Get to Know a Grantee - Max Gollin

By Maureen Heydt  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Max Gollin
Max Gollin is a Princeton University grad, and has just finished up his grant year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic. Max spent this year teaching at a gymnázium in Jihlava, a prominent provincial capital that straddles the dividing line between Bohemia and Moravia. Max is also an avid musician, and frequently incorporated music into his classroom to help make lessons fun and exciting for students. Read below to find out what Max has to say about his grant year in the Czech Republic, his advice for future Fulbrighters, and what he plans to do next.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Bowie, Maryland
  • College, Major/Minor: Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium, Jihlava
  • Age: 22
  • Favorite Czech Word: “Panelák” (apartment block)
  • Favorite Quote: A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”- William Shakespeare

Hi! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself- where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are? 

I’m from Bowie, Maryland; I’m 22 years old. I graduated last spring with a degree from Princeton School of Public and International Affairs with a focus on Conflict Resolution. I’m really into writing and performing music, distance running, and rock climbing.

And what are you passionate about? 

Music is definitely a big one for me. I think it’s one of the best ways you can express yourself creatively, and it’s an awesome form of cross-cultural communication. It really works in any language. I’m also passionate about traveling, and getting to understand different cultural perspectives and seeing things in new ways. I’m also really passionate about getting out into nature and experiencing the natural world.

Why did you choose the Czech Republic specifically when applying for a Fulbright grant? 
It started with my uncle, because he’s Czech, and his family immigrated to the U.S. back in 1968, during the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion. His life story was always inspiring to me, and he actually organized for several summers this English teaching program for university students to go overseas to the Czech Republic. I was too young to go at the time, but he always brought back these great stories and talked about all these awesome experiences they had. It was also just an adventure for me; I hadn’t been east of Germany before that, and the fact that it’s in the dead center of Europe is perfect. Also, it let me be closer to my girlfriend, Isabelle, so that was a really nice bonus, too.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic? 
The summer before, I started reading everything I could about my town and the Czech Republic in general. I tried to learn a bit of Czech through some audio learning CDs I got at my local library, and actually it was really sweet, some of my students before I even met them or got there emailed me a PowerPoint welcoming me to the school and telling me about the facilities and what to expect. That was really nice.

That’s so nice! And what is the town like that you are living in this year? 
I’m in Jihlava, a small city of around 50,000 people. It is the capital of the Vysočina, or ‘Highlands’ region. Historically, it was a German-speaking, silver mining town, so it’s sort of a unique island within the Czech Republic. There’s a lot of naturally beautiful areas, and the historic town square; it’s really pleasant. It has pretty much everything you need in terms of shops, restaurants, and local culture.

What’s the school that you’re working at this year like? 
It’s a gymnázium, meaning that the students there pretty much all intend to go to university. It’s this really beautiful 19th century baroque building, and the students are just so smart, funny, and motivated, and I can tell that the teachers really genuinely care about the students, and are invested in their education. It’s a really great school.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year? 
There’s a couple of things I was doing. For example, I do have an English club that meets weekly in this local tearoom we have which is a really nice peaceful place where we drink tea and do some fun activities together. I also teach English lessons to other teachers in my school, who were interested in learning, but didn’t really have other opportunities to learn English. And as a smaller side thing, this spring I rehearsed for and performed with a group of my students in this spring charity concert at the school. We performed a bunch of Irish folk songs for an audience of the school and the local community.

That’s wonderful. What instrument did you play? 
For that performance, I was playing guitar. I normally use the guitar in my classes, just because it’s so portable, but I also play piano and electric bass. Also formerly a trumpet player, but it’s not the easiest to maintain.

That’s a great idea to use the guitar in your classroom! 
Yeah, I know there’s this saying, “Co Čech, to muzikant, meaning “Every Czech is a musician,” and I find it’s really true! Even my students who say they aren’t really into music, they all can hit the pitch and remember lyrics, and it’s just a great way to bring some English into the classroom and have fun with it. We do singalongs in class. Especially around the holidays, I remember we exchanged the English and Czech versions of some Christmas songs, and I even brought some Hanukkah music for them to check out.

And what do you like about teaching English? 
There’s a lot to like about it! I think partly it’s just such a flexible subject, so whatever the students are interested in and whatever I’m feeling would be fun or unique, there’s a way of weaving that into an English lesson, which I think is great. I also just think it’s really valuable. It’s something the students will almost invariably need in their lives or future careers, so just as a subject it’s something great to be able to pass on and have fun while you’re doing it.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
 My girlfriend and I went to the Svatý Martin, or Saint Martin’s, celebration in the Jihlava town square. I had no idea what it was about; some of my students and teachers had told me about it during the day, but I really thought that it was just this wild parade, with these enormous puppets marching through the street by torchlight, children running to pick up chocolate coins that this guy was throwing from the top of a horse, while dressed as a roman soldier, and there were these wonderful holiday markets with all this food, and then this crazy fireworks display, that went off over the whole city. It was a really unbelievable cultural event to be a part of.

And what is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I think just the language barrier, especially when I first got here. It made everything that was already logistically difficult a bit more challenging, and if I could do it over again, I think I would have studied Czech a little more intensively before I got here, and been more dedicated to improving my language level as soon as I arrived.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think it’s really the people I’ve met here. I’ve interacted and become friends with people I just never would’ve met otherwise. I confronted cultural perspectives and beliefs that I never would have in another circumstance, and I think I’ve become more open-minded and a more mature person as a result, so yeah, that’s been great.

Why are international education and exchanges important for people to experience? 
I think it’s a chance for you to look beyond your normal day-to-day routine and realize that there’s more than one way to approach every issue and think about the world. I think that participating in a program like this has made me more independent, self-reliant, and adaptable, and I think that’s something that would really benefit anyone interested in a program like this.

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you? 
To me, the Fulbright mission means not just conveying your own perspective in an understandable and sensitive way, but really listening to what people on the other end of the exchange have to say and internalizing that, and taking it back with you.

Have you traveled anywhere in the Czech Republic that you really liked?
Yes, where to begin! I was in Kutná Hora with Isabelle visiting Sinia, another Fulbrighter, and the city is just absolutely gorgeous. The St Barbara’s Cathedral, that looks over this sunlit valley all the way to the nearby Sedlec Ossuary, which is this chapel decorated with human remains. I think there is something about that city that is so beautiful and so fundamentally Czech and unique.

And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think that in the future I will definitely be less hesitant than I was before to pursue opportunities abroad and to go outside of my comfort zone and travel more. I think being more flexible in terms of listening to new ideas, learning languages, and adapting to local circumstances. I’m also interested in global education development and education policy, so this experience working on the ground among teachers for a year has given me this new understanding and respect for what teachers really do in a classroom setting.

What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year? 
I’ll probably spend the summer reconnecting with friends and family back home. In the fall, I’m hoping to join Isabelle, who will be pursing her Master’s in Geoinformatics at the University of Copenhagen. I’m looking into international development work or future English teaching positions in Copenhagen.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright grant? 
I would say do it, but definitely do your research and find what would be a good fit for you personally and culturally, and be prepared for some logistical or personal struggles or difficulties, because it’s just sort of the process of getting adjusted. I think in the end, anyone who has had a similar experience would say it’s a such a process of growth and personal development and that it’s absolutely worth it.

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

And is there anything else you would like to add? 
I would like to give a shout-out to my friends and family for supporting me while I’m over here, to Isabelle for being an awesome partner to have every step of the way here, to my fellow Fulbrighters, who have all been so fun and cool to get to know better and hang out with, and to the Commission for helping me out and supporting me whenever any issues came up.

Max Gollin with Isabelle

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