Get to Know a Grantee - Raheal Mengisteab

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Raheal Mengisteab
Raheal Mengisteab has been serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Gymnázium Jiřího Wolkera in Prostějov, Czech Republic. A first generation American of Eritrean descent and an alumna of the prestigious Teach for America program, Raheal has devoted herself to her school this year, where she works to actively engage and dialogue with students, colleagues, and community members about the similarities and differences between life in the United States and the Czech Republic. Here, Raheal discusses what her life as an ETA in Prostějov has been like for her these past ten months.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: San Diego, California
  • College, Major/Minor: California State University, Dominguez Hills and San Diego State University, Communications/Marketing, Master’s in Education
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium Jiřího Wolkera, Prostějov
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Czech Food: Smažený sýr
  • Favorite Quote: "Turn your wounds into wisdom." –Oprah Winfrey

Hello! Can you please give some personal background details, where you are from, what you studied, and what you have been doing in the time before Fulbright?
Hello! I come from San Diego, California by way of Eritrea. I am a first generation American, and am proudly the daughter of two Eritrean refugees who were fortunate to seek asylum in America’s finest city after fleeing their war torn home. During undergrad, I studied Communications and Marketing, and then went on to graduate school to study Education while simultaneously teaching in San Diego via Teach for America (TFA) as a Corps Member. My interests include social justice, diplomacy, civic engagement through service, mentorship, leadership, and the creative fields.

And what are you passionate about?
I would say that my passions vary from social justice issues to education reform, and traveling. Traveling is my favorite form of education. As a global citizen, I think it’s really important that we go out and see the world and learn about different cultures and people. I’m also really passionate about many different creative fields, from music to communications and journalism. I love making sure that I practice my civil engagements by staying up to date on current affairs, and I also love reading blogs.

Why did you choose to apply specifically to the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
I initially first traveled to Prague while on study abroad in Italy. I fell in love with the aesthetics of the city, but I think what made me walk down the streets and tell myself, that if I ever lived in Europe again it would be Prague, was the Czech people that I encountered during that trip. I really believe in the power of storytelling, and I really learned that during that trip, specifically. I was staying at a Czech-owned hostel, so I got to actually meet Czech people, and a few of them were telling me about their experiences in education. During that time, I knew I was going into TFA to become a classroom teacher for the next two years, and so I was telling them about the reason why I was going into that work, and about the changes that I thought needed to be made in the American education system. Then they were telling me about how different it was compared to their own experiences in the education system in the Czech Republic. So when I applied for Fulbright, I thought back to that moment of the stories that the Czech people told me during that visit to Prague, and I was like, that’s where I need to go. I really wanted to see what it was like in practice.

How did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
One of my mentors knows how much I love traveling, and she knows how important international relations is to me, and so she recommended that I look into Fulbright. I did my research, and I realized this is the perfect program for me, that would grant me the opportunity to not only see a different country and to see it from a classroom perspective, and but also from a diplomatic view, through this cultural exchange of being able to help others see Americans in a new light. I think it’s really common for, especially young people, to stereotype what Americans sound, act, and look like based off American films. I don’t think it’s really fair, because of how big America is, and I think that unfortunately the way the media industries work, it doesn’t accurately reflect most of the young people in America; so I was really excited to apply for the program.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
I prepared more on just moving to the Czech Republic, as opposed to trying to figure out what my life would be like as an ETA. I remember trying to find blogs, there weren’t many blogs at that point, I know it’s changing now thankfully, and so because I couldn’t read much, I think I focused more so on just trying to understand the country I was moving to. I did a lot of research on the political state of the country and I did some readings on different Czech educators who influenced the education system. I definitely dove into the history of the country, because I didn’t know much prior to coming, and I wanted to make sure I knew the people and the country before I set foot in it.

And what is the town you’re living in this year like?
Prostějov is a beautiful town! Being from San Diego, which is I think the sixth largest county in America, I felt like it was a really small town initially, but my students would always check me and make sure that I said it was actually a medium-sized town. There’s about 50,000-70,000 people that live here, and it’s really, really beautiful. It’s pretty warm, and we’re really close to Olomouc and Brno as well, so it’s well located. They say it’s the heart of Moravia. They have their own dialect of Czech that they’re really proud of, and there’s a big young population of students here. There are about 14 secondary schools in the city. So there are definitely a lot of young people, which is nice, because I really believe in the youth, and so being around that many young people was really refreshing. It’s nice, I like it. I like the fact that I’m getting to know Moravia. 

And what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
The school I’m at is, I would say, a pretty elite school, because the students pretty much all speak really good English, including the first year students. They are all very smart. A lot of the Maturita [graduating high school] students didn’t have to take entrance exams for university, that’s how smart they are. The school has really amazing teachers, and the fact that the students are so smart is obviously a reflection of the great leadership of the school and the teachers.

The students’ English levels are pretty high; they all take the official Cambridge English exam at the end of the year, and most of them usually pass it. It took me a while at first, because I came here thinking I’m going to teach English, but I realized I could use it to my advantage, that because I don’t have to focus so much on the language, I can help them form mature opinions on issues that actually matter, that some students weren’t used to talking about. A lot of my lessons were focused on that. They’re not used to critically thinking about these issues.

Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I have two weekly conversation clubs. One with my Maturita students where we dive into the subjects they are going to be tested on in their exams and the second is open to all students. The second club is more focused on diving into issues in both America and Czech Republic related to race, class, and gender. This is an extremely safe space where students are able to talk about any preconceived notions they have and we unpack them collectively.

What do you like about teaching English?
What I love about teaching English is the fact that we are providing our students with what almost feels like a key to life. With the English language becoming completely globalized, our students not only have to learn English because it is compulsory, but they actually need to learn it in order to successfully communicate and compete with students around the world.

And what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I would say the most challenging part is challenging your own mindset and perspective. I think is really easy to feel like an outsider, and if you constantly think about it and you constantly internalize that, then it’ll effect the way that you are with people and the way that you interact. So understanding that although sometimes society makes you feel like differences are bad things, there is strength in understanding and owning those differences. That’s probably the most challenging thing, understanding that and then moving forward with it. I think it’s important to process it in the beginning, but not internalize it, so that you can actually find ways to find beauties in the differences. Once you get in with Czechs, you’re like family, so despite whether or not you look like family, I think once you’re in, you’re in. So just owning the differences and being brave.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think that you grow the most when you are pushed outside of your comfort zone, and so the most rewarding part of living and working abroad is being able to see how well you can do alone and how comfortable you can become when you’re outside of your comfort zone. And also being able to expand your identity. I feel like Czech Republic has now become a part of me. This has become a part of my story, and my heart feels warm being able to talk about this experience.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
One of my favorite things I experienced so far has been the Maturita ball. Seeing such a beautiful ceremony that is truly an incomparable event in the States was heartwarming. I was expecting it to be prom, but it’s different. Here, every student gets a sash, and at our prom, there was only a king and queen. Everyone is recognized at their prom here, and it was just a really beautiful sight. There was so much to love about it. I would say that was and still is the highlight so far.

What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
The teachers are giving me a lot more autonomy on what I can do with students in the classroom, so I’m super excited to see how far I can take conversations within the last month. There’s an even stronger sense of urgency for me to dive into issues that matter that I’ve had to push aside in the classroom, because we’ve been so focused on staying within the curriculum. There’s also a lot of fun events at our school coming up that I’m excited about, and just summer time! I’m excited to see Prostějov during the summer and to see everyone just glow.

Why do you think international education and exchanges are important?
It’s important because we’re more alike than we are different, and I think the only way you can really learn that is through education and through an exchange of different cultures and nations. I think if anything, thinking back to my last two years in the classroom in San Diego and my last nine months in my classroom here in Czech Republic, there are so many more similarities within my students than there are differences. I would’ve never expected that, I really thought I was going to be teaching students that were completely different, but there are so many similarities! It’s important, because when we look at all the issues going on in the world, I think it’s a time where we should focus more on our similarities- and some of our differences, because that’s how you learn and grow, but when we think about values and morals, I think through these exchanges that’s the only way you can realize that ultimately we may be doing things differently, but the underlying values and morals are a lot more similar than they are different.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
The Fulbright mission means to me this idea of exchanging cultures and challenging preconceived notions people have of each other’s cultures in the rawest and most authentic way. Through Fulbright, I’ve been able to share my own personal story, which is very different from the next American’s story. Fulbright is a gateway between nations that may think they are more different than they are alike. I know my students here think America is this place that is nothing like Czech Republic, and until I started telling them stories about my own high school experience, or the students that I taught before, and they realized they are actually more alike than they are different, and Fulbright does just that. It permits this ability to help us challenge each other and our thinking, to open our minds, and ultimately to become more accepting and more tolerant.

How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I don’t think my life is ever going to be the same! I grew up in a big family with people around me all the time and I have a twin sister, so I wasn’t used to being alone, and I’m also from California, so I’m used to being around people who tend to have this progressive, liberal mindset. Coming to the Czech Republic, where that wasn’t always the case, I was able to really take a step back, and listen, learn, and try to understand. I think it’s something that a lot of the times in American schools, we tend to want to talk more than we want to listen, just because it’s this natural competitive environment, and so I’ve been able to sit back and learn how to actively listen, and have a desire to understand why people think things, and why people are the way they are, even if they have opposing views. I had to learn how to listen and understand in a way that wasn’t undermining or devaluing other people’s opinions. I will take those skills and apply it to whatever I do next.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I am currently exploring all of my options. I am a lifelong learner, so I definitely will continue education in some way, shape, or form, I’m just in the process of determining the right program. Timing is really everything; I think I’ve spent more time trying to be present here, so I didn’t get to figure it out quite yet, but with time I will.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?
I would completely say to go for it! I know ten months initially seems like a long time, but it goes by so quick, and you wouldn’t imagine how much one can grow within ten months. The Fulbright truly puts you in a room full of people who are not only likeminded, but are equally as passionate and committed to this idea of connectedness. You don’t find the type of people you meet in Fulbright very often, so I definitely encourage people to apply and to just go for it. Have no expectations, because I think expectations can kind of diminish the experience. So, if you come, come with an open mind and try to leave all expectations behind, and try to be very present. Read the blogs, reach out, and ask questions.

And how are you feeling about everything at this moment?
I’m in a really happy place! The weather is warming up and my students are great. My Maturita students are celebrating being done with their exams. I’m in a really good place. A part of me is anxious, because I don’t know what’s next, but I also know that I’m going to continue to just be as present as possible, and to enjoy the last waves.

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

Raheal Mengisteab in Prague

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