By Tereza Walsbergerová
I thought that since this is supposed to be a letter, I would treat it as one and address y’all properly. I have only been in College Station for a couple of months and it feels like I have been here for years. Yet – even though I have been burned by the Texan sun, soaked through by the Texan rain, licked by Texan dogs, fed Texan kolaches, and learned Texan slang… I do not believe I will ever stop feeling strange about being on a different continent, almost 9.000 kilometers away from Brno. Let me start from the beginning, though; who am I and what am I doing in Texas? My name is Tereza and I am currently in the PhD program (Literatures in English) at the Department of English and American Studies, MUNI. I have been given the opportunity to relocate to Texas for a year and attend the MA in English program at Texas A&M through the William J. Hlavinka Fellowship at Texas A&M University in order to experience American culture and interact with the local Czech Texan community.
The William J. Hlavinka Fellowship at Texas A&M University is a fellowship for advanced Master’s and PhD students from two Moravian universities (MUNI and UPOL). It allows students to come to Texas A&M University for one or two years to take classes at the Department of English, work on their research, work as a graduate assistant, and experience American culture. In exchange for having their tuition covered, these fellows teach Czech language classes once a week in the city of Bryan (which is a stone’s throw from College Station) and generally interact with and help the Czech Texan community when necessary.
Obviously, I have never taught Czech before nor am I qualified to do so, but (re)discovering my native language through teaching it has proven to be really rewarding.
Typically, the fellow stays for two years and earns their MA degree in English at A&M, which is what Dr. Beneš did (he described his own experience at A&M for Re:Views in his letter from abroad couple years ago). I opted to only stay for one year, but that doesn’t mean I am “slacking off” in any way. Teaching the Czech language class has been an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. Obviously, I have never taught Czech before nor am I qualified to do so, but (re)discovering my native language through teaching it has proven to be really rewarding. It is also nice to spend time with American people who want to reconnect with their Czech roots.
The Americanist from Europe
When it comes to classes and coursework, there are not that many differences between the English department at Texas A&M and our English department; you have to keep up with your readings, observe your deadlines, participate in discussions, and follow the syllabus like it is the Word of God. While at DEAS the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD students take classes separately, here in the U.S. Master’s students and PhD students belong in the same group (of “graduate students”) and take all their classes together separate from undergrads. From what I have observed, the difference between the two typically lies in the amount of coursework, but it is not jarring; if you decide to take a (senior) undergrad class as a grad student (which I am doing this semester), you might not have to go through as much secondary literature and your final paper might not have to be as long as your grad course papers, but it is in no way a vacation.
I will admit that I had been really nervous about my academic skills and generally not being able to measure up to my American (and Korean!) counterparts in the grad community at the English department, but incredibly I have found that not unlike maths (hello, Mean Girls reference), literary analysis is universal across the world. In other words, the skills and knowledge I have brought with me from Brno did not become void when I crossed the borders at the Houston airport. And although I sometimes cannot help but stumble over my words while expressing my thoughts in class as the aggressively-Texan influence fights my British accent, I have also found that even though I might not always know everything, as a non-American Americanist I have a unique point of view of American culture that none of my American counterparts can necessarily replicate.
Texas A&M was founded in 1871 and so it has retained many traditions. For one, “howdy” is the official greeting of the Aggies, which means that it is widely used across College Station unironically. You learn fairly quickly that if someone says “howdy” to you, you have to “howdy” back or there will be blood. I have also learned, upon observing students on campus, that Aggie pride and Aggie spirit are big here. You cannot walk for five seconds without seeing someone in a maroon shirt, jacket, or a hat. Maroon is literally everywhere and I have to say it is truly uplifting for me to see such a strong university spirit since this is not something we see a lot in Europe.
You learn fairly quickly that if someone says “howdy” to you, you have to “howdy” back or there will be blood.
Of course, most of these Aggie traditions are related to A&M’s sports activities, but if you want to know more about that, you will have to read Dr. Beneš’s article or go looking for answers by yourself as I am not the expert on Aggie football beyond my knowledge of The 12th Man story and the existence of Yell Leaders (as opposed to cheerleaders).
Dealing with obstacles
My life in America so far has not been all cheerful howdys and yeehaas, though. While everyone at the English department and CEFT (the Czech Educational Foundation of Texas) has been incredibly accommodating, helpful, and kind, the same really cannot be said about most bureaucrats that I have encountered while dealing with paperwork related to my status as an international student, nonresident alien, and part-time employee at A&M. Some days I feel like the paperwork is never going to end. As soon as I submit one form, they send me three more – they are in my email inbox, in my mailbox, in my office… sometimes it feels like I’m living in the “Letters from No One” chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone.
Of course, bureaucracy is not the only obstacle for a typical Czech student who finds herself in College Station, Texas. If you find yourself in College Station, Texas, you better have a driver’s licence. While there is a bus system in the city (called the “Aggie Spirit” – seriously), it is only truly helpful when you need to get from where you live to class and from class to where you live. Optimists would ask, is that not enough that they can get you from point A to point B? And I would say, no, because more often than not, you need to get to point C and point D. Walking places is also pretty much out of the question in College Station, unless the weather is just right (which it almost never is) and you can find a sidewalk that does not suddenly just disappear mid-route.
Although I was not originally going to talk about the weather, one thing that becomes clear when living in Texas (just like when living in the UK) is that weather is always somehow an issue. When the sun is not trying to burn holes through your skin, you might find it impossible to get yourself to class dry as you struggle to keep your umbrella upright in the storm and your rain boots from filling with water. Of course, there are times when the weather is relatively normal, but I have been here for nearly three months and I could count those days on the fingers of one hand.
I do not want to make it sound like I have been struggling here, because as much as I complain about the weather and the bureaucracy, the benefits definitely do overweigh the negatives. For one, the opportunity to take classes with world experts on certain topics – such as my Readings in American Literature to 1900s course with Dr. Larry Reynolds or my Violence in Literature course with Dr. Marian Eide – is something that will undoubtedly stick with me until (and beyond) the end of my academic journey.
There are times when the weather is relatively normal, but I have been here for nearly three months and I could count those days on the fingers of one hand.
Being in the U.S. is also obviously more convenient for me when it comes to conferences, guest lectures, and readings that I really want to attend, seeing as I like to call myself an Americanist – I have recently attended a really stimulating conference in The Woodlands, Houston, which is barely a 1.5h drive from College Station and have just been accepted to a Popular Culture and American Culture conference taking place in Washing to D.C. in the spring. We are also incredibly lucky to have the author Colson Whitehead visit the A&M campus in spring, which makes me really excited, since we have just read The Underground Railroad in class.
Of course, you do not necessarily have to be an Americanist to benefit from Texas A&M’s (and Texas’s) resources. At the end of October I got to attend a luncheon and lecture by the Czech ambassador in the United States, His Excellency Hynek Kmoníček, which took place at the Armstrong Browning Library, Waco, Texas. And although I have never really been too interested in the Brownings (although I have read Virginia Woolf’s Flush several times), seeing as the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco is the biggest collection of the Brownings’ manuscripts in the world (and also coincidentally one of the biggest collections of secular stained glass in America), I found myself extremely excited about being there. After all, there is nothing more exciting for an English Major than to be surrounded by literary history.
Ultimately, coming to the U.S. was definitely the right choice for me. I have only been here for a while, but it has already taught me so much. It has also been really easy to make friends at the department, which was something that I had been worried about due to my extreme introvertedness and general weirdness. Turns out 99% of English Majors are introverted and weird. Who’d have thunk it?