The man who is bringing Czechs to Nebraska
Story by Nela Krawiecova, NewsNetNebraska
(*Editor’s note: Nela Krawiecova is a Robitschek Scholar and CoJMC student who explains the legacy of the man whose gift to UNL decades ago still benefits Czech students today.)
It started 22 years ago with a mysterious letter written by a man who lived 1,600 miles from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He came from a country almost 5,000 miles away. Today, Paul Robitschek is still bringing students from the Czech Republic to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Close to 90 alumni and counting.
The Robitschek story
Robitschek was a Czech immigrant who escaped during WW2 and arrived in the United States in the 1960’s. “Working like a dog,” he became successful in plastics research for which Robitschek holds multiple patents.
Despite having a good life in America, Robitschek always yearned to know what was happening back in his homeland of Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, he could not go back because of the totalitarian regimes that continued to rule there until 1989. Then, Czechoslovakia was free again. A few years later Robitschek sent his first letter to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Greg Jensen works for the University of Nebraska Foundation. He said Robitschek got the idea of establishing a UNL scholarship the year before he wrote. Originally, he was asked by a high school in Eugene, Oregon to help pay for a Czech student who wanted to study in the United States. As a widower with no children, Robitschek had the financial resources to help. Spending time with the young Czech man meant the world to him. Robitschek decided he wanted to do more for Czech students and his former country. Soon, the Robitschek Scholarship was created.
Making the Robitscheks
Jensen is the only one from UNL who met Robitschek. Over the years, several other UNL employees have worked so closely with the scholarship they have dubbed themselves the “Robitschek committee.” It consists of Larry Routh, Carmen Kelle, and Erika Hepburn. They all work in different UNL departments. Together though, they help to make the “Robitscheks,” as many refer to the scholarship, work.
“Some of the people who got involved with the program have strong ties to the Czech heritage so there is a very strong commitment by those who volunteer their time to ensure that the students are getting networking, that they are being counseled, checked in on, talked to,” said Kelle. She and Routh have been with the program since its earliest years and even have created some traditions.
But first, Hepburn at the Office of Global Strategies has to collect all applications for the following academic year. The applications include a student’s resume, university transcript, and an essay. The successful Czech and Slovak student applicants can get full UNL tuition and room and board for two semesters, round-trip airfare to Lincoln from Prague, and a textbook stipend. The standards to qualify for a Robitschek are very high. “Throughout the last 20 years, we have always ended up having outstanding students. What is that telling you?” said Routh. “Either we are lucky, or the pool of candidates is amazing. That’s the case.” A few things Routh said he looks for in Robitschek candidates are authenticity and willingness to make connections.
To ensure students would be successful at UNL, Hepburn with the help of Sonia Feigenbaum conducts in-person interviews in Prague, Czech Republic. But out of ten people invited to the interview, only three to five will have the final experience of a Robitschek.
The scholarship is open to any academic area so that the experience might be different for each student.
“It is not a cookie cutter program. Students are open to freely apply and personally represent how they would use the academic opportunities at UNL to better themselves and their future. Very diverse range of academic areas at the university have been represented over the years,” said Kelle, who works as an academic advisor for the scholars.
They are encouraged not only to take classes in their academic field but also go beyond that, explore, try new things, mingle with Americans and be open-minded.
Living the American Dream
After almost three decades since the fall of communism, the reasons why Czech students want to study in the United States might be different. However, most of them agree it has been their biggest dream.
“I have always dreamt about visiting the true landmarks of America – Lincoln’s Monument in Washington, D.C., New York’s Wall Street or the beautiful national parks of West Coast,” says Jan Vanis, this year’s Robitschek.
For him, education is not just about learning in a classroom, but also through traveling and discovering new places and cultures. Still, the main reason for him to apply was the wide range of courses offered by UNL.
So far, he believes the Robitschek Scholarship has changed his life and will have a positive impact in his future career.
If he could give an advice to someone who wants to apply it would be a simple one. “Just don’t send the first version of your essay,” he adds with a smile.
This is what his older brother Zdenek told him. He was in Nebraska when Jan was 14. Now, they are both part of the Robitschek “brotherhood”.
Creating the difference
“It is a small number of our large international student community but very impressive group who has had a big impact on not just Nebraska and the Czech Republic but the world at large. Our scholars are all over the place making an enormous difference,” says Hepburn.
She first started to learn about the program as a Freshmen at UNL, when she became friends with some of the former scholars. “I invited them over to my home and got to know them. It was really the Robitschek scholars who made me realize through our friendships that the world is much bigger than Nebraska,” she says.
Some of the former scholars work for the Czech government, the European Union in Brussels, large corporations, media, have started their own philanthropy or teach, practice law, pursue another degree and keep on traveling.
And they are being recognized. Last year, Barbora Polachova appeared on the Czech Forbes 30 under 30 list. When asked what she considers to be her biggest life achievement she said getting the Robitschek scholarship eight years ago. Now she works for Uber.
Robitschek alumni 1997-2016