Update from Harrison, ETA in the Czech Republic

Just a couple of weeks ago, the US Fulbright students in the Czech Republic crossed over the midway point of our grant term. I had an extended Christmas holiday this year because my school didn’t want to open dormitories for just two days out of an entire week – they just gave us an extra week off. I had the opportunity to attend three Christmas dinners with colleagues from my schools and taste the traditional Czech Christmas meal, which includes dishes like fried carp, schnitzel, wine sausage, potato salad, and lots of homemade cookies. I also spent the time off exploring Prague with some fellow UCSD alumni who were in Europe.

Since my last update, I’ve also spent some time doing various other things around town. For Thanksgiving, because the official Fulbright Thanksgiving for grantees actually took place on Friday, I decided to host a community Thanksgiving at the local youth center, which consisted of a meal of turkey stew (cooking a whole turkey here would have been a little too difficult) and had about 20 attendees present, including my students, several parents, teachers, and the local European expat volunteers community. I also participated in the events of a local language school’s intercultural evening, where I had the support of the US Embassy, American Center, and Fulbright Commission to run a booth and give a public presentation with info about the United States. I’ve also offered to volunteer my time to some of this school’s other cultural events (which I’ve also enjoyed a ton because they do an amazing job at bringing the community together).  Teaching has also been going well. Some of my favorite lessons are those that focus on solving problems and activities I’ve named “There’s an App for That” and “Let’s Save the Zoo from Going Broke.” While I’d love to tell you more about these lessons, there really isn’t much to say beyond the title – I purposely designed them to be relatively open-ended and allow student creativity. The next big thing I’m looking forward to is a volunteer panel during the open lesson that I will be hosting for Czech students who might want to take a gap year and travel to another country through various EU schemes.

In my free time, I’ve been volunteering for the Multicultural Center in Prague helping to proofread and edit materials available for the public and papers to be discussed at an upcoming conference for both academics and immigration policy practitioners. I’m also going to be teaching a course that I’ll be calling “English Conversation for Social Science and Humanities Majors.” It’s an extracurricular course at my region’s university primarily for political science, anthropology, and sociology bachelor’s students. It’s amazing to think that this grant has provided me the opportunity to connect with a local university and be able to work with them through my own initiative, and I’m very excited for our collaboration over the next semester. In fact, there are so many students, it is looking like I will have more than one section. We have 50 students on the interest list. Additionally, I heard that a local organization that provides language classes to adults lost its volunteers and some grant funding. I told them I’d be willing to fill in because being a Fulbright grantee provides me with enough free time that I am able to share my experience and connect with local Czechs through other means than just my time at the school. Reaching out to places like local universities, language schools, and NGOs, while difficult, provides a venue for me to make the most of my time here.

As for my living situation, living alone still proves to be a bit of a challenge when you are not fluent in the language. There are often misunderstandings, but, with a few exceptions, the living arrangement has been acceptable. Most importantly, I’ve had functional Internet for the last month, after getting permission from the school to have the phone company drill into the apartment walls and finally reaching the person I think may have been the phone company’s single English-speaking employee. (I felt like Radim, the phone company customer service agent, and I had a special relationship from all the back and forth involved in the process.) Still, if I knew some things going into my Fulbright about how to handle renting an apartment abroad, I would have done some things differently. (Future Fulbrighters: I encourage you to start looking at the housing arrangements as soon as you have your grant and know your placement)

Update from Casey McCoy – Halfway Through his Stay in Austria

My first semester at the University of Vienna comes to a close at the end of January. It has been an extraordinarily rich experience so far, and I very much look forward to the spring semester. My Fulbright grant is a full research grant to work on my project, “Philosophical Implications of Inflationary Cosmology.” Most of my time has been devoted to this project, but there have been many opportunities to interact with the local academic community and participate in cultural activities sponsored by the Austrian-American Fulbright Commission, the University of Vienna, and the Austrian governmental agency funding my Fulbright-Mach grant, the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation.

One of the greatest personal benefits of the Fulbright grant has been the opportunity to focus full-time on my research project. Besides the valuable time to write, my project has benefited greatly from my interactions with my local academic supervisor, Dr. Richard Dawid, and other contacts made in the local community. A difficulty that I expect many Fulbright research grant recipients face, though, is this very time and freedom. Graduate programs in the U.S. can be fairly structured, with seminars, colloquia, reading groups, advising, and teaching rapidly filling out one’s time. Transitioning to an environment where a lot of this familiar structure at one’s home institution disappears ironically presents a challenge to efficient time management and productivity. With a lot of time on one’s hands, it’s easy to waste a lot of time unproductively! Many anecdotes from my fellow Fulbright scholars support this observation as well.

The solution is obvious in theory, but can be difficult in practice. In the first place, one can replace the familiar events from one’s home institution with similar events at the institution with which one is affiliated. For me, this has included regularly attending one of the lecture series in the Department of Philosophy, and participating in the Vienna Forum for Academic Philosophy.

It is also a great idea to take advantage of the many events sponsored by organizations invested in your presence in the host country. One of the highlight events of this semester was attending a reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Vienna, where I had the opportunity to interact with the many people involved in supporting the Fulbright program in Austria, former and future Austrian Fulbrighters, and my fellow U.S. grantees. There have also been many opportunities to take part in cultural and community service activities, such as taking guided tours of the city of Vienna, visiting exhibitions in local museums like the Vienna Museum Karlspatz, attending a traditional ball at the Imperial Palace (waltz lessons included), preparing meals for the homeless, and many others.

Of course, one cannot know about many of these events in advance, but it pays to think ahead before arriving in the host country about how to organize your time. The several months of one’s grant period go by quickly, and it is no good to spend a lot of that time figuring out how to spend the rest of it! Show up with a plan, enforce personal deadlines, etc.

Just be ready to throw the plan away when opportunity comes knocking, as it certainly will!

Introduction to Annie Dimitras, ETA in Kosovo

I began my ETA grant in Kosovo around three months ago. My Fulbright cohort arrived in mid-September. We were picked up from the airport by embassy representatives and attended a two and a half day orientation in the embassy, where we were briefed on security, health, cultural heritage projects, the education system, school conditions, and our placement sites.

The embassy informed me of my placement city a little less than two months before I arrived. I did not know what schools or what age group I would be working with until I attended the orientation at the embassy. Since Kosovo is a small country, there is no Fulbright Commission. The Public Affairs section of the embassy handles all Fulbright grantees. Most of my fellow Kosovo Fulbright grantees and I attended an earlier orientation in Washington, DC, along with other Eastern European and Eurasian grantees headed to countries without a Fulbright Commission. In DC, we met alumni that had just returned from Kosovo, and their information was invaluable.

After a few days in the capital city, I was transported to my placement city by the embassy. We had a whirlwind visit to apartments that I had about five minutes to look at before deciding where I would live for the next year. They also took me to one of my two schools and introduced me to the principal (who spoke no English) and my contact person (the main English teacher I would work with). This all happened a little fast for me, so fast I almost wasn’t sure how to get back to my new apartment.

I have been placed in a small city in the north of the country called Mitrovica. It is infamous in Kosovo for being the city with the most ongoing conflict and for being one of the most depressed cities in the country. Until the ’80s, Mitrovica was booming with culture, and everyone worked at the big mine nearby and had lots of money. Then miners started to get laid off, conflict began to increase, and now the city is split in half (ethnic Albanians in the south and Serbs in the north) and there is no new industry to put all those miners back to work.

I had no training or experience with either local language, Albanian or Serbian, prior to arrival in Kosovo. I live on the Albanian side of town and have started learning Albanian. However, there is no class available to me and few materials for English speakers to learn Albanian, so I only have a very basic grasp of the language. I use my Albanian to buy things and conduct simple interactions, but most of the people I interact with speak enough English to converse.

I work at two schools in the southern half of the city. I began working at an upper primary school with grades 6-9 right after I moved to Mitrovica. It took a month for someone from the embassy to come back up here, introduce me to the principal of my second school, and have the proper documents signed. So for the second month, I have been working half the time at the primary school and half the time at a gymnasium high school with 10-12th graders. It took weeks for me to work out a schedule so I could see as many different students every week as possible and work with nearly all the English teachers at both schools without losing my mind. I now I have a complicated schedule where I work four days with eight different teachers and over 500 students. I still don’t know everyone’s name, but I am doing my best.

There are four other ETAs in Kosovo with me, one student researcher, and one scholar. The student researcher, scholar, and one of the ETAs are based in the capital. One ETA is on his own in a mountain village. His placement is so isolated that he had to purchase a car to reach both of the schools he is assigned to. The two other ETAs are placed in the same city in the south of the country. They share an apartment by choice but work in different schools. All of the ETAs are at primary or high schools, and all but one work at two schools. Working at two schools gives you a greater perspective on the education system, but it means a lot more students and teachers to keep track of. Every teacher may have different expectations, and every class may have different needs and demands.

Overall, my first three months have had a lot of ups and downs. It is been exciting to explore a new country and begin relationships with so many interesting people. It has also been extremely challenging to work a new environment. I have encountered many communication barriers and misunderstandings. It is a process to figure out how to best communicate with my teachers, students, and administrators. It is also a process to establish my role in each class. Despite the challenges, the experience has been great so far—very rewarding and entirely unique. I think the beginning is the hardest part. I am happy to have overcome so many challenges thus far and am looking forward to the rest of my time in Kosovo.