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Salvatore Alaimo: Moravian Rhapsody

Salvatore Alaimo is a Professor
of Nonprofit Administration and Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. In this academic year, Salvatore examines the theory and practice of non-profit management at the Faculty of Social Studies at University of Ostrava. Located in the north-east of the Czech Republic, Ostrava is the third largest city of the country. It used to be nicknamed the "steel heart" of Czechoslovakia because of its coal mining and metallurgical past. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the region has been shaken by a major industrial restructuring strategy that has included the closure of the last mine in 1994. The new approach and greater attention to environmental impacts resulted in better air quality, but also in significant social and socioeconomic challenges for the local population that did traditionally rely on jobs related to heavy industry. Salvatore and his wife Wenjing arrived in Ostrava on September 1 to get ready for their six months in the Czech Republic. In October, Salvatore started to teach two university courses - Volunteer Management and Program Evaluation Capacity Building. When he is not teaching or conducting research, Salvatore and Wenjing explore the culture, follow local politics and taste the cuisine of the Czech Republic. Roughly in the middle of their stay, Salvatore shares: “You never stop learning in the Fulbright experience.”   

New experience
Earning the Fulbright-Masaryk Award in NGO Management landed my wife and I in Ostrava on September 1 where the University of Ostrava is my host institution. Moving to a new country, even for a short period, requires adjustment, adaptation, learning and overall enhancing awareness of your surroundings, local culture and more. One of the most important steps was to navigate the world-class transportation system here in Ostrava. I wish more of our cities in the U.S. had such public transportation systems.

Photo: A tram in Ostrava, Fall 2022. 

My first teaching experience was for the International Project Management (ICPM) program with students from Austria, Taiwan and Italy. I taught classes in Volunteer Management and Program Evaluation Capacity Building. I also coached a small group of them who worked on a service learning project to help Rainbow House, a local nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, with staffing challenges.
Photo: Salvatore with Director of Rainbow House Nikola Šimíková, third from left, and international students, Fall 2022, Ostrava. 

We learned a lot from asking her questions, touring their facility, and seeing the kinds of services they provide their clients. I am proud of their paper which I believe Rainbow House will benefit from. Next was teaching several classes in Professor Anna Musialová’s course, Strategic Planning and Development in Social Work. 

Photo: Salvatore with Anna Musialová and (far right), students, and special guest presenter, Ondřej Dostál (far left) who leads the Strategic Development Office of the City of Ostrava, Fall 2022.

The guest speaker Ondřej Dostál (far left) who leads the Strategic Development Office of the City of Ostrava. He did a splendid job, and the students benefitted from his knowledge, experience and sharing of the city’s strategic plan. My last class in 2022 was for Professor Šárka Kopřivová’s course Financing of Social Work Services and Fundraising where I covered various concepts and fundraising methods used in the U.S.

The research project I’m working on with two outstanding colleagues examines the evaluation capacity of Czech social services nonprofit organizations. Jakub Pejcal, PhD, is a professor at Masaryk University in Brno, and Simona Smrčková is a doctoral student at Charles University, in Prague. The Czech nonprofit sector has substantially grown over the past thirty years increasing from approximately 2,000 organizations in 1989 to approximately 148,000 in 2028. Interest in ensuring services are effective has also grown from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and European Union Social Investment Fund, among others. We received a 40% response rate for our national, online survey. Here we are having lunch with several directors who kindly volunteered to pre-test it at Masaryk University.

Photo: Lunch with nonprofit directors, Fall 2022, Ostrava. Jakub on the front left. Simona on the back right. 

The directors are currently conducting semi-structured interviews with directors of social services organizations, so we will have mixed data to analyze. We will submit our paper to an academic journal for publishing and hope to make presentations to various audiences around the Czech Republic as well as at international conferences.

American Centers
Another opportunity presents itself for Fulbright Scholars in the Czech Republic beyond teaching and research. The U.S. Embassy has American Centers in Prague, Pilsen, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc and Ustinad Laben, and they are interested in scholars presenting. Here I am presenting for the center in Pilsen on the importance of volunteerism to local high school students and on nonprofit marketing for Professor Dita Hommerová’s class at the University of West Bohemia.

Photo: Salvatore lectures at the University of West Bohemia, Fall 2022, Pilsen. 

On February 8, I will be co-presenting with University of Ostrava Professor, Nicole Horáková Hirschlerová on “Threats and Hopes for Civil Society in the USA and Czech Republic” at the American Center here in Ostrava. These opportunities are fun, enriching and enable scholars to visit new places, meet new people, share their value to local communities to benefit the Czech people.

Photo: Salvatore talks to high school juniors in Pilsen, Fall 2022. 

The Joy of Learning
Spending six months in a foreign country, especially one you have never visited, is to be taken seriously. I read about Czech history, their nonprofit sector and civil society before leaving the U.S. and will continue through our return home and beyond. You never stop learning in the Fulbright experience. The Fulbright orientation in Prague was informative and helpful, and it served as a base of knowledge about history and culture to build upon. I knew October 28 was Czechoslovak Independence Day celebrating when Czechoslovakia became an independent nation after World War I in 1918. I happened to be walking through downtown Ostrava that day and decided to stop and observe the commemoration ceremony shown below. 

Photo: Commemoration ceremony of Czechoslovak Independence Day, October 28, 2022, Ostrava. 

The Velvet Revolution, the split with Slovakia, and the importance of Václav Havel were familiar to me, but I continue to learn about the dynamics and dimensions behind important events and people. Radio Prague International has a daily news broadcast “Czechia in 30 minutes” in English that has been a wonderful source of news that helps me try to stay current. Their website is rich with articles on history, arts and culture. Local surroundings can inspire inquiry into important historical figures. Seeing this statue of Jan Amos Komenský in an Ostrava park named after him lead to me learn about his importance to education in the Czech Republic.

Photo: The statue of Jan Amos Komenský in Ostrava, Fall 2022. 

Visiting Masaryk Square prompted me to learn a bit about this immensely important figure in Czech history who served as president from 1918-1935.

Photo: Salvatore poses with the statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Masaryk Square in Ostrava, September 2022.  

This gentleman from Croatia at the Italian Food Festival enticed me with free samples of cheese and salami, and I winded up buying some delicious food from him. As an Italian-American from New Jersey I couldn’t resist, as this reminded me of my childhood. In Ostrava, HogoFogo and Nha Cretcheu Café & Restaurant are highly recommended eateries with delicious, creative fusion menus, and Moravská Chalupa is wonderful for authentic, local Czech cuisine. 

Photo: Salvatore having lunch at Hogo Fogo, Ostrava, September 20221.

If you ever get to Pilsen, Rango is highly recommended for Italian/Mediterranean cuisine. Prague of course is Prague with many great, international choices too many to list here. Overall, Wenjing and I like baked goods better here than in the U.S. The breads are delicious, abundant in variety and baked fresh every day. The desserts are fantastic because local bakers know just how much sugar to put in them. They find that “sweet spot.”

It’s All About Relationships
Any Fulbright Scholar will tell you that one of the most wonderful aspects of the experience is the forming of relationships, some of which will continue long after the experience is over and you have returned to your home country. Here are my colleagues in the Faculty of Social Studies at the wonderful welcome reception they held for Wenjing and I.

Photo: Salvatore with colleagues and friends, (left to right) Kateřina Kloubová from the Fulbright Commission, Salvatore's wife Wenjing, Salvatore, Vice-Rector Renáta Tomášková, Rectorate Jan Lata, Vice-Dean for International and Public Relations Marie Špiláčková and incoming Rectorate Petr Kopecký, all from the University of Ostrava, Fall 2022, Ostrava. 

Wenjing and I befriended Elizabeth Washington, a fellow Fulbright Scholar from the University of Florida based at Masaryk University, who we met at the orientation in Prague.

Photo: Salvatore, Wenjing and their friend and fellow Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Washington, September 2022, Prague. 

We met her several more times in Brno, Ostrava and Vienna and hope to stay in touch after we all have returned to the U.S. Michaela Vontorová from the Dean’s Office of the Faculty of Social Studies has been immensely helpful, and Wenjing and I have befriended her and her husband. We hope to continue that friendship as well. Jarmila Dvořáčková, the university library director, has been an invaluable friend and help to Wenjing. They will continue staying in touch from this point forward. These relationships and many more not only present future opportunities for teaching, joint research, and exchange programs, they make us better enrich our lives and make us better human beings.

In closing I encourage others to consider Fulbright Scholarships, studying abroad, or simply spending time in another country. It will prove to be a life changing, emotional experience. It will be the substance of your rhapsody.

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