Prague to Oxford and back again: A Chancellor’s tale

At 16, I found myself packing to spend my final high school years in the UK. At the time, I was frustrated with rote learning and eager to expand my horizons, so I jumped at the opportunity provided by an Open Society Foundation scholarship to study in England. My resolution, along with a strong English test score, secured me a place, and soon I was on the Isle of Wight in the south of the UK, ready to embark on an exciting new educational journey.

However, my hypothesis that a high English-language test score would prepare me for my new classmates' rapid-fire speech proved misguided. I spent the first couple of months nodding and smiling! But then, suddenly, the pieces fell into place—a testament to the power of learning by total immersion, and not giving up.

The next two years were everything I had hoped for, brimming with new cultural experiences, lively debates with international friends, and a growing love for British TV shows. Along the way, I learned to adapt to my surroundings — an essential skill, especially as I navigated unexpected situations. Particularly surprising was the discovery that I had picked up quite a posh English accent at school — so much so that people on the bus would complain about 'Eastern European immigrants' to me, not realising I was one of them. 

Approaching the end of high school, I faced my first major setback: rejection from the University of Cambridge. Disappointed yet undeterred, I decided to move to the capital to study Political Science at the London School of Economics. There, I mastered the foundational skill of UK academia: essay writing. Its emphasis on originality – not just demonstrating what you know, but also that you are bringing something new to the table – was crucial to my later academic success.

My undergraduate years flew by in a whirlwind of lectures, exams and, of course, trips to that Great British institution: the pub. But no amount of beer could drown out my need for both exploring and learning new things. I became increasingly interested in Latin American politics, and continuing in academia with a focus on the region seemed like the perfect way to satisfy both needs. Despite my earlier Cambridge rejection, I hadn’t given up on Oxbridge. Reflecting on my Cambridge interview, I realised I had severely underestimated the preparation needed, and needed to adjust the hypothesis that good grades were enough to keep moving up in academia.

When I applied to Oxford for a master’s degree in Latin American Studies, I took those lessons to heart, determined not to repeat the same mistakes. Backed by strong grades and thoroughly prepared for a challenging interview, I secured my place.

I stayed at Oxford through a master’s and a PhD, cycling through the narrow streets to seminars and spending long hours in the historic Bodleian library. The atmosphere created by centuries-old bookshelves certainly helped to motivate me to skim-read hundreds of pages of text and write an (hopefully original) essay every week.

Yet I couldn’t wait to confront the theoretical ideas I developed with the reality of my research subjects. Over the course of my academic career at Oxford, I spent a total of two years in Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Venezuela. These experiences were eye-opening. In Bolivia, learning how the Aymara reach decisions by consensus—sometimes staying in one room for a week until they agree—gave me a new perspective on democracy.

Traveling solo through Chile, I sat down with Mapuche activists, labelled terrorists by local and even international media, and saw the stark contrast between the media representation and the lived experiences of these communities determined to defend their ancestral rights. These moments taught me a new level of humility, and underscored the importance of approaching each new situation with an open mind and a readiness to adapt.

Back in the UK, completing my doctorate was a test of endurance – a gruelling but ultimately rewarding process – and I continued at Oxford for a postdoc. I had now spent more than a decade in the British academic world and, despite considerable professional success, I was beginning to wonder whether a classic academic career at Oxford – an institution that despite the concentration of ideas and intelligence was very resistant to change and innovation – would be as fulfilling as I had always imagined. This hypothesis also needed correcting in the face of new data.

I thought back to the original motivation of the Open Society Foundation scholarship – to bring what you learnt abroad back home. Newton University was founded by my father, and it was a legacy that was both thrilling and daunting to continue. Having experienced the education systems of the UK and Czechia, I was eager to bring the best of UK academia to Newton — although consciously leaving behind the 'whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' mindset that had characterised my Oxford experience. It was also a chance to give my daughter a Czech upbringing and a family life with a balance that Oxford couldn't offer.

So, I returned to Prague with my family. Despite frequent visits, I hadn’t lived in the Czech Republic for more than 15 years (pretty much half my life at that time, and certainly my whole adult life!), and it took some time to weave the threads of the life I’d left behind at 16 into the fabric of the person I had become, shaped by years of worldwide friendships and experiences.

Four years on, I’m convinced it was the right decision. I draw on my international experience to bring the best of the world to Newton, trying to blend the best aspects of the Anglo-Saxon and Czech education systems. My goal is to inspire our students to explore and learn from the world, just as I did. “It’s a dangerous business, … going out your door”: but the hypothesis that this remains a crucial part of success remains unchallenged. And the role of Chancellor, though unexpected, turns out to be the perfect challenge for me right now.

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