Czeching out of Prague

After spending the most amazing two weeks in the Czech Republic, the whole experience still feels surreal. It was my first time in Europe and I thought I knew what to expect, but I was so wrong. Being in a new place with other like-minded students that I had just met was an amazing experience that I would not trade for the world.

This experience significantly changed my perspective on both engineering and society. From an engineering perspective, cultural differences mean a whole new set of needs and different limitations. For example, one of the company visits that we went on was to Kunsthalle, which is a modern art museum that was previously an electric substation. After talking to the founder, Ivana (who is a Pitt alum), and the lead architect on the project, I realized just how different these limitations can be. Prague is a very old and historical city, so there are laws that do not permit the modification of the outside of buildings. When working on this project, they were quite literally confined by the walls of the building. Similarly, the European Union has their own guidelines in addition to local guidelines. Another company that we visited, CEZ, is a powerplant with access to a coal mine. CEZ has the goal to be carbon neutral by 2030, but this goal was given to them by Germany, and CEZ does not expect to meet this goal in time. The international connections are very different in Europe, and this is definitely something to consider when designing engineering solutions.

The way that my perspective on society and culture has changed over these two weeks is even more significant. There are the obvious challenges such as the language barrier and currency exchange. I got really good at quick math in my head to figure out the price of goods in dollars as opposed to Czech crowns, though it did take me a while to figure out how much each coin was worth. However, there were also the deeper levels to the culture that I was more of a shock to me. Czechoslovakia was under communist rule from the end of WWII until 1989, which was a very dark time period in their history. We were told by our lecturer at Charles University that the reason why Czech people are more reserved is because during this time they were unable to reveal much about themselves or express much emotion. Therefore, Czech people are not likely to smile or make eye contact when you walk past them on the sidewalk or are sitting next to them on the tram. Even our lecturer did not tell us much about her experience during this time period because it is not a time that many people are willing to relive. It was very eye opening for me to hear this because this isn’t distant history that happened over 100 years ago, this is something that many adults today have experienced firsthand, and the impact of this time period will not fade away in the Czech Republic anytime soon.

Some advice that I would give to other students studying abroad is to be prepared to step outside of your comfort zone, because that is the only way to make the most of the experience. Try new foods, branch off from the group, and explore what you want to explore. Take note of the small things and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Study abroad will fly by, so savor every second.

Overall, this study abroad experience was something that I would not trade for the world. I knew no one on this program going into this trip, and I can now be sure that these people will not only be familiar faces in Benedum, but also my friends. In addition to the connections that I have made with my peers and with companies abroad, this trip was extremely eye opening for me. I believe that because of this study abroad, I am more prepared to be a conscientious engineer for communities of different cultures and with varying needs. Effective engineering only occurs when you understand the culture, history, and needs of the people that you are designing for, and this cannot be achieved by surface level research. Two weeks was simply not enough in this amazing place.

Photo caption: Everyone on my program in Český Krumlov!

Photo caption: Some of my favorite photos from Prague

Photo caption: Me looking over Prague (left) and in the coal mine (right)

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