Get to Know a Grantee - Thomas Lepke

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Thomas Lepke
Thomas Lepke is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to a secondary school located in the small town of Velešín, Czech Republic. Velešín, population 4,000, is now home to Thomas and his wife Geena, as they work to integrate into their community by building relationships that they hope will last a lifetime. Thomas, an alum of the prestigious Teach for America program, is teaching English at a technical school, where he also runs an English Club. His club has coordinated events with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Prague, including facilitating an Iraqi youth dialogue, where students in both the Czech Republic and Iraq were able to communicate with each other via Skype. Read below to find out more about what living in a small, southern Bohemian town for a year has been like for Thomas and his wife. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Lakewood, Colorado
  • Education: University of Colorado, Boulder - BS, Business Administration, Arizona State University - Masters of Education
  • School in Czech Republic: Střední odborná škola strojní a elektrotechnická, Velešín
  • Age: 27
  • Favorite Czech word: na zdraví (cheers)
  • Favorite Czech food: česneková polévka (garlic soup)
  • Favorite quote: “The shadow proves the sunshine”- Switchfoot/ “Follow your feet”-Heath Ledger, ‘A Knight’s Tale’

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself? Where are you from, what you studied, and what you have been doing in the time before Fulbright?

I graduated in 2008, and after graduation, I volunteered for a program called the World Race, where I went to 11 countries in 11 months, and volunteered in each country with different non-profits or faith-based organizations. After that, I interned in Senator Michael Bennet’s office in Washington, D.C. There, I did some tutoring with a non-profit, and decided I loved teaching, and I wanted to become a teacher. I signed up for Teach for America, and I did that for two years in Phoenix, Arizona. During my time in the corps, I got married to my wife Geena, and one of our life goals was to travel and live overseas. We are really passionate about nations and international education, so Fulbright was a great option to fulfill our dreams to experience more of the world and to have a better international perspective.

What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about a lot of things. First of all, about people, and that’s one reason why I really want to become a teacher. I believe that there are a lot of students out there that have really broken homes, and to be a force for good in their lives is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding things I think you can do with your life. That’s why I got into education. I’m really passionate about living my life to the fullest every single day. I’m always learning new things. A couple of my favorite things to do is, I play the Scottish highland bagpipes, I absolutely love that, and I love experiencing new places. I love rock climbing, mountain biking, and spending time with my wife. I’m also really passionate about men, and one of my big things is, I think guys have a really great opportunity in this day and age to be really great, honorable, integritous men, and so I am passionate about being a husband and also just being a person, a teacher, and a mentor to my students.

Why did you want to come to the Czech Republic specifically for your Fulbright grant?
One of the first things that got me interested was some of my ancestors came from the Czech Republic, and actually one of them, the only thing he brought with him to the U.S. was his Bible, which is pretty interesting. We still have that Bible today, it’s in Czech, and so it’s really cool. Then we started thinking about where would we want to live for a year, and the Czech Republic is very central. I also wanted a professional focus as well, with comparing educational systems to that of America’s. The Czech Republic has more of a decentralized model, and I was interested in that. It’s interesting to see how it works in another culture. I also love bagpiping, and I wanted to check out the Bohemian bagpipes. There’s an amazing bagpipe festival in Strakonice, and I’ve started taking lessons, too!

And even the local beer in Strakonice is called Strakonicky Dudák, meaning Bagpiper! That’s great you’re taking bagpipe lessons! And what is the town you are living in this year like?
Velešín is an amazing town. The town is 4,000 people, and it’s essentially an agricultural hub to all the smaller, little villages in the surrounding area, and it’s 30 minutes outside of the main city of České Budějovice. We live in the school, and across the street is a giant factory or company where they make a lot of aero-space and mechanical parts. They work with Boeing and Honeywell and some of these other American companies. Many of our students will actually go work or have internships there.

Yes, what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
There’s about 200 students. It’s a technical school, so they focus on electricity, electrical engineering, and computer science or networking databases. The school is made up of one wing that has three floors, and the alternative building is full of machines that are maybe 100 years old! They’re pretty old, and the students work on these machines to start learning hands-on technical skills.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
We run an English club, and we’ve been able to do a lot of exciting things with them! Two of my favorite things are actually, we worked with the State Department to have an Iraqi youth dialogue, which was really fun. We Skyped with students in Iraq, had a conversation, and I think our students were pretty receptive to that. We also had a diplomat come, and talk to them about all sorts of things, like the education system of America, what it means to be an American, and that was really fun.

Right now we’re working with Charitas, a charity run here by the Catholic Church. We are working with students or children from the Roma community, and one of things we’re going to try to do is start to integrate some of our Czech students to come help us. We’re trying to get permission and see how that will work, but that’s one thing we’re looking into right now, which would be cool, and help build some bridges.

What are some of your other out of school activities?
We did a 10-week ballroom dance class. We’ve been able to travel to a pretty good amount of the Czech Republic, and we go on fun trips with our colleagues. We’ve done everything from mushroom hunting, to rugby games, to going on a Škoda bus trip throughout the Czech Republic, and sleeping in abandoned castles, which was really exciting! We’ve been able to go to soccer games, to all the festivals throughout the year. We’ve been able to integrate ourselves, so we’re always busy. We always have a ton to do, and we’ve also been trying to hang out with people, longer term, more one-on-one, and really just investing in the community.

What was it like relocating as a couple to another country?
Yeah you know, my wife and I are really adventurous, so it was not an issue at all. Before we came here, we walked across Spain on The Camino de Santiago, and when it was time to do our Fulbright, our legs were sore and our feet had blisters, and we were tired, but we were just happy to be here. We really take every experience as an experience you can only get once, and it’s been great being together and having my best friend here. We’ve been able to experience this all together, and I think that’s one unique thing about being married, I’ve been able to share it with somebody every single day. That’s one thing that not all ETAs get, because they are usually the only American in their town. They don’t always get to share it with someone, but I have a built in partner all time, which is really nice.

And what do you like about teaching English?
English is such a fun language. When you’re overseas, you’re trying to teach others about America, your culture, and your identity, and I think you end up learning more about America, your culture, and your identity by trying to teach it to others. You really get a chance to reflect. It’s so special when you see students have that lightbulb moment in their heads, and seeing from the beginning of the year to the end what students can really do. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to do that.

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
We don’t have a car. We struggled with this just because we do live in a small town, which means the last bus to our town is at 8 o’clock on Saturday night. It does run a little sporadically, so if you want to go somewhere, you really have to plan. You forget how nice it is to have the luxury of transportation, and to be able to go where you want, when you want to.

And what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
Building relationships with people. We built a lot of relationships that I feel like will be with us for a long, long time in our lives. Every day is an adventure. It’s really what you want to make it, and we’ve been able to have an adventure every single day we have been here and that’s the best thing.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
Some of the most memorable moments have been times students take us out, which is always so much fun. One of our friends, Tomáš, took us out to a frozen waterfall, or we went walking with another student Vojta through Český Krumlov, which is his hometown, this amazing destination, and he was showing us all the local places to go. I think those moments are some of the most rich and totally memorable. It’s nice to go out, and explore new restaurants, go out to concerts and theater. It’s wonderful. And the Christmas markets are so magical; they are really something to experience in life.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience?
I think it’s really important. People often search for information that confirms their own biases, and if you look at today’s political climate, you can see how people have just dug into the trenches, and the rhetoric that’s spoken is only confirming biases or beliefs that people already hold. And we really have to be careful about this, because it is dangerous, it’s absolutely dangerous. We need to be able to hear other ideas, and take that into account, and figure out what truth really is, and I really believe international education does that for us.

Geena and I were able to have a lot of great conversations with students about racism here in the Czech Republic, and I feel like we’ve been able to break down a lot of barriers. It’s been really fascinating to see with students. I think people-to-people is one of the strongest education tools that we have, culture-to-culture, and that’s why I really promote international education and exchanges.

And with that, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think the Fulbright mission is something to be embodied. It’s something to take the tradition, and let it be a part of you for the rest of your life, to be open to other people, to accept other people. You should accept people, but be critical of ideas, right? So, I think the Fulbright has been such a great experience, because it’s given me the ability to really come face to face with another culture, and another group of people who think totally differently from me, and it’s been an amazing experience.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think one thing that my year has taught me is Velešín is a slow town, and I’ve really been busy. I’ve filled my days up 100 percent, to where I go, go, go, and I don’t give myself any time for reflection, and I’m so thankful for this year, because I don’t want to go through life that busy. I want to go through life well balanced, and I think it’s unhealthy to be that busy all the time. I know it’s very common for people to overwork themselves, but I don’t think that makes good people. I don’t think that makes good life, and so one thing I’m going to really take with me back home, is to remember to always find a balance wherever I am. To wake up, enjoy a cup of tea, look at the sunrise in the morning, smell the forest, and remember all the amazing gifts I’ve been given and privileged to have in this life, and then figure out how do I share that with others. The reflection piece is huge, and I never want to give that up.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from one job, which if I get it, I’ll be working on the Hill in education policy. If not, probably going to move back to Denver and work in education. And in politics, I’m going to be moving more into the political realm.

Good to hear! And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
Yeah, just be really open and honest with your application and what you want. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, and Fulbright, don’t do it for the name or for the prestige, because it’s a year of your life. If you’re just doing it for a name, there’s a lot of ways that you can spend your life and don’t just do it for that. Do it because you’re passionate, because you’re intrigued, because you want to interact with students, you want to teach, and you want to explore other cultures, and then I think you’ll be in a great spot.

How are you feeling about everything at this moment?
Blissful. Everything has been great. I honestly have no complaints, I’m really happy. It feels like a golden year, and we don’t get those every year, so I’m really just holding it and grasping it, and I’m sad to see it go. This has been a great opportunity, and one that I would definitely repeat.

If you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be?

Thomas Lepke, with his wife, Geena.

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