Susan Opt – Fulbright

Susan Opt
James Madison University

Fulbright to Czech Republic

In fall 2009, I was a Fulbright scholar at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. I taught two graduate courses—Intercultural Communication and the Rhetoric of Social Intervention—and one undergraduate course in The History and Culture of US Media.

Unlike many Fulbrighters, I did not have any contacts in the Czech Republic or a letter of invitation. Instead, I spent time researching the “open” or “general” calls on the Fulbright web site and emailing some of the program officers to get information about opportunities in their region (although I did not email the program officer responsible for the Czech Republic!). In the end, I decided to apply to the Czech Republic for several reasons. First, the US institution where I was teaching at the time had been founded by immigrants from Moravia, a part of the Czech Republic. In my application, I connected my interest this historical piece with cultural insights that I might gain from working in the Czech Republic. Second, I had lived and worked in Germany and had visited the Czech Republic in its pre-revolution and immediate-post-revolutions days, so I had some familiarity with the culture. I thought my proficiency in German might come in handy in interactions with older Czechs. I also wanted to see how the culture had changed in the two decades after the revolution. Finally, I felt that the Czech Republic might be a less popular choice by other applicants and so that might increase my chances of getting an award!

After I decided to focus on the Czech Republic I spent time online researching institutions in the Czech Republic to see which ones might offer programs in my areas of interest. I applied for a teaching award because in the Czech Republic, at least, teaching awards are more numerous than research awards. I also looked for programs that offered instruction in English. In my application, I proposed classes and suggested institutions where my knowledge might be useful. In my statement, I focused on the benefits I could offer the host institution. I also emphasized what I could learn from this experience that would benefit my institution and students.

The application review involved several steps. First, the US Fulbright Commission reviewed the application and determined whether it would be forwarded to the Czech Republic. Then the Czech Fulbright Commission reviewed the application to determine whether it should be forwarded to an institution. In an “open” call, like my case, the Czech Fulbright program officers contacted Czech institutions to see if they would be willing to sponsor a Fulbrighter. After they approved the application, then it came back to the United States for final review.

If a Fulbright is granted, then there’s more work! Applicants have to pass a medical exam and, depending upon the country’s requirements, may have to go through a security check with the country’s police, get a visa, and get shots. In addition, “open” call applicants, like me, may have to spend time corresponding with the host institution to negotiate courses or research needs. At this point, one of the most helpful pieces of information acquired from either the in-country Fulbright program coordinator or from the US program officer for that country is copies of previous Fulbrighters’ final reports. Fulbrighters write a final report that summarizes their experiences and give advice for future Fulbrighters. In my case, the reports were extremely helpful in knowing what to expect in the Czech classroom and working ahead of time with the Czech institution to put enrollment limits on the courses. The reports as well as communication with the institution helped me know what technology was available and what kinds of materials I would need to bring with me. For example, Czech students cannot afford to buy textbooks. Fortunately, the Fulbright Commission provides teaching scholars a small stipend for books, so I was able to bring copies of used books for students.

Finally, the key to applying for and surviving a Fulbright is flexibility. You need to be flexible in terms of where you might be willing to go. And you need to be flexible and adaptable to the conditions that you find when you arrive. For example, you might end up teaching a course different than you had expected and prepared for. You might find that the students have different language abilities, backgrounds, and preparations than you imagined. You might find that how courses are taught and the length of courses differ from what you are used to. But these kinds of surprises teach us a lot about ourselves, our culture, and our educational system and help achieve William Fulbright’s vision of changing the world by changing how we think.