Messages from CEFT Fellows

Daniela Kukrechtova

Martin Svoboda

From Daniela Kukrechtova

When I look back to the time of precisely three years ago I can see a slightly anxious young Czech woman arriving at the Houston airport thinking of her future responsibilities, which at that time seemed simultaneously vague and enormous. She had just been nominated the first recipient of the CEFT (Czech Educational Foundation of Texas) Fellowship for the academic year of 1999/2000 and had been accepted in a graduate program at the Department of English, Texas A&M, College Station. Unbelievably, that woman was myself, although I still find it hard to believe that my dream to study abroad had come true.

My responsibilities were soon to be more clearly defined by Professor Clint Machann, the chair of the CEFT and a member of the faculty in the Department of English, who is one of the initiators of the CEFT Fellowship and who has promoted this cultural exchange of Czech graduate students at Texas A&M University. Principally, my duties comprised of teaching the Czech language to people from the Czech community in Texas, and studying and working hard as a graduate student in the Department of English. They also included interaction with the Czech community on different levels, e.g., giving short lectures on Czech history or translating documents of Czech immigration to Texas in the late 19th century.

Although, or because, I continuously worked, without a single moment of respite during my first year of stay in College Station, both studying and teaching proved to be very rewarding for me. Teaching Czech has been an absolutely wonderful experience. I admired my students for their patience with hard Czech grammar and I was grateful for their friendliness towards me. I am thankful and proud that I was offered this opportunity by CEFT, and I must say that interaction with the Czech community, giving short lectures and talks and teaching my native tongue have provided me with much better and broader views than if I was only to study English and American literature as a regular graduate student in the Department of English. This way I was also learning to put things in a broader historical, political and cultural perspective. I have met many wonderful, friendly and helpful people through my interaction with the Czech community of Texas and I hope that I have been giving something in return, too.

It seems as if an enormous amount of time has passed since that moment of my inner questioning and apprehensiveness at the Houston airport and the present. It seems to me that that young woman, whom I almost do not recognize today, has grown up into a more confident and more independent person since August 1999. In the present, I am working towards my Ph.D. in the English Department at Brandeis University. My plans for the future are to return to my country, teach at a University there and thus make a good use of my experience and knowledge I acquired abroad. 

From Martin Svoboda

All of a sudden, everything is over and it is time to pack, shake hands, and say good-byes. After all those busy weeks in school and fantastic times with my students and colleagues, one feels rightfully compelled to look back and evaluate.

Broadly speaking, I can divide my one-year Texas experience into two parts: first, my study at the English department at Texas A&M University, and second, the teaching of Czech classes and socializing with the members of the local Czech community. Both parts were demanding, but also rewarding; they were formal and responsible, but also casual and entertaining. Let me mention the teaching experience first.

In both semesters, I taught one class of Czech language for local Czech Americans. The class was open for public without any preliminary tests or exams. The conditions in both semesters were more or less similar: the class consisted of approximately twenty people and the exact number fluctuated according to their personal interests, time schedule conflicts, and sometimes even weather (some of the students commuted from rather remote towns and communities). The structure of the class was mixed, as to gender, age, and knowledge: for instance, the Spring ’02 class consisted of twelve women and nine men of various age (ranging from twenties to seventies). The level of grammatical knowledge and fluency also varied very broadly: some of the students were pure beginners with no Czech experience whatsoever. They either were not of the Czech origin or, as some of them reported, their Czech parents refused to speak Czech with them in order to force them into English proficiency. On the other hand, some participants were rather fluent, I dare to say that several of them were even eloquent. These persons usually spoke Czech throughout the course of their lives in their families and welcomed the Czech class as a practical chance to reconnect to or continue to keep in touch with the Czech heritage.

Since teaching is, in my opinion, a learning experince, I learned a few practical things in the Fall ’01 class and used that experience in changing slightly the structure of my lecturing. In the Fall ’01 class, my focus was directed towards mastering fundaments of grammar and towards collective work with the whole class. This approach was overall successful; nonetheless, some students started to lag behind the rest of the class at the end of the semester and appeared to lose interest. In Spring ’02 class, I devoted more time to individual exercises and grammar workshops, trying to accommodate to needs of each student particularly. Without losing pace with acquiring the grammatical knowledge, the class participants seemed to enjoy the personalized attention more than formal exercising. I also reserved one hour before each class for more profound grammatical lecturing, for translating personal documents and correspondence, and/or for providing cultural or travelling information about the Czech republic. Sometimes we merely spent a few sentimental moments while browsing through old family photographs and chatting in a relaxed way about "the old country."

However, teaching Czech was not the only way of socializing with Americans of Czech ancestry. In September 2001, I observed the Kolache Festival in Caldwell. Till that moment, I had been really unaware of the strength and persistence of Texan Czech heritage. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of Czech music bands, kolache stands, and people throwing a word in Czech here and there. In the same month, I also publicized the upcoming Czech classes in Czech Polka Hour on the KAGC-1510 AM Radio station. Two weeks ago, after wrapping up the final class, I went on the air again - in both cases I received waves of enthusiastic phone calls.

In October 2001, I delivered a presentation titled "A Young Czech Experinces America" in the local Brazos Valley Museum. Again, I was surprised and flattered by the number of attentive listeners. In February 2002, I attended a meeting of the local Czech Heritage Society in Cooks Point. There I spoke about and held a discussion on cultural differences between the Czech republic and USA with enthusiastic and highly responsive audience.

I was also involved in attending to the assemblies of the Czech Educational Foundation of Texas and Brazos Valley Chapter of Czech Heritage Society of Texas assemblies; I met regularly for briefings with Dr. Clinton Machann and Mr. Louis Zaeske from the above-mentioned organizations, respectively.

In the Fall ’01 semester and in the first half of the Spring ’02 semester, I provided individual tutoring to a gifted student Diane Samuelson. Even though she was not of Czech ancestry, she was enchanted by the Czech republic on her travels and showed great interest in Czech language and culture.

During the year, I also attended various social activities activities organized by the Club C - the student Czech club at Texas A&M. I found a true friend in the club’s president, Jan Malinovsky. His creative mind and devotion to promoting Czech heritage deserve my admiration.

My study in the English department at Texas A&M University was the other side of my Texas coin, so to speak. Since my specialization is linguistics and problems of translation, I registered in both semesters to as many linguistic courses as possible.

In the Fall ’01 semester, I took three courses: History of Rhetorics (unrelated to my degree, but required), General Linguistics, and Language and Society. The latter two seminars were taught by Dr. Panayiotis Pappas. I appreciated his thorough and careful lecturing, as well as his open-minded discussions. I worked as his research assistant during the Fall ’01 semester - this experience enrichened my capabilities in academic research and database information processing in an incredible way.

In the Spring ’02, I took three purely linguistic courses. One of them was Sociolinguistics with Dr. Mary Bucholtz. The seminar is very lively and entertaining, but at the same point highly informative and demanding, as to research and reading. I also worked for Dr. Bucholtz as an editorial assistant in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. I greatly enjoyed and appreciated this experience - I have never learned so much about running a journal in such a short time. My second class is Directed Studies in Semantics with Dr. Panayiotis Pappas. The preparation for this class was quite time-consuming, too, mainly because of its one-to-one nature. I probably value this seminar most because it provided me with a new perspective on my field of interest, i. e. verbal semantics. Thanks to the theories and approaches covered in weekly readings, I will be able to structure my own research in a more appropriate manner. The third course I took in the Spring ’02 semester was Psychology of Language with Dr. Jyotsna Vaid from the Department of Psychology. The orientation of this course lies on the border between linguistics and psychology, but nevertheless, it was refreshing and stimulating to look how language works in brain, from almost "medical" point of view.

I enjoyed participating in all the above-mentioned courses and I strongly believe that knowledge attained in them will help me in future academic development. I received A grades in all the seminars.

I wish I could mention everyone whom I wanted to thank, but the list would probably be too long. First and foremost, I would like to frankheartedly thank Professor Clinton Machann for his unflagging support in my academic career. In a similar fashion, I would like to thank Mr. Louis Zaeske for his most helpful assistance with practical issues of the class organization. I also thank all members of the local Czech-American community for their neverending emotional encouragement and frienship - I really felt like at home among them. Last but not least, my affectionate expression of thanks goes to the board of the Czech Educational Foundation of Texas - thank you very much for having given me the chance to work in your program. Please pass along my genuine word of thanks to anyone who has been working to make this wonderful opportunity possible.