My Fulbright Life: Christina Elmore, Slovak Republic
Lee: Hello and welcome to My Fulbright Life. I’m your host Lee Rivers, and joining
me today is Christina Elmore. Christina is a recent Fulbright alum who spent the
year in Slovakia, where she was doing an English Teaching Assistantship. I
appreciate you joining me, Christina.
Christina: I’m happy to be here.
Lee: Wonderful. Well, let’s just jump right into it. Can you tell us a little bit about
where in Slovakia you were studying, Christina?
Christina: I was in the northwest part of Slovakia, in a region called Turiec Valley and I was
living in the town of Martin, which has about 60,000 people. I was actually
teaching at the only high school in a much smaller town which was right next to
Martin that was called Vrutky. The town is 7 – 8,000 people.
Lee: OK, great. So tell us a little bit about your program and let us know what led you
to apply for the Fulbright grant.
Christina: Yes, so I was an English Teaching Assistant which means that I applied to
Slovakia in general with no knowledge about where I would be placed, just the
knowledge that in general the Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Program tries to
put people outside of main metropolises or capital cities. So, I was excited about
that and that’s one of the reasons why I applied, because I wanted to be
somewhere outside of a large city, having lived in Prague when I studied abroad
during my undergraduate. So, I was a teaching assistant and I was placed in a high
school, a 4 year high school, and I was given a lot of freedom to teach the English
courses that they call conversation. So they kind of divide their English courses
into grammar classes and conversation; that’s a pretty typical distinction for a lot
of European schools. And so I was in charge of my own group of conversation
lessons and it had a pretty flexible curriculum. I wasn’t given anything specific
that I had to follow which meant that I was able to develop curriculum. I say I was
able, but really I was kind of required to develop my own curriculum and work
very independently with students and had to develop long term relationships with
a lot of students because I taught a lot of classes consistently and stepped into
others when I was needed. But I did have a group of students that I worked with
throughout the whole year. So that was really wonderful.
Lee: Fascinating. So what was your background in teaching, or did you have any
background in teaching before you went on the Fulbright grant?
Christina: I think it’s important to note that you don’t have to have any background in
teaching. I had a little bit of background in instruction, not so much teaching in a
classic high school or classroom environment, I had some background in doing
training for diversity and cross cultural communication issues which was a big
help when facing what is a daunting task—teaching teenagers. I didn’t have any
formal training in teaching beyond that sort of training and a lot of tutoring work
that I did from high school all the way through college.
Lee: Good, and I think it’s also important to note for our listeners that we’re not
looking at bringing on the next wave of future teachers here either. We’re just
looking for people that are interested in sharing their skills and teaching other
students that are non-Native speakers.
Christina: Exactly. This is not meant to be a launch pad for going into teaching programs in
the U.S. although I certainly think that it is great preparation if you think that you
want to do that. I think it provides a really valuable perspective to be outside of
the U.S. education system and to be forced to try to communicate and instruct
with students who don’t share hardly anything about your cultural background.
But it’s certainly true that this is not meant to train people for that purpose. You
don’t have to profess to be doing that when you submit your application. The goal
really is to give you exposure to a whole new place that you have to adjust to,
absorb, and interact with and really just be given an opportunity to do cross
cultural communication, learn about yourself, and be an ambassador for the U.S.
Lee: That’s very well said. And with that, why did you choose Slovakia as your
Christina: Yeah, that was a question that was often asked of me with a snide look by so
many Slovaks. I was in Prague, I did my undergraduate work there and I really
loved it and I really loved that region. I was very intrigued by the relative youth of
both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even Czechoslovakia had a pretty young
history in terms of nationhood, and then those two countries split apart technically
in 1993 so it’s such a young history and I was really interested in how a country’s
identity gets formed. So I traveled to Slovakia when I was studying abroad and
really enjoyed it and differences I did note when I was in Slovakia compared to
the Czech Republic were, well first of all mountains, that’s an easy, tangible
thing. But I also, I noticed a bit of a difference in that Slovakia is generally kind
of a little, sometimes less prominent brother of the Czech Republic. And I like
that, I’m attracted to that aspect, that they’re not as common, and on the world
scene. For example, Slovak, the language, is not nearly as common as Czech. No
films are translated into Slovak. So all the Slovaks know Czech, but the Czechs
don’t really know Slovak very well. And so that dynamic I was interested in. The
natural beauty of the country is stunning. And I will go on record saying that I
think it is more stunning than the Czech Republic. Those were the things that
attracted me to Slovakia. So those are things that attracted me to Slovakia as
opposed to the Czech Republic.
Lee: And so you said you had a background experience of study abroad in that region
with Czech, in Czech Republic. Did you learn the Czech language then and did it
translate over into picking up some of the Slovakian language? Or… how did that
work out? What was your level of proficiency with the language before you went
on the English Teaching Assistantship?
Christina: I did learn Czech. I took a course that was taught by a Czech native. And I was
there for 6 months and I was very committed to learning Czech and really enjoyed
it. It’s a complicated language from a grammar perspective. It’s very similar to
Latin and I studied Latin for many years so you kind of get trained to have this, I
don’t know, almost masochist appreciation for grammar. And so I really enjoyed
learning Czech but by the time I’d been away from that for years, I remembered
the structure of the language but I’d lost a lot of the vocabulary and really
communicative properties. So when I applied to Slovakia I intentionally did that
because I know that Slovak and Czech are mutually intelligible, very similar
languages. You know, Czech people can be easily understood. And so I prepared
by using the materials that I still had from Czech to review Czech and to review
the grammar and to start to build a Slovak vocabulary. Many of the English
Teaching Assistantships don’t require language, but of course some of them do so
it depends on the program. Mine did not require that I have any prior knowledge
of Slovak, but it was really important to me to go in with a little bit of knowledge
so that I could at least show people from the very beginning that I was committed
to not just teaching English but to having a reciprocal relationship where they
were also teaching me Slovak because I felt like that would be a huge missed
opportunity. So I continued to learn Slovak while I was there and often used my
students at informal times, to let them both laugh at me and to show them that I
was committed to learning and that I expected the same thing from them.
Lee: That’s excellent, it means a lot- I mean the program is a cultural exchange and so
that’s what’s supposed to take place.
Christina: I felt like doing anything less would really not fulfill what I was tasked to do and
what I said I would do in my proposal.
Lee: Wonderful. Well, Christina, tell us abut a typical day in your life. Teaching isn’t
fulltime, you know that was 20 hours a week, plus or minus depending on your
schedule, but what did you do in the classroom and then also as sort of a mini
Fulbright project? What did you do as you were there in Slovakia?
Christina: I would wake up very early, that’s something I’ve learned about myself, I can do
that. I would wake up very early and take a bus to school and I would teach
anywhere between 2 to 8 classes per day. They did utilize me and I was happy
about that. And so I would teach my normal lessons which were conversation
classes with the regular classes that I mentioned before and those were 45 minute
lessons, and usually with anywhere between 10 – 20 students which was great.
They really have a commitment to keeping language classes small. And then I
would be brought into other lessons by the other English teachers to do
presentations about topics that they have to be proficient in, particularly in
vocabulary, but also really in critical thinking for their school leaving exams. So I
would be brought in do a presentation, for example, about multiculturalism in the
U.S. and I would usually bring an activity that would force them to communicate
as well. It was a tough thing to balance out between providing them with
information, presenting, and speaking and speaking and just honing their listening
skills which is actually a skill that most students find to be very difficult and are
not the most interested in. So there was always a component of getting them to
speak and to communicate and to listen to each other. And then, one of the things
that I enjoyed especially was the additional project that I proposed which I was
actually able to fulfill very similarly to my proposal which I is something that I
think not every applicant should expect. One of the things about any Fulbright
project is flexibility. I was able to start a debate team at the high school.
Christina: Yeah, I have a background in competitive debate and am also part of an
organization that does outreach all through this particular region: Slovenia,
Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic. And so I started a debate team and we had
weekly meetings and then I was actually able to take 4 students to an English
speech competition in a near-by town and they did so well. It was one of the first
moments where you feel like your body is physically swelling with pride for your
students. So that was one of the highlights.
Lee: So talk about your downtime, Christina, when you weren’t working on your mini-
Fulbright project with the debate team or in the classroom. What did you do?
Christina: I traveled a lot around Slovakia. That was something that was really important to
me. I also went beyond borders a bit. I really enjoy that region so I went to
Budapest a few times. But I traveled around Slovakia a lot. Once the weather was
nice, every weekend I was off somewhere. I was really fortunate to have a lot of
Slovak friends. I didn’t have any American friends that were really within that
close of an area to me. So I had Slovak friends who were always anxious to show
me somewhere, to show me a cave, to show me a waterfall, to make me bike up a
Lee: What are friends for?!
Christina: I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was so worth it! And so I did a lot of
that. I also did some additional teaching, some volunteer teaching outside of
teaching at the school. So once I got there the work, pretty immediately, the word
got around that there was a native speaker in the area and so I was getting calls
from people I had no idea who they were, parents of students, uncles of students,
aunts of colleagues, asking me to do tutoring and volunteering. So I taught a class
of adults, I did some private tutoring. And that kept me busy. It was also a
challenge to balance those obligations which I had a really hard time saying no to.
It was hard to balance that with just wanting to live and absorb while I was there.
But I feel that I did.
Lee: Great. Christina, along with the highlights that you mentioned, were there any
challenges that you had to overcome while you were overseas and how did you
meet those challenges, how did you address those?
Christina: Well the first one I’ll mention, I don’t want to focus on it too much but I flew into
Prague and I wanted to have a rendez-vous with the city before I went to
Slovakia. And after I had my wonderful rendez-vous I got on a train and ended up
getting my computer and passport stolen. And so this was the very beginning of
the trip and that was a challenge for sure, to go into the experience without a
computer and just with all the emotional and practical things that come with
dealing with a theft like that. So that was a challenge. I think that what I can say
about that, because I think at the beginning of a project everyone’s going to be
faced with something, that might be an extreme example, and luckily I was safe,
there was no danger, but everyone is going to be faced with some sort of
challenge that shows that you have to be resilient and that you have to find what
you have within yourself to be resilient. You know, maybe that’s relying on your
friends, maybe that’s connecting with the people there, maybe that’s taking time
to yourself for reading or walking or making a special . You know, you need to be
aware how you can take care of yourself when something like that happens. So
that was just an example.
The other challenge I mentioned was just maintaining a balance between the
requests to teach and reach out and then wanting to just be able to have leisure
activities as well. And that was something… I didn’t say no very often, to be
frank, but I just kind of expected it as time when on that this is what the nature of
my time here was going to be and it’s going to be full and busy. And I only have a
few months here so just accept it and go with it.
Lee: Great, well your response is a really good lead in to my next question here, just
having to do with the skills that you’ve learned through your Fulbright experience
that you still use today.
Christina: Well, in addition to resilience and anything that comes with traveling and being in
a new place, teaching is so instructive and I don’t mean that in the sense of
providing instruction but it is absolutely a two way relationship. And as someone
who hadn’t had a lot of formal experience in a classroom I was absorbing lessons
every day at a rate that I couldn’t even really keep track of. And those skills, they
translate, certainly outside of the classroom. You know, I have a current job right
now which has communications in the title, and all of the things I learned in the
classroom about how you present something, especially if it’s instruction,
everything from whether it’s in an email or on a blackboard, the tone of your
voice, the temperature in the room—all of those things affect how communication
is received. And that can be overwhelming at times to consider all those factors
but that awareness is something that, you know, affects me on a daily basis
because I’m communicating almost every second of the day. So that’s something
I’m really grateful for and my students were good enough to be very responsive
and honest with me about everything from the teaching methods I used to one of
the worst haircuts I ever got. They were the only people [fades out] and so I really
appreciated their honesty and found it to be one of the most helpful things about
the direct teaching methodology.
Lee: Wonderful, wonderful. Well what advice can you give to students, young
professionals, and anyone that’s looking at applying for the Fulbright grant this
next cycle? What are some insights that you can give them?
Christina: I think that for people who are interested in, or are maybe toying with the idea of
applying for English Teaching Assistantships, which is very different in some
ways when you actually get down to crafting the proposal than submitting a
research proposal. I think that, for those who apply, I’d say that it’s really, it’s
important to be open, to express a willingness to embrace whatever situation
you’re dealt because you’re applying to a country and within that country, you
don’t know anything about where you might land. And so you need to have a
genuine interest in this kind of taking fate as it may be handed to you by the
Fulbright Commission and running with it. And that means the flexibility and the
ability to be reflective about adjusting to new situations and like I said earlier how
to be a thoughtful, respectful, and engaging ambassador. So that’s what I would
recommend to think about as a kind of theme or a guide when you’re filling out
your application for an English Teaching Assistantship.
Lee: That’s excellent, just encouraging them to articulate in their essays what you just
Christina: Yes and I think find out what that really means for you and come up with specific
examples and if you do research about your country you can kind of tie that
information to what you would bring to the experience. And I think framing it in
terms of adjusting, and cultural exchange, and an ambassador role, I think that’s
what you’ll find the Fulbright mission is and I think that’s what they’re looking
for in successful applicants.
Lee: Well, wonderful Christina, and this is all very good insight and I’ve really
enjoyed listening to your experience.
Christina: Well thank you. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
Lee: And this concludes this episode of My Fulbright Life. Thank you once again
Christina and have a good day.
Christina: You too, Lee, thanks.