By Colleen Kiefer Maher
When traveling or comparing cultures, it is the big differences that always get the attention. You might see pictures of the Charles Bridge or Prague Castle or practice nailing those tricky Czech letters. Of course, those are part of experiencing of the Czech Republic, but they are not all of it. For me, the most interesting part of traveling is the million little things that you only notice after living in and with another culture. It is the fashion you observe in stores and on the streets. It is opening up a regular laptop only to find the keyboard is completely unfamiliar. It is having to pay for ketchup in McDonald’s, while in America it is always free. It is that stick shift cars are more prevalent than ones with automatic transmission. Every one of these tiny differences is informed by, and informs, the culture you are in.
I first moved to Brno, Czech Republic, in early February of this year, and began my semester studying abroad at Masaryk University. I was immediately struck by differences between Masaryk and my home at Oklahoma State University. I was fascinated by these differences and decided to devote an article to exploring Czech and American university systems, based on my limited realm of experience at Oklahoma State and Masaryk, in conjunction with the experiences of friends and people I’ve met in America and the Czech Republic. In order to gain more perspective, I interviewed two students, Kalyn from the United States and Tereza from the Czech Republic. Despite this, my impressions are my own, and may not represent the entirety of Czech or American universities.
I knew I wanted to study abroad from even before my freshman year. When the time came to decide which school I wanted to go to, I told people that I was considering coming to the Czech Republic to study. I received some incredulous looks from people who still thought it was Czechoslovakia, or who did not know there was anything in the Czech Republic besides Prague. Still, I ultimately chose the Czech Republic because of its central location, beautiful landscapes and architecture, and while most of my friends went to places like France or Spain, I wanted a unique experience. Another important factor in my decision was the classes offered by Masaryk University. There were an impressive amount of classes offered in English, some of which I could not get even at my home university.
I received some incredulous looks from people who still thought it was Czechoslovakia, or who did not know there was anything in the Czech Republic besides Prague.
The first and most obvious difference between the American university and the Czech university is the length and frequency of classes. I knew before arriving that classes would be based on more independent work than I was used to, but I was surprised at how unstructured class curriculum could be. The times classes are offered and the length of classes is likewise unstructured. I have classes that overlap each other, meaning I am consistently late to two different classes, a situation that would be unacceptable at home. While the average amount of credits per semester (15 US hours and 30 ECTS) are roughly equivalent, Czech students spend much less time in class. While Masaryk classes meet once a week or once every other week, in the States students can expect to go to class two or three times a week, plus labs or discussion groups depending on the type of class. It was difficult for me to initially adjust to the schedule, and I did accidentally skip a class once because I had my weeks confused.
My confusion was compounded by the fact that I never received the type of syllabus I am accustomed to in any class. At OSU, a class’s syllabus includes a detailed class and reading schedule, course objectives, and often a grading rubric. Kalyn, the American student I interviewed, concurred when she said, “I’m not really sure how much effort I should be putting into the readings because that’s not how the system works back home, so it will be a learning process, when exam times come around.” Exams themselves will be a new experience, as typically a US college will have what’s called “dead week” followed by finals week, during which all exams are completed. At Masaryk, exams may take place any time within about a month-long period.
Although these blunders and conundrums may be embarrassing or problematic, they are superficial. However, the contrasts between Czech and American universities go deeper still, all the way to applying to universities and choosing which university to attend. Tereza, a Law student at Masaryk, explained that there are two types of Czech high schools, one centered on vocational education and the other, gymnázium, where students “have math, biology, languages, everything. Basically, it’s just a pre-step before university.” Graduates of gymnázium can then move on to university, although acceptance is competitive. On the other hand, in the US, a graduate from nearly any public or private high school can attend university, provided they are accepted based on grades and extracurricular activities. For most American high school students, the high cost of college education is a major motivator in deciding which school to attend. It certainly was for me–my university was not my top choice, but I received the most scholarships so I chose to enroll there. Kalyn had a similar experience, even saying she “went there blindly” because even though she knew nothing about the school, the price made the gamble worth it. Other factors might include choosing a college (particularly a private college) that shares your values, the location of the school, or the reputation of the program you’re interested in. The latter was most important for Tereza, a law student, who said she chose Masaryk because “[it] is the best in Czech Republic, and for law it’s the best one.”
Even though she knew nothing about the school, the price made the gamble worth it.
However, Tereza was not always a law student. She said she entered Masaryk as a student at the Faculty of Social Studies but decided to switch to law after a few years. In doing so, she “just had to start over.” American universities are much more flexible and up to a third of undergraduates (students seeking a bachelor’s degree) change their major at some point. Most colleges have “general education” requirements built into programs that are typically the same for all majors. General education classes usually cover topics such as science, mathematics, and history and are intended to expose students to a wide range of fields. General education classes usually take one or two years, giving students an
opportunity to explore their interests and decide which major to ultimately pursue. While switching majors (especially between two very unrelated majors) may lead to extra requirements, it rarely results in having to start over. In order to save money, many American students choose to complete their general education classes at a local or community college before transferring to a larger university. Tereza also mentioned that most bachelor’s degrees are three-year programs, unlike the typical four years it takes to obtain a bachelor’s in the US. She said the exception to this is law and medicine, both of which require a longer time investment but result in a Master’s degree. In the US, students must first obtain a bachelor’s degree before they can even apply to a law school or medical school.
Another obvious striking difference was the lack of a campus at Masaryk. The buildings are scattered across the city seemingly randomly. Even buildings of the same faculty may not necessarily be grouped together. While certain schools in the US may operate this way, particularly those in big cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City, the majority of schools pride themselves on the beauty and cohesion of their campuses. My university, for example, is made up of a 2km² park complete with a pond and garden, with academic buildings arranged near each other. Dormitories are also typically located on the campus and, again in contrast with Masaryk, most schools require freshman students (and sometimes even more students) to live on campus.
Perhaps it was just because I was accustomed living in a place where the influence of the college was more overt on the campus and town, but when I first arrived in Brno, I was surprised by how little I saw of Masaryk. Oklahoma State has a very strong community feeling, one that is fostered by all living and working in the same area. Kalyn posited that it could also be attributed to rallying around competitive sports. I personally have witnessed this in action, as on Saturdays in the fall, the streets flood with thousands of students and alumni coming to cheer on the football team. Even those not interested in sports still root for their team and wear their school colors. At Masaryk, you might see someone wearing a Masaryk sweatshirt on the tram, but I never noticed the same organized comradery for Masaryk.
I missed everything about it, from the people to the traditions to the campus.
At first, this bothered me. I felt so attached to my home university. I missed everything about it, from the people to the traditions to the campus. Oklahoma State is where my grandparents and my parents went to school, the place I grew up and became independent, and my first home away from home. Even when I joke about OSU, it is always half-hearted. I know I am not alone in this nostalgia. When I was talking with Kalyn about identifying as a student of her university, the University of Kansas, she said “I don’t want to graduate next year, I don’t want to leave… I take pride in the fact that I went to KU. I feel very sentimental about it, I think a lot of people do in the US.”
I was disappointed I did not feel this same connection to Masaryk. No one taught me any school songs or cheers, as they had when I first started Oklahoma State. I could not see any of the loyalty towards the university that I had come to expect back home. And I was sorry for the Czech students who never experienced the community of a tight-knit college. I thought that anyone who had not gone to a school that was rich with traditions was missing some vital part of their college experience.
As I spoke with Tereza, the student from Masaryk, I came to realize those beliefs were unfounded. It’s not my place feel sad for a group only because they operate under a different system. Furthermore, although Czech students may not exhibit the same outward signs of connection with their university, like obnoxious chants or the color orange (which should honestly be reserved for fruit and traffic signs), it does not mean they do not feel strongly about the universities that formed them. Tereza said it better than I could: “I will look back on it always as my Alma Mater… I study at Masaryk, and it will always be my university. I will buy a hoodie for sure!”
Colleen Maher is a third year BA student studying English Literature and International Studies. Originally from Oklahoma State University in the USA, she is currently on exchange at Masaryk University where she is enjoying the culture, the architecture, and especially the pastries. At her home university, she is the assistant managing editor for Frontier Mosaic Literary Magazine, where she has also been published. Her goals include one day becoming an advocate for education and human rights, as well as continuing to travel as much as she can.