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Aidan Uvanni: Focus on Being Home

Aidan Uvanni is an active-duty United
States Coast Guard officer and currently a full-time master’s degree student. He is studying Water and Environmental Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague. His research focuses on water management and examining sustainable treatment systems to address stormwater pollution. In his free time, he enjoys indoor rock climbing and exploring the city by bike or on foot. In addition, he volunteers with a local non-profit organization that assists socially excluded children and youth, and he practices English conversation with a group of middle schoolers from Ukraine.  Prior to his Fulbright grant, Aidan served onboard USCGC Polar Star, deploying to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2022. 

Growing up, I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps; I thought of entering the medical field to become a doctor. But, if you read the first line of my Fulbright grant description, you know that I am studying water engineering – slightly different than medicine. With reflection, I realized it was not the occupation of a physician that I was necessarily drawn to, but rather the act of dedicating my life to helping others. This realization pointed me toward the military. I was introduced to the U.S. Coast Guard and their humanitarian missions. I applied to and received an appointment to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The importance of education was instilled in me from a young age. While studying civil engineering at the Coast Guard Academy, I knew I wanted to continue my studies at the graduate level. Typically, officers must complete several years of service before applying to graduate school. However, being awarded a prestigious scholarship is the exception to that timeline. I am incredibly thankful to have had an academic advisor, professors, and an Honor’s Program Director that introduced me to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and encouraged me to strive for academic excellence and further scholarly achievement.

The Coast Guard affords members the opportunity to extensively travel, but typically you are only in a foreign country during port calls. The Fulbright Scholarship is the perfect opportunity to live abroad and complete my master’s degree.

Upon graduation, I reported for duty to the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Shortly thereafter, I submitted my Fulbright application before deploying to the Antarctic. After traveling around the world, I found out I would be making one more trip across an ocean. This time, my travels would take me to live in Prague, Czechia, for two years!

A question I often hear is, “What is a Coast Guardsman doing in a landlocked nation?” This may seem ironic, but I am here in Prague pursing a master’s degree in water and environmental engineering with a specialization in water management from the Czech Technical University (CTU). As a branch of the military, the Coast Guard is multifaceted and has 11 statutory missions. One of the missions is Maritime Environmental Protection. This includes preventing, mitigating, and responding to the release of oil or hazardous substances in U.S. waters. The Czech Republic is rich in knowledge about rivers, flooding, and water management, making it an exceptional location to learn.

This is the first time the university is offering the program in English. On the first day of classes, I was surprised to find that I only had two classmates! At first, it was a bit daunting to have such a small class, (I even have a class by myself!), but actually we are incredibly fortunate to basically have private tutoring at one of the oldest and largest technical universities in Europe.

Photo: Faculty of Civil Engineering at Czech Technical University in Prague, Summer 2022. 

By going to school in a foreign country, I expected there would be some differences. The biggest difference here is that there are no tests and very few assignments. Your grade for the entire semester is based solely on the final exam! Now, I could go on and on about how I would prefer periodic assessments and feedback, but the whole point of studying abroad is to experience a new style of teaching, adapt to the differences, and come to appreciate another way of learning.

All Fulbrighter’s face similar challenges in relocating to their host country, but when that move is for two years, you are really moving to a new home! I am very fortunate that my new home is close to some of the best views in Prague!

Photo: View from atop Vitkov Hill, Prague, Fall 2022.
 
While I have done a lot of touristy things, I focused my first few months here on exploring the city and finding ways to integrate myself into the community.

Photo: Wallenstein Garden, Summer 2022.

I believe that as a member of a community, it is my responsibility to give back. I reached out to the Fulbright Commission for recommendations of places I could volunteer; that single email has changed the course of my time here in Prague. I was connected with a previous Czech to U.S. Fulbrighter that manages a youth organization. One connection has led to another, and now I visit with their teen program, have weekly English conversations with a local Ukrainian middle school class, as well as with a non-profit organization that works on social inclusion of marginalized groups. These activities have afforded me opportunities to experience Czechia and gain perspective and cultural understanding that I would not get from graduate studies alone.

I encourage all grantees, whether you are here for three months, nine months, or two years, to make the Czech Republic YOUR home. It is easy to get preoccupied and focus on “going home” when you are away; but I encourage all grantees to shift their attention to call Czechia HOME and experience all that the country has to offer! That way, you can begin to appreciate the little things and become immersed in the culture. As much as we are here to represent and share American values, we have a responsibility to return to the States with a new found appreciation of the Czech way of life and we should share it with those who have not had the same privilege.

As a Fulbright scholar, we have a duty to be ambassadors of sharing ideas, cultures, and friendships that will help our large, fragmented world become a little smaller and with greater empathy. Be prepared to immerse yourself in experiences and grow so that you can be the change that you want to see in the world!

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