitely going to have something that a lot of people don’t have, the opportunity and the ability to live abroad and be in another culture. That is something I can take back with me to the States, and bring a little bit more of a global perspective to whatever I do when I get back. When you live abroad, you have to be flexible with everything that’s going on, and you can’t expect everything to happen perfectly, so I would say I’m much more of an adaptable person. I can adapt to things so much better, because you have to, and situations change very quickly, so that’s one thing I’ll be able to take back. 

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I’m hoping to either work in law or policy, maybe with an international aspect to it, so hopefully that. 

Do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Don’t be afraid to do it! Just do it, and remember to have a very open mind when you do it, because you never know where you’ll be placed, or what you’ll be doing. Really go with an open mind, and be ready to adapt to any situation. And if you can do that, the experience is so rewarding. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really happy with the placement of my town. I’m happy here, and the people have been super helpful. I have to say that my mentor was really a great help in getting me settled in immediately, so I’m really grateful to the teachers at the school for being really helpful!

Sonam (third from left) with a student’s family over Christmas

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