Jan 3, 2014

Melle Li: Sharing Is a Big Part of my Culture

She resigned from a prominent Hong Kong headhunting company 3 weeks after being promoted. She turned down a placement in the finance program at the University of London. Instead, Melle Li, packed her bags and moved to Prague to study CEMS International Management.
“I don’t think expensive programs give you a better education unless it’s one of the TOP 10,” she says. Judging by her experience, it sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.
Her first visit to Prague came almost a year ago. At that time, it was for personal reasons, but she also began to look around for opportunities. It’s been three years since she graduated from a bachelor program in Hong Kong and she was ready for a change.
“Even though I got some job offers I knew I didn’t want to work here because the market didn’t have the international vibe for me.”
She looked at various MBA programs and graduate programs at Charles University until finally she found out about CEMS. Melle names all the positives, explaining, “it was in English, affordable and well ranked.”
She appreciates CEMS for the diversity of its curriculum. “It’s almost like a junior MBA program,” she says. “Studies are important, but it’s also about networking.”
Is it possible that she always thoroughly calculates her next move? “I chose Prague as it is a good base and the opportunity costs of me quitting my job and moving here were the lowest.”
Next semester she will be in St. Gallen and it was, again, a well-thought-out step.  “I will be looking for an internship or a job afterwards and Switzerland with its prosperous economy is the place to do that,” says Melle.
With the Christmas season fast approaching, her head is full of ideas what to do with the free time during holidays.
“Christmas’s always been a vacation time for me,” explains Melle. “While my European friends are going home for Christmas, my Hong Kong friends and, I are usually travelling and visiting each other.”
Even though she finds CEMS more demanding than her previous studies in Hong Kong, it seems that deciding where to spend the New Year’s Eve is the toughest decision she is facing right now. London, Paris and Berlin are all on the list.
My interview with her was almost over when I realized I hadn’t even asked her what pops into her mind when the evidence of holidays being just around the corner is hard to escape?
While we in Europe take Christmas as an excuse to spend time with our families, for people in Hong Kong it is mostly a time of Christmas parties, going out to clubs and having a good time with their friends rather than sitting down to fried carp, schnitzel or roast turkey in the quietness of their own homes.
Sharing is a big part of Melle’s culture. “It’s an unwritten agreement that when you order a meal in the restaurant you are willing to share it with others.”
Melle and couple of her best friend throw a Christmas bash each year.
She says, “it’s a tradition. We each invite our friends and it’s our way of saying thank you for what they did for us during the year.”
This year is going to be the first party she is going to miss in a while, since she will be spending her holidays in Sweden. 

Originally published in the CEMS Club Prague Quarterly: Winter 2013
Available here.

May 1, 2012

Czech scholars at UNL honor the legacy of Paul Robitschek



It was steamy late August afternoon when flight United Airlines 5498 touched down in Lincoln, Neb. For six young students it meant the end of one journey — which started seven time zones away in the Czech Republic — and the beginning of another. After more than 20 hours in the air they showed no sign of exhaustion. Instead, they beamed. It was the beginning of their study-abroad experience.

“I felt like in an American movie,” Jana Dobiasova said of her first moments on U.S. soil. “I mostly knew the American culture through films and TV and in reality it looked pretty much the same – big cars, fast food restaurants and more obese people.”

Dobiasova, Anna Saldova, Ludek Klucina, Marie Zborilova, Jirka Miklosy and I had just joined the ranks of students – 60 in all now — awarded the Paul Robitschek Scholarship. The scholarship funds a year of study at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

We all are the incarnation of Robitschek’s dream.

Robitschek grew up in Czechoslovakia. As a Jew, he feared the Germans. On March 15, 1939, Hitler invaded the country and 15 days later, Robitschek fled to London at age 23.

In London he met his future wife, and in 1949 they came to the United States. Robitschek made a career pioneering chemical and plastic manufacturing. At 65 he retired as president of Chembond, one of the top three plastic companies in the United States.

Robitschek personally benefited from America’s democratic way of life. His idea was to give selected Czech students, for whom it wouldn’t otherwise be economically possible, the opportunity to experience American democracy and take the best out of it.

He wanted them to spend time in America even though he believed the American free market system “wasn’t necessarily perfect” and “he didn’t want to Americanize the students” said Greg Jensen, senior director of development at the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Each year about 80 students apply, sending a resume and brief essay, to the university’s admissions office. A committee selects about 10 outstanding applicants who are invited to interview. The committee includes Alan Cerveny, dean of Academic Services and Enrollment Management; Larry Routh, director of Career Services; and Jake Hoy-Elswick, assistant director of international recruitment.

Robitschek first came up with the idea of supporting Czech students after he was asked to sponsor a Czech high school student in 1993. The student got a chance to study at a local high school in Creswell, Ore. Robitschek, who lived close to Creswell, enjoyed interacting with him and later decided to extend his support for university students and make it more permanent.

At first Robitschek thought he would donate money to the Charles University in the Czech Republic so the school could fund study trips to the United States for its students. In the fall of 1994, Robitschek came to the Czech Republic and visited the school but he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about his proposed donation.

After he returned to Oregon, he wrote a letter to the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, but didn’t get any response. Robitschek was disappointed and finally he decided to turn his idea around.

Jensen thinks that Robitschek’s first intentions failed partly because four years after the fall of Communism in the central Europe, “the notion of philanthropy was a foreign concept.”

Robitschek visited the public library in Eugene, Ore., and found a list of universities that had exchange programs with the Czech Republic. UNL was on the list. Robitschek sent a letter to the university, which eventually ended up in Jensen’s hands at the University of Nebraska Foundation.

UNL was the only school that Robitschek contacted.

“His rationale in making contact with Nebraska was his impression that the Midwest would give students the broadest perspective on American values,” Jensen said. “His only personal experience with the state was driving through from the East Coast en route to California and [he] was aware that a lot of Czechs had settled here. He also told me that he had a co-worker that he was a great friend with who was from Nebraska, so there were positive associations there.”

The scholarship program started in 1998. But it soon ran into trouble, almost collapsing because of the process used by officials on the Czech side.

“There was a lot of favoritism in the first selection process,” Jensen said. Robitschek didn’t get the anticipated interaction with the students and started doubting the program’s benefit.

It was Jensen who persuaded Robitschek to give the program a second chance. To make sure it would succeed, Jensen went to the Czech Republic in the spring of 1999 and selected the scholars.

It worked. The program was saved for the following generations. Routh and Cerveny later replaced Jensen as program advisers.

This past April, Routh returned from another recruiting trip — his fifth. He travels there on even years; Cerveny , taking turns with other administrators. Of the 72 students who applied this year, he interviewed 11. Six of those received the scholarship for the academic year 2012-2013.

“I anticipated that this year’s interviews would be more difficult than ever,” Routh said. “Each year the quality of applicants is better and better. Ideally, we want really good quality applicants but not a thousand. It’s very challenging to make the selection.”

Routh’s concerns proved to be valid and he had to deny places to many talented students. Among them was the brother of a current Robitschek Scholars.  According to Routh, the young man’s essay stood out, he wouldn’t turn 21 until December, so he and Cerveny felt he would not be ready for the experience.

Interviews used to be held in Prague and Brno, but this year Routh only interviewed students in Prague, the nation’s capital.

“Honestly, last time after we flew to Prague we took the bus to Brno which added two and a half hours to our already 24-hour day,” Routh said.  “At the age of 76, I’m getting too old for that.”

The stakes were high and traveling didn’t seem to be a problem even for those coming several hundred miles from the Slovak Republic.

During Robitschek’s life he supported students on a year-to-year basis.

But before he died he donated almost $2.6 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation. Under current market conditions, this endowment generates more than  $100,000 in annual interest, which keeps the scholarship program going.

“In 2008, when the market tanked, our funds lost about 30 percent of their market value,” Jensen said. “Our investment pool produced significantly less income for the scholarships.”

In 2010 there were only three scholarships awarded.

“With the market coming back, the income has also increased making it possible to fund more scholarships in recent years,” Jensen added.

“Another big help was when Cerveny secured an agreement from the chancellor’s office to reduce the tuition for Robitschek students,” Jensen said. Instead of paying the international tuition, the Robitschek scholars pay the in-state tuition.

In the first years after the program started the number of applicants rose exponentially each year. But recently the number of applicants got balanced.

“We send letters and posters to roughly 20 universities in the Czech Republic,” Hoy-Elswick explained.

Hoy-Elswick thinks that the program is significant because it helps to keep up a focus on Czech heritage at the university. Nebraska has a substantial number of people of Czech background.

“Mouth-to-mouth marketing is still our best form of promotion,” Hoy-Elswick added.

Adam Zahradnik and Adela Chlumecka, who both were selected for the next academic year, are childhood friends of Dobiasova, a current Robitschek scholar.

Zahradnik thinks highly about the U.S. educational system and is looking forward to experiencing it first hand next year.

“The atmosphere during the interview was very friendly and the interview itself was kind of a dialogue,” Zahradnik said of his recent encounter with Routh during the selection process in Prague.

“I wouldn’t even call it an interview. I felt very comfortable and the man who interviewed me was very nice,” Chlumecka said.

Zahradnik is a graduate student at the University of Economics in Prague majoring in international business. He recently returned from a study exchange program in St. Petersburg and he felt that he needed another adventure.

If he didn’t get selected for the scholarship, he said, he would do an internship or invest in a start-up project with his friends.

In Lincoln, he wants to have fun, experience American culture, get work experience, do sports and meet many interesting people.

“In the end of my stay, I want to tell myself, it was an unforgettable year full of excitement,” Zahradnik said.

Chlumecka is a nature lover and can’t wait to visit some National Parks. Her primary objective is to improve her English but also start learning Chinese.

“I want to volunteer for some non-profit organization and I’m very excited to see American football as well,” said Chlumecka, who studies public economics at the Masaryk University in Brno.

But it’s not just the scholars who benefit from the experience. The small addition that Czech students are to the campus diversity is highly valued, especially by those that share the Czech heritage.

“It’s nice to meet people your own age who can speak Czech and are supportive of your interest,” said Brianna Tichy, president of the Czech Komensky Club at UNL. “It is nice to have Czech students on campus where there are not as many Europeans, especially people from like central Europe.”

“In the past we had Robitschek students giving presentations in the Komensky Club, whose majority of members are ancestors of Czech immigrants,” Tichy said. “They can teach our students about the modern Czech Republic.”

Many alumni of the Robitschek program have set out on remarkable careers after their time at UNL.


“Our students, are they going out in the world? Oh, 
yes!” Routh said.

After the year in Nebraska, Tomas Balco, studied at the graduate school in Vienna, for example. During his career he worked for the Czech and Chilean Ministry of Finance, European Commission and many global consulting companies. Now, he is a professor at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research and works on establishing a Central Asian center for tax knowledge and expertise.

Other alumni include Jiri Tresl, who came back to UNL and is finishing his Ph.D. studies now, and Jana Stavova and Richard Gluckselig, both of whom returned to United States and currently work here. Stavova works as a research investigator in New Jersey; Gluckelig as an attorney in New York.

Routh is scheduled to retire this summer, and next year, it is Cerveny’s turn to go to Prague. But in 2014 it will have to be someone new.

Routh plans to stay an adviser to the program.

“It’s just a labor of love,” he said. “I have some knowledge about what students need to know if they either apply for internships or part time.”

Routh said he has had a good time with the program, noting that the trips to the Czech Republic weren’t all about business.  On their last trip, Routh and his wife visited Pilsen and toured the Pilsner Urquell brewery, where a father of one of the Robitschek scholars works.

“You know how important is beer to Czechs,” he said, smiling.

Paul Robitschek fought cancer toward the end of his life. It has been 12 years since he died, but the program continues and next year it will celebrate its 15th anniversary.

The scholars here today and those who went before can all proudly say: “We are Paul Robitschek’s dream.”

Apr 13, 2012

Banking (Made in America)

Jak je mozne, ze moje ceska banka, jejiz materska spolecnost sidlici v Polsku (a AMS stale povazuje Polsko za rozvojovou zemi), dokaze prevest penize na ucet jine ceske banky behem 24 hodin a bez poplatku? Zatimco moje (ctvrta nejvetsi) americka banka s aktivy v hodnote vice nez 1,2 bilionu dolaru to nedokaze!

Zagooglil jsem a nasel toto.

Varianta provizorne oznacena jako "vyber z jedne, uloz u druhe". Jak z nejakeho filmu se mi v hlave vybavila predstava, jak v dlouhem plasti, v cernych brylich a s kozenym kufrem vybiram penize u prepazky a nesu je do jine banky, abych si je tam ulozil.

Cela operace zabrala zhruba 15 minut (penize na ucet lze v Americe bezne ukladat i pres ATM) a celkove poplatky, mimo oportunitnich nakladu (musel jsem jit do banky misto toho abych spal/jedl/ucil se/pracoval/...), byly nula.

Vypsal jsem tedy sek, ktery je ted zalepeny v obalce na ceste do LA. Az (a jestli) tam dorazi, tak bude muset byt odnesen na postu a ulozen na patricny ucet. 

Jak je mozne, ze nejvyspelejsi svetova ekonomika porad funguje na principu šeku? Lide s nimi bezne plati ucty, v obchodech a i mezi sebou. Pritom Americane bezpochyby maji patricnou technologie k tomu, aby mohl fungovat online bezhotovosti styk.

Muj spoluzak Gabe byl takto prinucen otevrit si ucet ve stejne bance jako jeho rodice. Banka ochotne poskytla stimul tim, ze snizila uroky na kreditni karte rodicu, kdyz si deti otevreli na jejich pobocce svuj ucet. Gabe tak muze od svych rodicu dostavat penize, aniz by musel podstupovat variantu bryle/plast/kufr. 

A problem Gaba a Brianny neni ojedinely. Desetitisice americkych deti se s nastupem na univerzitu stehuji daleko od domova (i se svoji debetni/kreditni kartou).   

Jake to ma potencialni dusledky?

Take dochazi k posilovani vlivu velkych bankovnich domu, ktere s vetsi pravdepodobnosti budou mit pobocky napric kontinentem (Ta nejvetsi, ale v Lincolnu treba pritomna neni.). Vklad provedeny v ramci jedne bankovni instituce napriklad v New Yorku muze byt okamzite pripsan na ucet klienta stejne banky v Honolulu. Klienty to nenuti k transferu formou sek/obalka/pobocka ale vystaci si s variantou bryle/kufr/plast. 


Apr 1, 2012

Kroft researches Czech history in Nebraska

Jennifer Kroft’s research looks more like a work of a private detective. Even though she looks more like somebody you would expect to find playing drums on Venice beach, she spends most of her time doing research in the archive in the basement of the Love library at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“When you uncover something that people thought was forgotten, that’s what makes me get back out there,” says Kroft.

Kroft is a history and ethnic studies major at UNL. She also has a degree in graphic design but these days she is mainly interested in ethnic studies and problems connected with the loss of culture. Currently she is working on a project with African American communities in northern Omaha. She’s collecting personal histories of people in that region and building a digital history web site.

Her other research project, which she started some time ago, is about the establishment of the Czech language program at UNL in the early 20th century and early history of the Komensky Club.

Komensky club unites UNL students who are interested in the Czech language and traditions.

Katarina Cermakova, lecturer at the modern languages and literatures department, said about the history of the Czech program at UNL: “The Czechs in Nebraska felt so strongly for it that they made their own place for it at the University and showed that it could be a part of education so far away from its roots in the Czech Republic.”

Kroft’s interest was sparked when she started taking the Czech language class.

“My mum is like 95% Czech and my grandparents spoke the language at home,” she said. Her grandparents were second and third generation of Czech immigrants. Now with only her aunt and her cousins no one else speaks the language.

“This way the language is going to be lost in our family,” she explains why she started learning it.
At the same time Kroft was taking a digital history class in which she had to do a project based on a research in the university’s archives. What started as a semester project, turned into another year of research.

Brianna Tichy, current president of Komensky Club, is glad to see somebody “digging into the Czech history in Nebraska.”

 “I think what Kroft is doing is pretty vital to the Komensky Club here at the University, as well as the Czech community in the area. What she's doing is uncovering a history that not many people from the community know. It's such a great history, too, because it shows a lot of the struggles that these people went through to preserve the Czech language and customs. Learning about these beginnings gives us a sense of what we're a part of in the Komensky Club today,” Tichy said.  

It turned out the beginning of the Czech program wasn’t as easy as Kroft initially thought.

The early Czech studies program at UNL was closely tied to woman named Sarka Hrbkova. Hrbkova’s brother was appointed the first head of the language department at UNL. He died shortly afterwards and Hrbkova took over. She was quite a controversial person.

Nebraska’s sympathy with Central Powers in World War I almost cost the university its Czech program.
During the war when UNL and its large German community stood behind Germany, Hrbkova openly spoke against the university’s stance. She got fired and with her departure the Czech program almost diminished.

“Politics gets always in the way,” commented Kroft. Czech was pushed aside.

“It was sort of an underground language for a while,” says Kroft. The university didn’t want to keep the program because local people felt strongly against it. That was the same way they thought about the early Czech immigrants in Nebraska.

“Other immigrants when they came they gave up their identity. Not Czechs. They were still very visible. They ate their smelly food, wore traditional costumes and spoke with thick accent. And they hold onto their traditions,” said Kroft. “But America is about similarities.”

From the beginning Kroft had a hunch that Sarka Hrbkova had to know Willa Cather. Cather was the first person to establish the Czech ethnicity in the United States. Kroft’s research confirmed her suspicion. The two women met at the university. Cather was an American who was a multiculturalist and was greatly interested in the diversity among the people living on the Great Plains.

Kroft’s work is not always easy.

“The university has material that would fill three football fields,” she says. “It’s good to be friends with the people who work in the archive and you also need to make them interested in your research.”

This way they helped her find material she otherwise wouldn’t find herself.

“I devoted myself to be a full-time student,” she says, so sometimes it was quite challenging for her to find time in between her classes when the archive was open so she could work on her research.   

The language itself is Kroft’s biggest problem. She can understand most of it but sometimes she needs to rely on other people who can help her translate important pieces of documentation.

UNL has top research facilities but for Kroft it is not only about the research.

“The Center for Digital Research in Humanities is one of the biggest, best in the United States,” says Kroft, and she is taking full advantage of it. “Getting the history out there,” that’s what she is also very passionate about.

At this point she doesn’t see herself publishing a book, but the digital history project is as she describes it “a better book”. “It is very democratic. Everybody can access it without having to pay for it.”

Kroft’s mother decided not to speak Czech at home because she wanted to be modern. Her family still doesn’t understand why she studies what she studies.

“Why don’t you rather study Spanish,” they told her at home, “at least you could get a job.” She chose a different path.

In the future Kroft wants to continue focusing on her studies and take the research to the next level.

“There will be time when I will have enough materials and I could go present it to the people out there. Those people who are part of that history,” concludes Kroft.

Oct 25, 2011

Haircut

Strihani vlasu - urcite si reknete, “Neco tak jednoducheho. Jenze prave naopak. Od mala se nechavam strihat strojkem na 1,5 mm, kolem usi, vzadu kratsi, zastrihnout kotlety a na zaver prostrihat. V poslednich par letech jsme mel tu moznost (nebo spise nutnost) se nechat ostrihat ve ctyrech ruznych zemich, na trech ruznych kontinentech.

V Cechach je to operace, ktera zabere 15-20 minut a stoji 90-150 Kc. Mam dve mista, jedno v Butovicich a jedno v Brevnove, kde me uz znaji a vi, jak to mam rad;) Nekolikrat jsem se zkousel ostrihat doma sam, ale za usetrene penize to nestalo.

O ostrihani na Filipinach se da rict snad jen to, ze napadne pripominalo scenu z filmu Sweeney Todd. Zaplatil jsem 2 oblazky a 3 skeble a dodnes nevim, jak se mi podarilo presvedcit ostrovniho holice, ze chci ostrihat na kratko a ze opravdu nechci zadnou barvu ani melir.

Nevim, co to maji ostrovni staty za problem, ale na Islandu me na kratko take neostrihali, at jsem delal, co jsem delal. "Jezek" proste neni v zemi ohne a ledu popularni a pritom by to bylo tak prakticke, kdyz tam porad fuci smes vetru, snehu a deste. Za drobne zastrihnuti, o kterem vam tvrdi, ze je prave pro vas, zaplatite 450 Kc.

Posledni zajimavou zkusenost mam z Lincolnu. K ostrihani jsem se vypravil do mistni College of Hair Design pote, co vyslo na jevo, ze strojek na vlasy zakoupeny mym roommatem vlasy trha spise nez striha.

Prvni vec, ktera me zaujala bylo, kolik lidi se vyucuje na holice/kadernika v teto male komunite. Ujala se me studentka Jennifer (znala Prahu, nebot jeji sestra zije ve Vidni, jeji manzel je ze Salzburgu a do Prahy se jiz dlouhou dobu chystaji). Nejprve se mnou nekolikrat opakovane prosla me pozadavky na ostrihani, a kdyz jsem se tvaril rozpacite, navrhla sama nekolik vylepseni. Z 15mm se stalo 13mm a z rovneho prechodu na kratsi strany se stal odstupnovany, stoupavy prechod. Pote co jsem tyto zmeny odsouhlasil, odesla to Jennifer oznamit sve cvicici. Samotny postup strihani se prilis nelisil, az na to, ze misto toho, aby me obchazela, tocila se mnou zurive na zidli, coz se prilis nelibilo me prave snedene snidani. Sama stala na jednom miste. Cele to bylo doprovazene zbesilym stridanim nastavcu a tak misto 20 minut cele strihani trvalo 45.

Nakonec prislo nekolik lahudek. Nejprve mi na hlave pristal horky vlhky rucnik. Asi takovy, jaky vam daji v letadle (alespon u Korean Air), abyste se pred jidlem osvezili. Jenze tento byl veliky, varici a obaleny kolem me hlavy. Jennifer mi vysvetlila, ze je to proto, aby se zjistilo, zda jsou vsechny vlasy zastrizene rovnomerne. Ukazalo se, ze vse je okay. Predtim, nez mi hlava stihla zchladnout, nastartovala J vysavac a zacala mi jim jezdit po hlave, aby odstranila zbytky vlasu. Pripadal jsem si, jak persky koberec pri vanocnim uklidu. To uz byl nastesti konec. Prisla cvicici a odsouhlasila, ze vysledek odpovida zadani. Mohl jsem si oddychnout. Cely ten cirkus stal pet babek a nejaky to dysko.