In 1991 Czechoslovakia first signed an agreement with Washington establishing a Fulbright Commission in Prague - guaranteeing the possibility for Czech lecturers and students to win scholarships to U.S. universities - as well as providing for outstanding American students and teachers to study and work in the Czech Republic. Hana Rambouskova is the Commission's Program Coordinator in Prague. Recently she sat down with Radio Prague to tell us about the Fulbright program and its importance here.
"Of course the Fulbright Program itself has a very long tradition - it started in 1946 - but in the Czech Republic it became open to the general public only after 1990. In 1991 the Fulbright Commission was established to administer the program. It was established by the new agreement between the governments of the then-Czechoslovakia and the United States - applicable for ten years and later renewed. In 2002 it was renegotiated and now the agreement has no time limit."
In a nutshell: what is the Fulbright Program?
"Well, the Fulbright Program is an educational exchange and its main mission is to support understanding between people of different countries through educational exchanges, which was the major mission of the program from the very beginning. We invite students, scholars, high school teachers from the U.S. to lecture, teach, or study here in the Czech Republic, and we send students, scholars, and teachers from the Czech Republic to the U.S. so that they become acquainted with a different culture and also deepen their own academic knowledge. American universities are completely different from ours, also a challenging environment I consider very healthy. It's also very enriching for Czech scholars to go to the U.S. and bring their experience back to the Czech Republic and introduce different methods of teaching. I don't mean that means of teaching here are any worse than there - or vice-versa - it's just it's always a kind of enrichment for both sides."
How have you mapped an interest over the years in your program from the U.S. side? Following 1989 the Czech Republic was a "great unknown" for many people in North America and it was of course a very popular destination. Since then has the number dropped or remained steady?
"Well, you are right, in the very beginning the Czech Republic was really very popular and we received dozens of applications from the U.S., especially from scholars who intended to lecture here, but I would say that the numbers haven't dropped as dramatically as one might expect. Fortunately. We still have a very good selection of U.S. scholars; we always get a good pool of applicants from which to make a selection. The number we usually receive from the U.S. side is about 20. Our budget allows for about 15 U.S. scholarships for U.S. scholars, and between 5 - 8 for U.S. students. Those are the major scholarships, we have smaller ones too, but those are the major numbers. So, interest remains high would say remains more or less stable over the last five, six years."
And, how many Czech students or scholars would you have going to the United States?
"Well, I would say originally there was a more dramatic number of those interested to go to the U.S. After 1989 everybody wanted to go. But, since then the numbers have actually decreased somewhat. I think that Czech students and representatives of research institutions should take into account that any international experience is really enriching: expanding horizons not only in terms of knowledge but also culture and contacts, ways of publishing, processing of own data, and so on. Our students, for instance, learn in the U.S. about the NGO sector and voluntary work, philanthropic work which is more widely spread and more deeply-rooted in the U.S. than here. So, they return home with ideas not to be involved only in their own work but also to co-operate with the non-profit sector, or to start their own NGO, or company that could prove to be beneficial to the whole of society."
The Board of the Fulbright Commission does support a focus on certain areas of study (although the program is open to all fields) and I wanted to ask which ones those were.
"We have priority fields, though of course our overriding priority is to support those who have excellent academic results. Our priority fields are focused more on humanities and social studies than technical studies or natural sciences: it stems from the fact that in technical sciences its rather easier to get support directly from firms and other grants, and humanities and social studies here were strongly distorted here under the communist regime. So we feel there is need for strong support in their development."
The flip-side of any such program, of course, is the risk of a brain-drain. I don't suppose you have a mapping of students who go on to remain in the U.S.?
"Well, we do, we do. Fortunately I would say that the brain-drain is not that dramatic: about 5 percent of our grantees end up staying in the U.S. or elsewhere, which I think is more or less an acceptable result, and of course there is a tool to prevent brain-drain. Our grantees get a J1 visa which includes a two-year home residency requirement which means after they complete their studies they must return to their home country."
What are some concrete projects that passed through your office in recent years?
"Of course we have so many grantees it's difficult to remember all of them. But, we have many interesting projects. From my point of view I remember art projects the most: one of our scholars was Katerina Englichova, the famous classical musician who plays the harp. Then, one of the grantees is now the director of the international immigration office here. Another studied the restoration of glass in the U.S., another is an important Czech painter and sculptor who teaches at the Academy of Applied Arts..."
Which sculptor is that?
And what was the nature of his project?
"His project was teaching and he taught U.S. students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Before that a U.S. scholar was hear and taught at the Academy of Applied Arts. So, I think it was a very good match."
Does it happen that you have a student who would come to you and say "thank you, your programme essentially changed my life"?
"Oh yes, quite frequently I would say. They also say so in their final reports, that it was a 'life-changing experience'. When that happens it's very pleasant - I would say the most rewarding part of the programme."
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