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Mariel Tavakoli: Writing New Opportunities for International Exchange

Mariel Tavakoli is the current EducationUSA Student Adviser at the Fulbright Commission and was a former English teaching assistant (ETA) in Znojmo (2013/2014).  Read on to learn how Mariel’s Fulbright experience changed her life and continues to inspire her work in writing education and supporting Czech students as they apply for studies in the USA. Next month, Mariel will begin an Essay Workshop with English language teachers and previous ETA mentors representing Czech secondary schools around the country.

In Summer 2012 I had just returned from my above-and-beyond amazing semester abroad in Prague, which was the first time I had ever visited, let alone lived in the Czech Republic. It had been on a program weekend visit to Český Krumlov that I first imagined myself as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), living in a smaller Czech town outside of Prague. Everyday of that summer after, I would come home from my summer internship to sit with my computer, working on draft after draft of my personal statement and statement of grant purpose and trying to figure out how to put all of my past experiences and future hopes and dreams into two essays, one page each.

Months later, I remember that I was walking to a group project meeting for my government class when I checked my email on my phone and read that I had been accepted into the Fulbright ETA program for the 2013-2014 year. I had so many emotions, but as they settled, I really envisioned the life plan I had laid out in those essays: graduate with my Public Policy degree, complete the Fulbright ETA program year, move back to the New York City area and work to improve US education policy using the lessons learned in the Czech Republic, and maybe get a master’s degree in public policy in the future. 

Photo 2: Mariel and her colleagues, high school teachers at Gymnazium and Pedagogy High School in Znojmo, before the school's annual ball, November 2013. (Five smiling females pose in fancy dresses.) 

Now, I work as the EducationUSA Student Adviser at the Fulbright Commission in Prague where I help Czech students to study in the USA, specializing in supporting their writing of those same essays. To say that my Fulbright ETA experience completely changed my life is an understatement. And without writing, none of it would have been possible.

When I first Googled my ETA placement location in Znojmo, I was met with equally stunning images of red rooftops and a fairytale-like city—not so different from Český Krumlov, but very different from my ideal plan of living in New York City. While living in Znojmo taught me to slow down and appreciate nature, and introduced me to forever friends and family, it also awakened me to my passion for writing and this importance of writing as a means of organizing one’s own thoughts, self-reflection, and accessing new opportunities. Early on as an ETA, I began working with students who were applying to universities abroad, advocating for writing exercise books, and visiting extra classes to do writing activities.

Photo 3: Mariel teaches English at Gymnazium and Pedagogy High School in Znojmo, Spring 2014. (Mariel points to her presentation in front of a classroom, a couple of students in the first row follow her lesson.)

Even when I returned to the US, I would still hear from students in Znojmo or others referred from Prague who were faced with writing personal statements to achieve a dream abroad. As I worked with them, read their drafts, and provided them with feedback, I continued to see similar patterns, challenges, and frustrations, and wanted to find out why. It was only due to my Fulbright ETA experience that I had discovered this purpose and so began to explore the field of applied linguistics—one I had never heard of in my previous studies. Once again, I sat down to another application and wrote another personal statement.  

Photo 4: Mariel together with her classmates at Oxford, October 2017, picture by the University of Oxford. (Twenty students pose for a group picture at a bright green lawn.)

At the University of Oxford, I completed my Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition within the Department of Education in 2018 where my research explored the challenges facing both Czech students and advisors when writing and giving feedback on personal statements, their best practices, and the gaps in knowledge that are assumed by universities. Now, back in the Czech Republic with the Fulbright Commission, I continue to work with dozens of students and review around 100 essays per year. While the solutions to making the personal statement writing process easier are still a work in progress, seeing my students go on and off to do amazing things and have their lives change through their opportunities is as exciting and fulfilling as it was with my first students and for myself in Znojmo.

Photo 5: Mariel with a student at the EducationUSA Advising Center, January 2020. (Mariel sits at a table with another young female, reviewing a writing assignment.)

Even though my original plans from my Fulbright ETA personal statement and statement of grant purpose essays completely changed, I would not change any of what came after submitting my application. Writing two essays in two pages led to living, working, and studying in three of the most stunning cities, countless connections with people around the world, and a career of opening these doors to others and providing them with the writing skills they need to express themselves and succeed. My Fulbright experience not only changed my life. The best part remains watching the ripples of international exchange and mutual understanding continue to extend with each one of my students who writes an essay that leads them onto a new path. 

Learn more about Mariel's planned essay workshop for Czech high school teachers. 

Photo 6: Oxford Matriculation ceremony, October 2017. (Mariel, together with her seven classmates, dressed in traditional Oxford university attire, pose for a group picture in front of a red-brick wall.)

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