Czech Republic: Proud Romani students in IT, medicine, and natural sciences
The five Romani college students interviewed for this article are on their way to promising careers and dreaming of work that will amuse them and earn them a living in medicine, pharmacy, software, teaching and Romani studies. They are no longer interested in continually explaining to people why they managed to make it to college when other Romani people reportedly don't even send their children to school, live on the state's generosity, and steal metal for resale. They are tired of endlessly convincing others that not all Romani people are like those the public knows about from televised images. They just want to study in the field of their choice. They are living the college student life with all that entails, just like the other 400 000 young students in the Czech Republic - and they have no problem saying they are Romani.
Martina Horváthová of the Slovo 21 association says Romani college students hide their origins rather frequently in the Czech Republic. "Successful Romani people in the Czech Republic brand themselves as Hungarians, Spaniards, or other southern nationalities. That's a shame, because they could be positive examples here. The Romani people need their elite, they need to be seen in ordinary professions, working as bureaucrats, doctors, librarians, managers, salespeople, teachers. They are the ones who might be able to do more for a better coexistence and a better image for the Romani minority than any non-profit staffer can through projects - provided they endorse their Romani origins and present themselves as healthily self-aware people," Horváthová says.
Slovo 21 has long prepared Romani high school students to take entrance exams for further study at college and can boast of achieving results. The college acceptance rate of those who graduate from Slovo 21's courses is 60 % on average.
When asked whether she believes the number of Romani college students is rising, however, Horváthová gives a somewhat constrained response: "Even though we might expect the numbers of Romani students to be rising, the numbers of people attending our courses haven't much changed over time. However, our activities definitely do not involve everyone applying to college, so we really can't generalize. Within the framework of our other activities and our cooperation with other individuals and organizations, I am starting to discover more and more young Romani college students who have not yet become involved in the activities of the nonprofit sector - they either didn't need or didn't want to take advantage of such options."
One source for the number of Romani college students is the data available to Iva Hlaváčková, who coordinates a stipend program for Romani college students in the Czech Republic. Even this number, however, is probably only a fraction of the Romani people studying at college. Statistics that would reveal the number of Romani college students in the Czech Republic do not exist.
"During the 2012/2013 academic year, approximately 40 students should be supported," says Hlaváčková of the ROMEA association, which is in its third year of coordinating the Roma Memorial University Scholarship Program (RMUSP), which has been running in 13 Central and Eastern European countries for 13 years. One condition for winning this stipend is publicly espousing one's Romani origin. When applying, students sign a declaration that they are Romani and willing to present themselves as such in public.
"The usual amount of the annual stipend is EUR 800 for 10 academic months. Under no circumstances does the total subsidy ever exceed EUR 2 000 for the basic stipend plus tuition," Hlaváčová explains.
Last year 31 Romani students in the Czech Republic won stipends totaling more than EUR 32 500, mostly for studies in pedagogy. Students in the fields of chemical technology, economics, law, media, and medicine also received support.
"There is no doubt that socially focused fields predominate among college students, as well as an interest in teaching. Here and there we have people interested in a natural science or technical field, but really very few," says Horváthová of Slova 21, which also runs a special website for Romani college applicants in the Czech Republic, www.dzadureder.cz.
ROMANI STUDENT PROFILES
For as long as anyone can remember, Zuzana Kančiová was one of those girls who preferred using a red pen to a blue one. She knew long ago she would one day be going to university. She was primarily motivated by a Czech language teacher. "I was fascinated by how she designed the classes so we wouldn't be bored. I wanted to be just like her," remembers 24-year-old Zuzana, now a student in her final year at the Pedagogical Faculty of Jan Evangelista Purkyně University (UJEP).
Zuzana lives in Teplice in an older housing estate of brick buildings with her mother and younger brother, who is in his first year of hotel school. Many more people used to live at home with them. "My mother had twins twice in a row, 10 years apart, so there are five of us. My older siblings are already living their own lives. I enjoy my Mom and youngest brother at home," the young student says happily, but then grows serious. "Dad remarried and lives in Ústí nad Labem. He is living his own life and pretending we don't even exist.“
Zuzana has happy memories of her childhood and mainly remembers her experiences with her father, who used to take her on nature trips and to indoor football matches. "I started football in Teplicíce – Sobědruhy. This weekend I am going with our team to Stará Lysá for the second championship match, so wish us luck," she says with a wink. In addition to sports, she has also always enjoyed school, earning the highest marks with the exception of a lower mark in math once. "Math never worked for me. I remember very well bringing home my first failing marks in the fourth grade. I came home and cried terribly. I couldn't sleep for about a week because of it. I told myself I would have to get at least 50 top marks to make up for it," the amiable future Czech language teacher says today with a smile.
Zuzana's good results in primary school forecast that she would go on to study at a college preparatory school in nearby Duchcov. Nothing during her high school years distracted her from her dream of becoming a teacher. "When I was about to graduate I was sad because I knew my high school days were ending. I had a good time there. No one has ever remarked on the fact that I am Romani in an unkind way, not even when I was at primary school. My parents and the parents of my schoolmates knew one another, and I believe that meant xenophobia could never have entered the picture. Mom worked in the house of culture and Dad worked for the railways," says Zuzana. She would prefer teaching literature to teaching grammar, and the literature closest to her heart is Czech and world literature from the era of the Second World War. She is very close to achieving her dream of becoming a Czech language teacher.
Filip Sivák of Jirkov has always been more interested in computers than in football. He got his first computer, a Pentium II, from his parents when he was in the third grade. As a sixth-grader, he randomly discovered a program on his home computer that helped him start designing his own computer games.
"The first one was called 'Tank on the Run'. It was a shooting game, the tank drove around and killed Nazis. I was about 13. It was primitive, but my Dad liked to play it sometimes," says the 20-year-old information sciences student today, a bit modestly. We are meeting near the buildings of the Czech Technical University (ČVUT) in the National Technical Library in Prague's Dejvice quarter. Filip says he was most influenced by a friend of his father's who was a computer whiz.
"I wanted to be just as good as he was. My Dad motivated me too, though. He cultivated my relationship with electronics from an early age, which is why I started studying at the industrial technology high school after primary school," Filip recalls. He won his district-level Physics Olympics competition while at primary school, and his relationship to IT deepened at high school. "I always wanted to excel at something, maybe precisely because I am Romani. I wanted the others to consider me their equal partner. All my life I have had to prove that I know how to do something. I had the feeling I had to assert myself much more than my other schoolmates did," Filip says. The son of a candy factory manager and a machinist, he also briefly flirted with the idea of studying archeology.
"I didn't like math, which is rather paradoxical given the field I am studying today. I enjoyed history, I wanted to be an archeologist, but then I discovered that I am afraid of spiders and don't feel good inside caves. I chose the path of a programmer," laughs the second-year student of software systems. His biggest hobbies are reading science fiction and taking walks in nature with his girlfriend. However, he admits there is not much free time for those activities during the academic year. He also works while attending school in order to be able to afford his studies.
"Sometimes one has to choose - either better grades and an angry boss, or worse school results and a job well done, which means a satisfied boss," he says with the proper amount of irony. For more than a year he has been designing software for a company that creates websites and internet applications. At the age of 20 he is now working with science that most students don't master until the end of their undergraduate studies.
While Filip understands the language of zeroes and ones, the Romani language is foreign to him. "We never spoke Romani at home. I would like to learn Romani, but it would cost me a great deal of effort. I really don't have the time for it yet," he says.
Unlike Filip, Michal Mižigár speaks Romani very well - not only the East Slovakian dialect, but others. He is in his third year of studying the Romani language at the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University. He has spoken Romani since he was a child, when his grandparents led him to it.
"I really loved listening to my grandmothers tell stories, especially Romani fairytales. That probably supported my Romani identity," recalls the 20-year-old student of Romani Studies. He has also won the Milena Hübschmannová Literature Prize, named after the pioneering Czech scholar of Romani Studies. "I am sorry I never met her personally before her tragic death. My parents told me that as a small boy I sat on her lap when she came to visit us in Písek. Maybe that unconsciously influenced me," he recalls with a smile. His childhood was somewhat more complicated than that of his peers, and not just because he is Romani.
After undergoing vaccination when he was only a few months old, Michal contracted encephalitis. Even though his pediatrician knew that Michal had a cold at the time, he did not postpone the vaccination, and his young patient's life was changed forever. "As a result of the encephalitis, I started losing my hearing, but no one noticed it at home. I had learned to lip-read, so I communicated with my parents essentially without any problem. My relatives often told them my hearing was poor and that I wasn't responding properly, but no one at home wanted to admit it," he explains. His parents did not learn their son was almost completely hearing impaired until they registered him for first grade. Even though he already knew all the basic colors, geometric shapes, and everything a pre-schooler should have mastered, it was a problem to enroll him into the first grade of primary school.
"Back then primary schools did not want to accept handicapped pupils. Luckily, we found one that didn't have a problem with it," Michal recalls. He is somewhat aloof from his memories of his first month at school, which was a complicated period for him. At the time he had only been wearing his hearing aids for a few months. The problems started with taking dictation in particular, and that affected his grades for grammar. "Once the teacher got a microport and I got an induction loop it was much better," Michal recalls.
He started contributing articles to the school magazine explaining to his schoolmates who the Romani people are and where they come from. He even included lessons in the Romani language here and there. "My interest in Romani Studies began here. Then came the Milena Hübschmannová Prize – by that time I was at the business academy. I was also coordinating a big exhibition about Romani people in Písek. We worked on it for about a year, and in the end it enjoyed enormous success," he says with a smile.
In addition to his studies, Michal lectures on Romani history as part of a wide variety of projects and translates documentary films from Romani to Czech. He primarily collaborates with the musician Ida Kelarová and her Miret association. "I just came back from spending time in a settlement in eastern Slovakia as part of a project. Unbelievable experiences! We worked with the children there, we gave them cameras so they could capture what their lives are like there. In November we will go back and I am curious what the results will be."
Gabriela Siváková wanted to be a doctor ever since she was a child. Neither chemistry or physics gave her any problem - on the contrary, they were some of her favorite subjects. The Medical Lyceum was supposed to be the best preparation for further education in the health care field, but the 22-year-old from Moravia did not end up studying medicine after all.
"If your entrance exams for college don't go well - exams you have been looking forward to since the end of primary school - then you are grateful that the Holy Spirit enlightened you enough to choose pharmacochemistry as your second choice school. That field has a big future ahead of it. The chemistry of medicines will always be studied and will develop more and more," says the student of the Chemical Technology Faculty at the University of Pardubice. She spends most of her time there during the school year, living in private accommodations with her fellow students.
"I lived in the college dormitory that first year. I would never go back there now, but I made many friends there. I got to know the advantages of making friends with the older students. I like student life. It's true that at the start it was just one big party," says the native of Kostelec, a village near Fulnek.
Even though Gabriela is not in her dream field of medicine, she is satisfied with her studies today. She originally had a completely different notion of what the field involved. "Even though the name of the discipline sounds very medical, it is really hardcore chemistry that plays the main role in this field. That disappointed me a bit and at one point I was going to leave, but in the end I hung in there and discovered that I like it. They are teaching us here how to distinguish our own syntheses of the various materials used to produce medicines - and it's not just about medicines. It's about all of the equipment in hospitals, the widest possible range of implants and instruments that have to be produced from materials that won't tax the organism," Gabriela explains.
Jakub Jarý from Ústí nad Labem was more fortunate. After graduating from college prep he decided to study biology and chemistry at the Natural Sciences Faculty of UJEP, and medicine caught his interest during his first semester.
"When I compared the curricula with my friend from college prep who was already studying medicine in Plzeň, I saw they were teaching similar things there and the studies were similarly demanding, so I decided to take the entrance exam for medicine at Plzeň, and I passed," says Jakub, who is now in his fourth year f general medicine at Charles University. In future he would like to focus on histology and is also considering pathology.
Jakub lives in a dormitory in Plzeň. "The dorms are small, everyone knows one another there. It's like a family environment. Moreover, we are all medical students there, which is also an advantage for your studies when you need help with something from an older classmate. Mainly it was the cheapest accommodation I could get in Plzeň, and I am doing my best to save every crown, sometimes it's not very easy to make ends meet," admits the young medical student. Starting this fall he will help in a hospital part-time as a orderly. Medical school requires daily class attendance and preparation.
"Today you have to make money on the side somehow," says Jakub, who is already playing with the idea of working abroad as a doctor. "You won't make much money here. It doesn't seem fair to me that my pay might one day be the same as my parents', who are blue-collar workers - not to disparage their work, I'm not saying what they do is inferior, definitely not," he solemnly swears. His parents led him and his younger brother to education when they were little. He says they were not strict, but always were concerned about his school results and attended every meeting with teachers.
"They wanted my brother and I to have better lives that they did. I think they are definitely proud of us," the young medical student says with what might seem like a lack of humility - even though he has given us the opposite impression so far. He admits he would like to act as a role model for young Romani people who don't have the heart to even try to go to college.
Jakub says his classmates often ask him about his origins and says he has no reason to hide them. "Naturally, I don't immediately tell people I am Romani when I first meet them. I don't want to give the impression that I am something special, that I was somehow given an advantage or favors because of it. However, when that question comes up, I don't know why I shouldn't answer it," says the Romani man with a future medical career ahead of him.
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