Application Tips from Daniel Sichmeller

Hey, this is Daniel Sichmeller. I won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant to the Czech Republic, and I’m here to give you some tips about the Fulbright application process. My experience is of course limited to ETA applications.

Let me first make it clear how invaluable Zoe is in the application process. If you have problems with deadlines (like me) or paperwork (also me), you can’t afford not to be working closely with Zoe. She is a great editor, so I highly advise you to send her as many drafts of your personal statement and statement of grant purpose as possible. At one point, my personal statement existed in three completely separate versions, and she was willing to look at each one to determine which would be most appealing. If you don’t feel guilty about how much you are bothering her, then you are probably not talking to her enough.

Note: Be smart and start send Zoe those drafts super early.

The first major decision in the application process might be choosing which country to apply for. Go ahead and follow your heart or something because you want to make sure you end up in a country you actually like, but there are a few other things to consider. Check out http://us.fulbrightonline.org/statistics for award statistics for the different countries you are considering and compare the awards/applicants ratios. On top of that, consider your competition and how you measure up. For me the choice was between the Czech Republic and Spain. I knew my Spanish could not compete with over 400 applicants’ and even though I spoke no Czech, it is an uncommon enough language that I would not be competing with many fluent speakers. Consider all the information available and apply to the country for which you can write the most appealing application.

Do not forget about your references. I tutored for four different professors in my time at UCSD, so recommendations were easy. You should be building relationships with your professors already, but if you have been slacking, now is the time to start your office hour visits. Though I haven’t actually seen the recommendations my professors wrote for me, I can’t help but think that their recommendations did a better job of selling me than the rest of my application.

If you still feel like your application is weak then do something about it. I was worried about my lack of language skills and had only months to improve them. Instead though, I took a calculated risk and focused on strengthening my teaching experience. In the few months before the deadline, I got a job as a substitute teacher (which is very easy once you have your BA), then volunteered tutoring elementary school kids and teaching ESL to adults. By the time of the deadline, I had only added two months of experience to speak of, but I wrote it in anyway. When I go to the Czech Republic in August I will have a full year of experience teaching a wide variety of students and subjects, and that is what I sold them in my application.

Good luck and have fun.

Daniel

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)

Harrison Gill on Teaching and ETA Life in the Czech Republic

Although I took some time to get up to speed, most of my experiences thus far have been pleasant, and everyone is helping out to make sure I can succeed in my role teaching in the classroom and to ensure that I have a comfortable living environment. Originally upon my arrival, I was living in a wing for students, which was offered to me essentially for free. It was particularly challenging to live there because students move out on the weekends and the building essentially shuts down, something that is not ideal for someone who is often (but not always) spending his weekends in town. I was able to move into special accommodations for teachers, and while I now have to pay rent, it is quite affordable and provides me a larger space, a more comfortable bed, and a private bathroom and kitchen. Unfortunately, the apartment was unfurnished, but teachers and staff were more than willing to help me out in acquiring furniture. The one thing to keep in mind, however, is that living in a rural community can be challenging at times. Sometimes it is hard to get stuff I need for my apartment because it requires a car, and sometimes Internet does not work properly (especially the email ports, which makes submitting this blog post a particular challenge). Overall, however, my accommodations are quite nice and much larger than anything I could probably afford in the States as a recent college graduate.

As for my teaching, it took awhile to figure out. I teach at two schools – one of which is divided into three different campuses, including one that is about ten kilometers away. I switch between schools each week. At one of my schools, I teach lower level students interested in technical subjects, business, and fields requiring apprenticeships. At this school, I sometimes teach whole lessons, which last for 45 minutes, but sometimes just add insights to other lessons. As Rychnov nad Kneznou is close to the second largest car factory in the Czech Republic, many of the students focus on eventually working as auto mechanics or technicians. Often this means it is helpful to tie my lessons in with automotive subjects. For example, this might mean planning a lesson on how one would apply for a job as an auto mechanic in the US. My other school is a college prep gymnazium. Here there are three different types of English classes: compulsory, voluntary, and open. I teach in all three. In all three, I often am responsible for the whole class period. With compulsory and voluntary English, the teacher sits in the back or the side of the room and we decide on a topic together, often with the teacher placing an initial suggestion in a calendar on my office desk. Open English, however, is a class that I teach on my own for a 90-minute period. I get to choose the topic, and it is essentially my own class. It is optional for students to attend Open English, but since it was so popular during the first week, we decided to add a second class every other week when I am at the gymnazium.

As for other things I am doing on the side, one of the teachers set me up with a recent alumnus who is interested in practicing his English. We’ve met so many times already that I think we could probably consider each other friends or at least acquaintances, something that is not particularly easy to do in the Czech Republic. Eventually we will speak with each other using just Czech (until I get stuck). Additionally, some teachers have promised to take me to their homes for different weekend activities like learning to cook Czech cuisine and watching movies. I also hired a private tutor to improve my Czech, something that still remains well within my financial means here. On Halloween, I will be helping out at the local youth center. I’ll also be helping out at the gymnazium’s open house and showing parents how the students learn in their English classes by giving them a mock lesson. In my free time, I have also started a project called What YOUth Eat, when I realized one day while sitting in the dining hall that Americans probably have no idea what Czech students actually eat. In the true spirit of international exchange, I also opened the site to contributions from all around the world. You can check it out at www.whatyoutheat.com. By the time my stint in the Czech Republic is over, I would love to see contributions from all around the world and have something that can exist as a sustainable project to share with as many people online as possible.

Harrison Gill is About to Leave for his Trip!

At this point, I leave for the Czech Republic in less than two weeks. I am very excited, but if you are applying for the Fulbright for next year and think summer is just a time when you can slack off and not have to deal with anything important, you are quite mistaken. There are quite a few forms to be filled out and things to be discussed so that you are fully ready to go on that impending departure date.

For me, the process included learning more about my placement, such as the fact that I am going to be working in two schools; learning about potential housing options (I chose a dormitory partially subsidized by the school); linking my bank accounts to the Fulbright Commission so that I can receive my grant money; and, most complicated of all, applying for a visa.

Sadly, visa processes can cause a bit of a headache, but in the end they are worth it if you follow all the directions carefully. One of the biggest disappointments is that I was unable to go on a family vacation to Bhutan because the consulate was holding my passport. In the end, though, although I would have loved to visit Bhutan, I feel the almost yearlong experience in the Czech Republic is going to have a much larger impact on my life than a one-week trip as a tourist. Looking back, I know I will have made the right choice. Additionally, the paperwork for a visa is complicated, and the procedures can be even more complicated. As the paperwork required a lot of fill-in-the-blank answers in Czech, I had to sit there with a dictionary to complete the form, and even after I was finished, I wasn’t sure that everything was answered correctly. Applying for visas is one of those processes that make you doubt yourself because things never seem to make sense, possibly getting lost in translation. Additionally, I still need to report to a certain police station to validate my visa and receive my residence permit, and that process is actually more of a challenge than it seems. Luckily, the commission has been extremely helpful.

As for other preparations, the Fulbright commission has been quick to answer questions and has already allowed me to reach out to my mentor teachers. While there are still a lot of unanswered questions, which I am sure will be handled at our orientation at the end of this month, I have been able to ask questions about things ranging from the visa to finances to dress code in the classroom.  Eventually, an answer always comes through, often only slightly delayed because of the time difference. I can say that I am very satisfied with the assistance that has been provided by everyone I have been in contact with either in the Czech Republic or at the IIE offices here in the States.

Now, two weeks before departure, everything is basically in place. My flight has already been reimbursed. I’ve been reviewing common Czech words that I am sure to encounter on a website called Memrise. Right now, the most complicated thing about making the big move is that I’m a little stuck on figuring out what to pack as I haven’t spent any time in real winter weather. My mentor teacher, though, has told me that she can take me to a hypermarket (imagine a Walmart-type store) to buy winter clothing. Other than that, I am packing pretty normally as I would for a trip. I’m going to also be bringing my camera and a laptop, plus a few surprises for the community that I don’t want to spoil by discussing on this blog quite yet. I am very excited, yet a little nervous at the same time, about what happens next. I leave in just thirteen more days.

Introduction to Harrison Gill

My name is Harrison Gill and I will be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the city of Rychnov nad Kněžnou, Czech Republic. My relationship with the Czech Republic stems from my junior year, when I studied abroad in Prague. Unfortunately, I struggled to leave my American bubble during much of my time in Prague. When I was able to do so, the experiences were some of the most meaningful to me in my entire life. During my time in the Czech Republic, I became extremely interested in education after taking a class on the Czech education system and decided to volunteer at a Czech high school briefly. This experience led to my involvement with the Preuss School, PAL, and La Clase Magica programs here at UC San Diego, in addition to also taking courses in the TEFL program at UC San Diego Extension.

Wanting to get more exposure to the Czech culture, I decided to apply for the Fulbright ETA program last summer. I hope to use the classroom as a space where I can connect my American culture to the students’ Czech culture through interesting discussion and debate topics highlighting significant similarities and differences. Furthermore, I hope to utilize my expertise to provide a common good for the community. In my free time, I plan to work on various side activities, including a project where I seek to meet with locals in Rychnov nad Kněžnou who play significant roles in public service, stemming from my interests in community service and volunteerism.

It is my goal to also learn as much as I can from my hosts and the entire community of Rychnov nad Kněžnou. The Fulbright program is providing me an opportunity to truly become a cultural ambassador. I will share my culture, and my community will share their culture with me. I look forward to sharing with everyone back home what I learn throughout my experience.