Get to Know a Grantee - Ariane Willson

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Ariane Willson
Ariane Willson just completed her grant year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Czech Republic, where she lived and worked for ten months in the famed city of Karlovy Vary, famous for its spas, rich history, and film festival. A native of Arizona, Ariane had much to adjust to, weather-wise and more, upon arriving in Karlovy Vary. Here, she reflects back on her grant year, the challenges she faced, and her Fulbright experience living in one of the most famous Czech cities.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Scottsdale, Arizona
  • College, Major/Minor: Arizona State University, English Literature/Economics
  • School in Czech Republic: Střední průmyslová škola keramická a sklářská, Karlovy Vary
  • Age: 24
  • Favorite Czech Word: okurka (cucumber)
  • Favorite Quote: "But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because, 'Thou mayest.'" -John Steinbeck on the power of free will, East of Eden

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself? 
Yeah, so, I’m a big nerd. I’ve always been a massive reader and writer, that’s why I studied words in college. I’ve been all over the place in terms of my work experience. I worked for two years as a content director at a marketing firm in Phoenix, and then I was the vice president for a fashion club on campus as well, which was kind of a shot in the dark for me, so it worked out nicely that I ended up teaching at a fashion school here in Czech Republic.

And what are you passionate about?
I like making people have joy, making people happy. Not in the people-pleaser sense, but I just enjoy loving people and serving them. A lot of times it’s with food, because I love to cook, but it’s also just through conversation and things like that.

Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to Czech Republic specifically? 
A big passion of mine is art analytics and art history; I wrote my thesis in college on destructive and grotesque forms of beauty. I argued that there’s a beauty scale and that that scale does not include anything that is considered ugly. I think the Czech Republic was fascinating to me, because as a landscape and as a united group of people, they have such a tumultuous past, and a lot of the art and the personality of the place is reflected in that. I thought it was fascinating.

What is it like living in Karlovy Vary? 
It’s awesome! I feel really, really blessed, because I got placed here. It’s just a gorgeous little city. I think the history and the beauty of Karlovy Vary is interesting, how it was right on the border of the final push from the Allies, and how it was kind of like the crown jewel of the various administrations that were in power over here. There were a lot of Nazi balls and parties, and monuments to communism that are kind of still around. It’s just fascinating, it’s very layered.

What’s the school that you’re working at this year like? 
It’s a cross between a science and an art high school. It has fashion, ceramics, and we work with Moser glass factories, some of our students are apprentices there. There’s also chemistry, ecology, graphic design. It’s an interesting divide between kids, certainly. You can definitely tell the difference between the fashion kids and the ecology kids, and it’s not bad in any way, it’s just funny to be back in high school in the sense that there’s fashions and stuff.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year, like an English club?
To be honest, it never took off. I attempted a couple of things in the beginning, but they didn’t get enough organization or support, and there wasn’t a good schedule fit for clubs, but I hang out with a lot of the students privately, either doing tutoring, or just getting drinks. It’s like a non-official English club.

You also attended a conference earlier this year in Stockholm on beauty, is that right? 
Yeah, I presented some research in Stockholm and that was really cool. I was the youngest person in the room. For college, I wrote a massive, exhaustive paper on for my thesis on themes of grotesque female beauty and modern art and fashion, and so I presented one of my chapters, which was on the trope of the female vampire, and how it’s threatening to gender and beauty stereotypes.

Very interesting. And what do you like about teaching English? 
I like that it brings out a lot of positivity in me. I’ve changed a little bit. I’m not as quick to make critical comments, for example, or have negative thoughts, and I definitely am grateful for that, that’s really cool.

What is the most challenging part of living and working abroad? 
Winter. Without a doubt, and not just the snow, but the darkness in more ways than one. Certainly, being really far from a support system that I’m familiar with, when also experiencing bouts of depression. It definitely was a challenge to learn to be alone and learn to make new connections and family, while I didn’t necessarily feel strong in myself.

How did you push through that? 
Conversation. Conversation with people here, I think I would highly emphasize, while also getting support for people back home, although no one there is going to really understand what you’re seeing and feeling, and the atmosphere you’re moving around in. I definitely got a massive amount of support from my friends both in the ETA program and in town here, so I just think it’s cool, because the demeanor and the type of people who live and work abroad, I find that a lot of us are very flexible, kind, open, and friendly, and we all have our moments of doubt and our low moments, so it’s easy to talk to people like that.

And what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
The people that I’ve met. Within the 20 ETAs here, we were incredibly close and there’s been no disagreements, everyone likes each other. It’s a very supportive, kind, and inspiring group of people to be around, and on a personal level, I’ve met some really wonderful expats in Karlovy Vary and created a little life for myself, which was definitely worth it.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced during your grant year? 
Two things, getting to know Prague like the back of my hand. That’s cool to know one of the most famous cities in the world as if you’ve lived there. Another thing, I’ve had a relationship here, and that’s been really wonderful.

What places in Czech Republic did you enjoy traveling to? 
I really loved going down to Mikulov in Moravia in September, right when the wine season was coming to an end. That was definitely a top trip, and I definitely recommend road tripping. Even if it’s just an aimless drive, I’ve really enjoyed driving through the cities and countryside.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you? 
I find myself having to believe and defend it more often, given our current situation financially with the administration. I think it means giving countries a face and a name, and personalizing the world on a small scale, because you have to start somewhere. If you think about it, it’s a bigger scale than we give it credit for, because I’m one person, but I work with almost 300 people, many of whom had never met an American, and vice versa, I’d never met a Czech person before. I think it’s incredibly valuable to learn things about yourself, and sort of force perspective on people and challenge worldviews, not necessarily in an argumentative kind of way, but in a way that you can see beauty, and you can identify humanity in others.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright? 
I no longer feel any fear and intimidation with moving somewhere new and knowing no one. I know that I haven’t gotten a job for next year yet, but I will be in the process of applying for nonprofit work, and I literally say I would go anywhere in the world at this point. I actually would like to challenge myself more with the next move, and get more of a culture shock by moving somewhere in southeast Asia or South America. I seek kindness in people more, I think, and I’m not doubtful of people I don’t know or understand.

And do you have any advice for the next group of ETAs, or for people considering applying for a Fulbright? 
For the next group, I would say, don’t doubt yourself and your decision. Definitely this position requires emotional strength, and you have to know that you’re enough for the task. There were certainly days that I needed to remind myself that I got here and I’m enough for that. And for people considering applying, either to Czech Republic or other places, don’t be afraid of applying somewhere that you don’t know anything about. I know when I first started researching Fulbright, I was only looking at countries that I recognized, in the sense that I would know a bit about the culture and the language, and I’m really appreciative that I ended up in a place where I didn’t know that much about the history or the language, and it’s certainly more eye-opening and world-rocking.

If you could sum your Fulbright experience using only one word, what would it be? 

And is there anything else you would like to add? 

Good luck going back to high school to whoever is coming next, because it’s certainly hard not to feel like a kid again!

Ariane Willson with friends in Prague

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