2018/05/21

ETA Spotlight Interview: Jessica Megan Livingston

by Sinia Amanonce

Graphic designer, Jessica Megan Livingston, is serving as an English Teaching Assistant this year in Prostějov, Czech Republic. Placed in a fashion and design school, Jessica has been able to teach English while also sharing her passion for and expertise in design with her students. Read below to hear how her “go big or go home” attitude has affected success in her grant year.


Jessica Megan Livingston
Fast Facts:
Hometown: Wheeling, Illinois
Age: 22
College, Major/Minor: Carthage College, Graphic Design and Public Relations
School in the Czech Republic: Střední škola designu a mody Prostějov
Favorite Czech Word: Kava [coffee]
Favorite Czech Food: Garlic soup

To begin, please tell me about yourself.
I’m from Chicago, so I grew up with the city life. It was very typical, there were lots of people, lots of noise, and lots of things to do. I went to a private school in Kenosha, Wisconsin which was the opposite of everything I knew. There were a few people, it was a very calm environment, and I really liked it. I studied graphic design with a concentration in computer science. Technology is something I have always been good at, so that’s what I stuck with. I also double majored in Public Relations, which was more support, rather than the main focus of my studies. I’m just a graphic designer from Chicago, I’m a very simple person.

That’s quite unique. I have never heard of a graphic designer who was awarded the Fulbright. Were you able to use your graphic design skills this year?
Yeah! So I am placed in the secondary school of design and fashion. My students are graphic designers, interior designers, and fashion designers. Not only do I teach English, but I help them with their design stuff too. For example, helping them develop their portfolios, helping them create their galleries, and giving them feedback. Similar to my students now, while I was at school, even though our title was “graphic design” we still had to study sculpting, painting, fashion, and interior. I’m very familiar with their studies and because of that, we have an amazing bond because we can do more with English and design. Fortunately, I’m not just an English teacher, but I’m also like a mentor because I work in a field that they, themselves, are interested in. The students are very motivated and they want to know more than conversational English. They want to be able to talk about art and their work using the correct design terms because that’s not covered in their textbooks. I’m very fortunate with my placement because my students and I have so much to talk about all the time. We spend classes talking about pantones and I’m obsessed with typography so we’ve even debated about font preferences [laughs].

Wow, that’s great. Why did you choose to apply to Fulbright in the Czech Republic?
I’ll be honest with you, as a graphic designer, these questions did come up. Why would I do a Fulbright? How can I be sure if this is for me?
I was encouraged to apply for Fulbright by one of my professors. The director of Fulbright at my university is very good at promoting and seeking out students he thinks will be a good fit for the program. For a very long time, he encouraged me to do this and I did not consider it until September. I thought it was not for me, I have never lived abroad, and I don’t speak another language. All of these other people are so impressive, and my experience had been so minimal. I didn’t think I’d be a good fit. Eventually, I told myself, “I’m gonna do it.”
Also, I read a lot! While I was applying, I had just finished reading Ivan Klíma’s memoir, My Crazy Century. It is about 600 pages and was just so different from what I had already read. I would read it on the train to and from work. It was so inclusive and I was hooked on it. At that time, I thought I had a good understanding of Czech history and I did for any other country. Because my travel experience was so minimal and I just learned about this country, I felt more comfortable to applying to the Czech Republic.

Now that you’ve been here for a few months, do you have any advice for the upcoming ETAs on how to prepare for life in the Czech Republic?
I would emphasize how important it is to be open-minded. Not in the sense of being open-minded to gain experience, but be open-minded when you have to be flexible because you will. When you’re open-minded, your experience will be easier. I think a lot of people come into this thinking “I am flexible, I can do accounting and finance.” But then you realize you’re in a room with students who speak very little English and you have to teach them for 90 minutes. It’s a new type of flexibility that most people don’t learn in school. You have to be open and learning constantly.

Can you give me an example of a time where you had to be flexible?
I teach classes on my own, instead of teaching as the co-teacher. I have a very close bond with both my colleagues and my students, and my students get very possessive of their time with me [laughs]. If I miss class for meetings, the Berlin conference, or whatever it is, they will take note of the classes I’ve missed with them and then tell their teachers to schedule a makeup class.

Your students sound so sweet!
They’ll even Facebook message me to ask if I’m okay then ask why I was not in class. Sometimes, they’ll schedule classes with me on their own. I’ll walk into a class and the teacher will ask “Are you supposed to be teaching this class?” Coordinating class changes can be a challenge. The students and teachers have different expectations for me and I try to meet both. Sometimes I’ll teach 8 classes a day, on my own, and at the end of the week I’d reach 24 classes.
It can be challenging, but I’m very, very thankful for my students. My students are not naive. They understand that to be successful as a designer they will either have to move to Prague or go abroad, and to do this, they need to learn English. The students work so hard. Of course they have days when they are tired, especially around the time galleries have to go up. On top of studying for exams, they are working on larger projects and other final projects, paintings, mountings, and creating exhibits. Sometimes we will take the first 10 minutes of class for the students to vent. I focus so much on and feed off the energy of all these students who care so much.

Are you working on a special project with your students?
One of the things I’ve studied is the cultural perception of design - how different cultures create design, react to design, and different styles they prefer. This year, the students and I are currently working on a catalogue. Basically, it's a book that, as a group, we are designing and writing. It features different artists and designers from our school. It talks about their work and how their culture influences their work.
For example, one of my students is bisexual. He says, that for him, his designs and work are very exaggerated because he can’t be like that in public. He says he feels like Czech culture is narrow. Very often he can’t wear what he wants to wear, say what he wants, or talk how he wants to. So in his art, he is making an effort to be more eccentric and non-conforming. All of the students have their own stories on how their experiences has influenced their art and how they express themselves.
In this catalogue, we write features of each student that is participating and about their art. This is something we will leave behind for the school so that future students can see the artists and designers that have studied here in the past.

How did you come up with this idea?
I think I was making cookies. To be honest, there isn’t a deeper meaning behind the idea. I thought, “This could be a good idea, I’m going to talk to the students about it.” They seemed into it, so we did it.

What about you? What are you doing for yourself this year?
I’m trying to keep busy. I’m taking Czech and German lessons. I’m taking piano lessons. All of these things have been great. I feel like I’m doing things I wasn’t able to do or didn’t have time to do in the U.S. I joined an online chess league, but I wasn’t good enough. I was demolished at every turn, but it’s okay. I enjoyed it.

You’re really pushing yourself to do so much this year!
Yeah well, go big or go home [laughs].

What is the most rewarding part of your life in the Czech Republic thus far?
Learning language is not something that I ever really did. In my field of study, it was not something that was required or ever emphasized. Learning language now and having what I hope is a natural knack for it has been rewarding.
I think the #1 thing I was nervous about was building relationships with my students. Yeah, students don’t always care about school, are not always engaged, or they’re not always interested. You know, I’m not a teacher. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to do for them what they needed. For me, having the relationships I have with my students, especially because I worked ridiculously hard to build and maintain these relationships is really rewarding.

Jessica together with her friends in Switzerland.  

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