New Prague Resident Director Maike Leidecker has the special job of introducing students to her city and teaching them about Czech culture. In this month’s spotlight, she shares her thoughts on cultural exchange, how she helps students adjust, and why Prague is such a magical place to study abroad.
Where did you study abroad, and what is your favorite memory from that experience?
I did not study abroad in college, but I spent my whole junior year of high school in the US. After growing up in the center of Berlin, Germany, landing in a small town in the Midwest was a cultural shock. However, I ended up loving it.
I loved small town life and that people knew each other. I loved the personal approach from my teachers and the community feeling. I think one of my favorite memories is of BBQ Sundays. Later, after high school, I worked as a summer au pair in England and Spain, and in University, I interned abroad for six months in London.
What do you think are the biggest differences between Czech and American culture?
I think students struggle the most with the different concept of public interaction. Czech culture in the public sphere is much more formal. Sometimes this can be hard for students. They are irritated that people don’t smile on the streets or don’t respond to small talk.
What are AIFS students most apprehensive about when they first arrive in Prague, and how do you help them through this?
This highly depends on the individual student and his or her background. Sometimes it can be dealing with the infrastructure of the city and public transport. Prague has lots of trams. Some students are used to navigating around cities but are more apprehensive about the Czech language.
We have a thorough orientation at the beginning of the program, as well as orientation walks where students learn how to use the public transport system, see the most important places (the university building, our office, etc.), and become more familiar with the city. The students also take part in a two-week Czech language course before the semester starts. The teachers of this course are great, and students love it. They become much more confident when ordering in restaurants, or getting their grocery shopping done. When we see the students in the AIFS center, we always greet them in Czech and reiterate a few phrases.
In your opinion, what sets Prague apart from other European cities as a study abroad destination?
Prague is a magical place. It’s not too small and not too big. Historically, it is very important. It has a completely preserved historic old town. It is one of the very few cities in central Europe that was not bombed heavily during WWII. So in Prague you can walk through the streets, look left and right and find all architectural styles, from Romanesque to modern.
Prague also has lots to offer culturally. Czechs love their festivals, so every week you can find many film festivals or music events happening. In the summer, many things happen outdoors and there are markets and fairs all over the city.
Academically, Charles University is the oldest and most prestigious university in Central Europe and has produced many famous graduates, such as Franz Kafka. To sit in the classrooms of this traditional place, with a view of Prague castle, makes studying abroad in Prague truly special.
Lastly, I think the location of Prague is ideal. It is located in the heart of Europe. You can be in Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, Krakow, or Budapest within a few hours, and you don’t even have to get on a plane.
Are there any cultural events that are specific to Prague or the Czech Republic that your students enjoy participating in?
I think study abroad students in general are eager to see and experience local culture. We offer events according to the season, for example, traditional Christmas cookie baking or Easter egg painting. Both of these crafts are highly delicate and are true forms of art in this country.
By far our most favorite trip is to Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic. There, students get to experience Czech life away from the capital. The countryside is beautiful, and the people are hospitable. It’s a place where wine is produced and traditions are preserved. In the evening we have a nice home-made dinner, and the students learn traditional folklore and dances.
What changes do you notice in students who have studied abroad on your program?
It astonishes me every single time to observe the change in self-confidence, way of thinking, and demeanor of the students. I really feel that whether their experience in Prague leads them to explore the world further or whether it makes the students appreciate what they have back home, they have all become global citizens in one way or another.
Have your study abroad students introduced you to anything that you didn’t know about in your own city?
Yes, and it is always nice to spend some time with the students outside of the office.
I have been introduced to some great restaurants and cafes, for example. This is a funny example, but I think what American students struggle with in Prague is finding really good Mexican food! So sometimes they are on a quest to find the best Mexican food in town. So thanks to a bunch of students from southern California, I had the pleasure to dine in a very good, authentic Mexican restaurant, and have visited it frequently ever since.
If you were to study abroad again now, where would you go, and why?
This one is a tough one. There are so many places on our planet that are truly amazing. I still have the whole South American continent on my bucket list, for example. So I guess I would go to a Latin American country and brush up on my Spanish.