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Published on April 17, 2019

My Fulbright experience in the Czech Republic

August 26th 2017 represents a transformative day in my life. It was on that day that I boarded a one-way flight to the Czech Republic, where I would live and teach English for 10 months as a Fulbright Grantee. Although I was afraid of stepping into the unknown, I suppressed my fear. I recognized that I’d been given a unique opportunity to engage in the global world, which is something I’ve always yearned for. With this mentality, I was ready to accept any and all challenges that would come my way.

Retrospectively, I underestimated the degree to which I would be challenged. Not being able to speak or read Czech presented an immediate struggle, particularly because it is rare to find English speakers outside of Prague, which was not my placement city. It meant that I would have to heavily rely on technology to bridge the gap with almost every interaction I had. Furthermore, it made it difficult to do mundane things like go to a restaurant or to travel with ease.

The most pervasive issue I faced was learning to navigate a homogenous country as a Black woman. It didn’t take long for me to realize that being there evoked confusion, hostility, curiosity, and most notably, it evoked fear. For many, I was the first Black person they’d ever seen, which often led to uncomfortable and inappropriate conversations and interactions with me because of my identity. Although at times it was difficult for me to understand the origin of this sentiment, I didn’t let that dictate my experience. I took advantage of the opportunity I had to travel both within and outside of the Czech Republic and to learn from the very students I was there to teach.

My students were undoubtedly the highlight of my time in the Czech Republic and the reason I stayed when I felt isolated. I taught English at a chemistry and logistics high school in Olomouc, located 3.5 hours from Prague by train. As I taught my students, they served as my unofficial guides and navigated me through the history of their country, from Czechoslovakia to the Velvet Revolution. I also learned about the framework through which they view the world, their culture and traditions (it is worth looking up how they celebrate Easter).

Not only do I reflect on the positive relationships I fostered with my students, but also on the ones I built outside of the classroom. Taking modern and jazz classes with a talented group of young women provided an escape. I must admit that it was difficult at first because I couldn’t understand the instructors, but somehow it connected me to home. It was also useful because it helped me learn Czech numbers: pět (five), šest (six), sedm (seven), osm (eight). I eventually decided to take Czech language classes at Palacký University because I was aware that if Dobrý den (hello) and the four numbers I knew were the only words I had in my arsenal, I would constantly feel the burden of being unable to connect with people.

I lived in the Czech Republic in a time where the sociopolitical climate was turbulent. Apart from grappling with decades of repression under insensitive communistic regimes, the country was struggling with how the European Refugee Crisis would affect them as a nation. This tension engendered a level of introspection that prompted Czech citizens to access their values, while simultaneously causing an intergenerational rift. During this time, I was also able to witness my students’ political activism, as they engaged in dialogue surrounding the presidential election where many voted for the first time.

Choosing to live abroad was the most challenging and necessary decision I’ve made to date. I was able to critique the world around me, juxtapose cultures and communities, and analyze what it means to be a global citizen. Eastern certainly prepared me with these tools on an academic level, but there is nothing compared to experiencing it firsthand. I am fortunate for the opportunity I was given because I learned to navigate the world in new ways and from this, I experienced growth. Above all, I learned to not be paralyzed by fear, because once you step out of that fear, your opportunities are endless.

Written by Quanece Williams