Get to Know a Grantee - Kelley Garland

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kelley Garland
Kelley Garland hails from Wantagh, New York, and is spending the 2016-2017 school year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic, in the northeastern town of Nová Paka. In a town of about 8,000 people, Kelley devotes her time to teaching English in the local high school, while also involving herself in creating cross-cultural connections between herself and her students, colleagues, neighbors, and community. Read below to find out more about Kelley, a former class president of her college, as she speaks about her experiences living in a small Czech town, and why she considers international education and exchanges to be so important. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Wantagh, New York
  • College, Major/Minor: Providence College, Global Studies/Business Studies, French, Sociology
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium a SOŠ pedagogická, Nová Paka
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”-Maya Angelou
  • Favorite Czech food: “I like svíčková, and the honey cake, medovník!”

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself, where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
I am originally from a small town on Long Island, Wantagh, New York. I grew up about a ten-minute drive from the beach, and was definitely really spoiled from that. I went to school about four hours away in Providence, Rhode Island at Providence College. It’s a liberal arts college, and I really wanted to go there. I was very undecided about what I wanted to do in life, torn between traveling or teaching, and the college gave me the opportunities to explore a multitude of different paths there.

And what are you passionate about?
I am really passionate about traveling, and learning new cultures. I think the best way that we learn about ourselves is by seeing what people from other countries do. Even going somewhere just for a day, although you don’t really get the whole picture of a place or a culture, it gives you that tiny insight. It makes you really reflect on that, and with that as well, I’m a really reflective person. I love writing. I think it’s very important to jot down a few notes at the end of each day, and think about the best, or most challenging parts of your day. I also really enjoy blogging about my experiences here, so that my friends and family at home can have a little bit of Czech culture back in the U.S.

And why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
In the summer of 2014, I did an eight-week study abroad, internship program in Prague. I really wanted to have a complete culture shock, and a language barrier, and the Czech Republic was a country I didn’t really know much about. I wanted to come here to get a better understanding of this part of Central Europe, and I absolutely fell in love with it!

I wasn’t interacting with a lot of Czech people though, because I was living with Americans, and attending Anglo-American University, but there was one woman in particular, Ivana, who I met that made an impact on me. I sat next to her on a bus one day from Brno to Prague, and she told me about her life in the Czech Republic before 1989, and today and the differences, and even though it was in broken English, and I knew no Czech, it was so compelling. When I got home to the States, I felt like a there was this huge hole and emptiness… I knew that I needed to come back to the Czech Republic, and continue to learn about this rich culture, history, and people.

That’s wonderful! And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
In my Global Studies major, a lot of students in the past have gone on to be Fulbright Fellows, and basically within the week that I was home after coming back from Prague, I was online looking up every possible way for me to go back to the Czech Republic after graduation. Fulbright came up, and I had a few good friends applying for it, so it was great to have their guidance and support, as well as the teachers and faculty stateside, and my study abroad advisor in Prague helping me through that journey.

And can you tell me about the town you’re living in this year?
I am in Nová Paka. It’s in the northeastern area of the Czech Republic, and the town is about 8,000 people, so it really is a tiny place. I remember my first week wandering around Lidl, and running into someone that I had met, and that’s when I really understood what the small town culture would be like here! It really is a beautiful town, the people are so great, and we’re surrounded by forest and hills. We’re also located by the Krkonoše mountains, so everyone here loves to go hiking, and loves to be outside. For me, being from Long Island and so close to the ocean, it’s definitely a change of scenery here, but it really is a nice, quaint, small town.

And what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
It’s really interesting! There’s three separate tracks, or classes, at this school. There’s an eight-year gymnazium, a four-year gymnazium, and then a four-year pedagogy school for people who want to become kindergarten teachers. It’s really interesting going from the students in the gymnazium, who have a bunch of different interests for what they want to see and study, and then going to the girls and the one boy in the pedagogy school, who the second you walk in, they’re listening to music and playing piano. They are so creative and artistic. It really is a great change of scenery all the time, and although these classes are all separate, the students are only in classes with the students in their track, they still interact with each other in sports, and in the school musical. It’s a nice, communal experience.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I started my English conversation club with students on Mondays, and it’s really great because not only have the students been coming, but they also bring their friends who are home from university, or from other schools that don’t have access to a native English speaker. Also, twice a month I tag along with the head English teacher from my school to her women’s English club with some of the women in our community. They’ve been meeting for ten years now!

Wow, that’s amazing!
Yes! It’s really great. They come from all walks of life with different occupations. We were there yesterday, having wine and cheese, and talking. It’s been a great way to see other people in the community, that I wouldn’t have had interactions with otherwise.

And what do you like about teaching English?
I’ve really loved having students come to up me, and ask me about the present continuous, or the past-perfect simple, and all these grammar terms that I think as a native speaker I really take for granted. For example, when I say something, I just say it, but they’ll ask me all of these really detailed questions that I don’t always have the answers to. So, it’s made me more aware of the English language, and I think also seeing how much the students have changed already from September until now. Even if it’s students who don’t have a strong grasp of English, just having them come up to me and say, “Hi, Kelley!” because if that’s what they’re comfortable with, then we’ve already made a huge step forward. That’s progress that they feel comfortable saying hello to a native speaker, and that’s great.

Absolutely! And what is one of your favorite things you have done, or experienced so far this year?
There’s probably been two, I have to say! I was invited to go on a week-long exchange trip in Menen, Belgium with my school. I went with one of the mathematics and one of the German teachers, and about 20 students. It was great, because I got to interact with some of my colleagues from other departments that I didn’t know beforehand, and it was also this great meeting of Czechs, Belgians, and an American all coming together, sitting around a table, and talking about the differences, not only between Czech and Belgian cultures, but between American culture, as well. It was a great way for me to get to know some of the students outside of the classroom pretty early on.

The second favorite experience, was that I put together a Thanksgiving party, or as me and my students like to call it, the first ‘Czechsgiving!’ It was really cute! It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and we did it potluck-style. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, and I was so overwhelmed by the students who showed up, and wanted to see this part of American culture. I definitely got a little choked up to see it, and that was a really special moment, because they share Czech culture with me every day, but as one individual, it’s hard to show them the depth and importance of different aspects of American culture. So, even though we didn’t have turkey or casserole, it was just great that they were so excited and enthusiastic to become part of this little tradition.

That sounds really wonderful! But what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I would say the hardest part is being okay with being alone. When you go to these smaller areas in the Czech Republic, you’re not going to know anyone at first, and we teach 20 hours a week, so that gives you a lot of free time. It can be pretty daunting at first. I was coming from a situation at my university where I was the class president, and I was going from class to meetings with the president of the college, the board of trustees, and student affairs, and having a full schedule from nine in the morning until midnight every day. Now, I’ve really had to adjust to from, ‘okay, do I really want to sit on my computer all night and be on Netflix?’ Or, what can I do with my time that will really make my experience here memorable. You have to learn to put yourself out there in a way that I hadn’t had to do before. It’s been hard, but you definitely learn from it.

And the flip side? What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think meeting all of these amazing people that I didn’t even know existed. I had no idea Nová Paka existed before getting my placement, and now I am here every day, having a routine, and talking to students. The people here have really made my experience and time here feel like home, and they’ve become not just students and colleagues, but friends and almost like family.

And what are some places in Czech Republic that you want to travel to?
Oh, I have a list! I haven’t been to Olomouc yet; I would love to go there. Also, Hluboká na Vltavou, and Litomyšl. But I think the best places I’ve been to so far, have been the places my students have taken me to, because I would never know about them otherwise.

So right now, you are about halfway through your grant. What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I’m looking forward to all of the experiences. Mostly, continuing to spend time with my students, especially the oldest students who are preparing for their maturita [Czech graduation exam], because starting in April, they’ll start coming to school less and less in preparation for the exam. Also the warm weather! My students and I already have some dates lined up to go hiking in the mountains, and they’re taking me to some of their favorite small towns. But I don’t want to have any expectations because every day has been a new experience, and a new surprise for me. I just want to enjoy every possible second I have left here. I don’t even want to think about leaving yet, it’s hard to imagine it’s already halfway through!

Definitely, it goes by so fast! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I really think the Fulbright mission is about transformation. I hope that by interactions with people at Lidl, in the school, at the cafes, on the bus, and by being a smiling, happy American, people will change the stereotypes and perceptions they have of Americans. I hope I am transforming the ways that the teachers might go about doing lessons in the future, but also, they’ve all really transformed my life in ways that I’m still trying to figure out, and process. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand how much until I’m back home in the United States, and I think that’s what Fulbright is all about. It’s about changing individual lives, and with those changes, those individuals can go on to do great things.

And with that, why do you think international education and exchange is important for students to experience?
That’s a great question! This was the subject of a debate I was having just the other day, about why the Fulbright program is so important. I always get the question, ‘Well, if program funding is cut, is it really going to be detrimental to Americans that you’re not going to the Czech Republic?’ and, I think it absolutely is detrimental. I think these programs everywhere around the world are so essential. If you look at our school systems, we’re only ever telling part of a very large story, in a very predetermined narrative by textbook companies. Our education system is all about teaching for a test and memorizing facts, and not appreciating cultures, people, and their stories. Americans need to go overseas, and people need to come overseas to the US. People think the world is such a huge place, and it really isn’t. Things that are viewed as differences should be celebrated, not viewed as threats. I think you really only get to realize that when you sit down with someone, celebrate a meal together, and realize that things aren’t that different. You can’t learn that in a textbook, or sitting on your couch watching TV. You get that by experiencing the world.

Well said, and how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think for me, I have always lived my life according to a plan and the societal expectations like, do well in high school, and go to a good college. But early on, I decided that when I finished university, I would hopefully do a Fulbright. All of that has worked out pretty well for me so far, and this is the first time that I have that big question mark of ‘well, what’s next?’

I think because I live in a completely different culture with a different language, I have to deal with a lot of questions and answers, and have to be okay with not always knowing what to do day to day here. I’ve learned that I don’t need to have everything planned out, because things aren’t always going to go as perfectly as planned. Fulbright has taught me to really be adaptable, and because of that I’m going to have a much more stress-free life moving forward.

Speaking of ‘what’s next,’ what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I was debating about staying in the Czech Republic, or somewhere else abroad, but I have realized that I do really miss my family and friends at home. I don’t know what I want my next step to be. I really have loved teaching and being a part of education. I have been accepted into a few graduate school programs for that, but I haven’t felt that same excitement I felt when I received the Fulbright. So, I’ve taken that as a cue to put off graduate school until I am certain and excited that this is the next step that I want to take. I’m looking to move back to the Boston area, and I’m hoping my travel bug can be satisfied in the States. I want to test the waters in another field or industry, and hopefully within the following year, go back to graduate school. We’ll see!

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Yes, when you’re thinking about applying for Fulbright, or teaching abroad, even if you’re just thinking about it, do it. You can’t go back after an application deadline, so definitely just take the plunge and commit, and later on you can decide if accepted, whether to do it or not. I think my second piece of advice is to really think about the reason why you want to go to the place you are applying. You’re going to be living there for one year, and that’s a big change and challenge. You should do it because you want to get know that culture, that country, that language more, not just because you looked at the statistics, and thought, ‘okay, this is the best way for me to get a Fulbright,’ because that’s not what Fulbright is about. It’s not a statistics game, it’s about changing the way we see our world and changing the lives of the people you will interact with in that country.

For my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything right now at this moment?
I’m feeling really great right now, and I think it’s because of the amazing and insightful conversations I’ve been having with everyone. I am so inspired to see the youth in this country so interested about what is happening not only in their country, or in America, but around the world, and how insightful their questions are. I don’t think I expected to have such deep conversation with my students, but I’m having them every day in the hallway, in the classroom, and on Facebook messenger. So, even though sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening in our world, I think of the individuals I interact with, and they’re so inquisitive and interested. You have to really take a step back from all the news, to see there really is a bright future ahead of us. There’s so much potential, and great things are going to come.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that I am so blessed and grateful to have had this opportunity! I hope that this Fulbright experience continues to happen, for many years to come, that many more Americans can come and experience Czech culture, and many Czechs can come to the States, and see what we’re all about.

Kelley Garland, first on the right, with students at their "Czechsgiving Party."

If you’d like to read more about Kelley’s experiences, check out her personal blog, https://kelleygarland.wordpress.com.

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