Czech scholars at UNL honor the legacy of Paul Robitschek

Paul Robitschek Scholars from the Czech Republic spend a year studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Here is this year’s group, clockwise from left: Jana Dobiasova, Anna Saldova, Ludek Klucina, Marie Zborilova, Jirka Miklosy and Honza Keprta. Photo by Timo Cardenas.

Editor’s note: Honza Keprta is one of the Paul Robitschek Scholars from the Czech Republic who are studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this academic school year. He wrote the following story for an assignment in Journalism 202, beginning reporting.

By Honza Keprta for NewsNetNebraska

It was a 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.

Industrialist Paul Robitschek endowed a scholarship that brings students from the Czech Republic to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Greg Jensen.

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.”