‘Don’t give up!’: Alice Ždrale, head of the Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh, on language and expatriate life

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh

Just over 100 years ago, the American steel town of Pittsburgh was host to a memorandum of understanding between the nation’s Czech and Slovak immigrant communities to create an independent republic following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, the city is home to one of America’s largest Slovak communities, a modest Czech one, and a school that unites expatriates of both. Alice Ždrale, head of the Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh, on a working trip back to her native Prague, shares the story of the informal school, one of the newest among the diaspora in North America.

Alice Ždrale,  photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh
The Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh was established a few years ago as a Czech entity with the assistance of the local Czech Honorary Consul as part of the non-profit Via Foundation, and grants from the countries’ foreign and educational ministries. Apart from helping children better learn their parents’ native tongues, the school – also known as Český a Slovenský Svet, or the Czech and Slovak World, helps bring generations of the respective expatriate communities together to celebrate their shared cultural heritage.

I began by asking Alice Ždrale, who heads the school and teaches some of its youngest pupils, about how it all came to light.

“I came to Pittsburgh in 2008 with my husband and started working at the University of Pittsburgh and was studying for a Master’s in public management. At the time, we had a nice small group of Czechs and we would regularly meet. But that didn’t involve the children. So, in 2015, my friend Petra Virágová and I founded the Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh – which at first it was called the Czech School or Český Svět – and two years later we added the Slovak classes.”

And you added Slovak because there weren’t enough Czech students, or you found that the community centres, such as Sokol organisation, there was a natural mix of Czechs and Slovaks?

“That’s correct. Pittsburgh has a smaller group of Czechs and apparently the biggest Slovak diaspora. So, naturally, they would come to our cultural events. And we noticed that there were a lot of potential students, a lot of children.

“So, we surveyed the parents and asked if they’d be interested in bringing the children, and the answer was positive, so we added the Slovak class and now have about 12 Slovak children, which I think is really nice for our small community.”

When you yourself got to Pittsburgh, I suppose you met some Czechs through friends of friends or Facebook, that kind of thing, but what was the larger community like? How much of the roots are still there?

“There’s an older generation that had come in the ‘60s, I would say, and they really enjoy meeting the younger generation. They all seem to want to get together and always come to our events, like, for example, our Christmas party or at Easter celebrations.

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh
“So, I saw some potential and thought it would be nice to bring everyone together. That’s why, apart from teaching the language, we decided to hold cultural events throughout the year.

“Last year at our Christmas party, which is typically the biggest event of the year, we had about 250 people in attendance, which I think for our small community in Pittsburgh is a nice number. And you can see the older generation, young kids – you know, a nice mix of different ages.”

When you and your colleague (Petra Virágová) first thought of doing this, what do you envision and what was the reality in those early days?

“In the early days it was a lot of work – it still is – and we basically had to start from scratch. We didn’t know how we should organise the school. We had no idea how many students would come to the school or who would teach all these classes. So it was a lot of work.

“We spent about six months making preparations and then made the announcement, spread the word, and decided to open the school is September 2015. We thought maybe a few kids would come and we ended up having 20 children at that time.

“Another problem was finding teachers, of course. At the moment, we have seven teachers of the Czech and Slovak languages. Not all of us have a background in education, but I think that’s okay because we all love what we do. We’re all volunteers and dedicate our time and energy into this and try to do our best.”

I wanted to ask you about the volunteer aspect of it and funding. Do you get much support from the Czech and Slovak states? Or from expatriate groups in the United States?

“Yes, we do, and we have very thankful. We are part of a non-profit organisation in Pittsburgh called Friends of Via, and through them we apply for grants every year. We get support through the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of Education. And last year for the first time we applied for a grant through the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also received a small grant. So, we are very thankful for all of this funding.

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh
“We only change 100 dollars for tuition per semester, which basically only covers the rental fees for three classrooms in a community building. Besides teaching, we also hold a lot of events, and that costs a lot of money. So we are very thankful for all the funding from the Czech and Slovak governments.”

This year, I imagine, was a rather special one for Pittsburgh because in late May/early June it hosted the 8th annual conference of Czech schools in North America. That must have been a wonderful opportunity to talk with people doing the same kind of thing, get ideas, create synergies and so on.

“Yes. I think the energy there was the most important thing that we all shared. I think most of us who do this type of volunteering work – we all have our own regular jobs but do this because we believe it really matters and do it for our children and the next generation of Czech- and Slovak-Americans.

“The energy was absolutely amazing. It’s really nice that we all get together once a year. We basically all know each other and have created this amazing network of teachers, directors and friends. We talk about what worked that year in our schools, what didn’t work, and share ideas about what we can do better next year, how we can attract more students, get more parents involved and so on.

“It was really amazing, and we are very grateful that the Czech government, embassies and consulates, are organising such events.”

Was there any one idea that really sticks in your mind from this year, something you found particularly inspiring?

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh
“It’s a good question… I think we all realised just how much work it all really is and how much energy and time we all put into it. And I think it’s just nice to see that you’re not alone in this, that everyone has the same feelings, the same experiences and all the schools are basically going through the same thing – you know, that we need more people, more parents involved.

“But in the end, we feel it’s really important that we keep going; that we don’t give up. And by the end of the conference, we’re all energised and ready to go on.”

Are you working on something here in particular along with these other schools now?

“Yes. We’ve already planned our next year, and in October are going to a fundraising event. We’re asking the Czech and Slovak community to help us raise money for a bench. Last year, we planted a Linden tree in Pittsburgh to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia. This year, we’d like to install a bench by it, have a little picnic and get us all together. So, that’ll be one of our first events.

“We’ll also take part in the biggest Slovak festival in the United States, which will be held at the University of Pittsburgh. And we’ll have our Christmas party, our St. Nicholas party, which is always very popular. We’ve already planned everything and really look forward to the next semester.”

This may be a bit of an odd question, but I wonder if you in some way feel more ‘Czechoslovak’ from these experiences, having much more contact with Slovaks as well…sharing a kind of nostalgia, cultural affinity…

“Definitely. I think we all share that. Yes. And it’s really nice that we all get together, and my children all have Slovak and Czech friends and it’s really nice that we all get together and work together.”

Also because, I suppose, people now in the respective countries have a harder time understanding each other than their parents did, for obvious reasons.

Photo: archive of Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh

How’s your Slovak?

“My Slovak is not very good (laughs). But I believe I understand almost everything. As you probably know, the Czech and Slovak languages are very similar but there are a lot of differences. So, I completely understand but am not very good at speaking it. But that’s okay.”

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d really like our listeners to know? Many are in North America, have Czech roots and are looking to reserve their heritage…

“I’d like to say, ‘Don’t give up!’ I believe language is the key to understanding culture. I want my own children to be able to understand the Czech culture, to be proud Czech citizens, to have a connection here and be able to speak to their grandparents and family here, anyone they meet on a playground. Language is the key to any culture and to feeling like you are at home, a way to assimilate.

“So, I’d like to say don’t give up if you’re trying to teach your children the language. I think it’s really important, and one day my children, hopefully, will thank me for all the hard work. But actually, mine are fluent already in Czech and don’t speak English yet. So, my family (back in Prague) is very happy with how they’ve been raised. (laughs)”

Backtracking a bit, I notice something interesting from your bio (on the school webpage) – that you’ve worked as an immigration specialist at the University of Pittsburgh. Was that with Czech and Slovak immigrants, or of any kind?

“Any kind. The University of Pittsburgh is the biggest one in the city, and I work with all international students. So first-hand I could see how important it was for them to be able to understand and speak English. I’m going to repeat myself, but I do think language is key. Being able to understand is the key to success.”

Český a Slovenský Svet— Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh www.czechslovakschoolpgh.org

Any last thing you would like to add?

“I would just like to thank our Honorary Consul, Carol Hochman, who’s been the biggest fan of the school and always been there for us. She helped us establish the school. I’d also like to thank the Czechoslovak Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh for their help and support. And, of course, the Czech and Slovak governments. Thank you!”