On November 24th, I had the pleasure to sit down with Johana Sedláčková Vamberská for a coffee, just across the road from her office. I hadn’t seen her for a few of years since she finished her Bachelor’s in International Relations at AAU, but her name and presence certainly had not faded as I have heard about her continuing her studies at Oxford and spearheading a new poetry sharing app called Poetizer (check it out here). So, I was able to get the scoop on what she’s been up to, and also a bit about where this alumna came from.

Born in 1989, she initially thought she was destined to play the piano, having accomplished six years at a conservatory in her home town of Pardubice. Instead, she has carved out another destiny for herself in the realm of international relations and academia. In 2010, after finding out that she could not continue playing the piano for medical reasons, she hastily picked up another path to pursue.

“When I had to quit piano, I was so upset about it… But I knew that I had to choose a different path as soon as possible, also to keep myself occupied. I was always interested in world affairs and the world of diplomacy. So, I enrolled at AAU to study international relations. There, I actually realized that I chose well, because the subject forces me to constantly learn more and more.” 

First memories at AAU?

“I was really scared because my English wasn’t that good at the time, and I remember picking up all these readers for all six classes and thinking I wasn’t going to last more than two weeks!”

Memorable classes?

“I think the most important class for me was Cold War with William Eddleston. It was a tough class, but it prepared me well for Oxford. I also realized I was interested in the Cold War era.”

AAU in three words?

“Friendly, international, and rigorous.”

Intangible things you left AAU with?

Firstly, I met many great people there, such as my friends and my husband. Secondly, it also opened the opportunity for me to study at Oxford. 

What pushed you to study at Oxford?

“One day I met a girl who was applying to Cambridge… and I thought: “Well, you can actually apply from the Czech Republic?” I never knew that it was possible for anyone from the Czech Republic to study at these schools. Then I began talking to professors at AAU, and I thought I could maybe just give it a try.”

Between keeping up a straight A average and spending three to four months on her motivation letter, her efforts became a reality… 

Biggest shock at Oxford?

“The most shocking thing was the list of readings we were supposed to prepare for each week. I tried to do all the suggested reading my first couple weeks where I was reading 14 hours a day, then I realized it was impossible. So, I had to establish some kind of system to get through a lot of literature and how to learn what I needed and the most important points that I could use in class and what was most interesting to me. I never imagined something that intense before.”

Thesis topics at AAU and Oxford?

“I was working on the same thesis topic the whole time – at Oxford I just developed the topic I started at Anglo-American, which was about cultural exchanges between Czechoslovakia and Great Britain in the 1960’s before the Prague Spring. I was looking at the relationship between domestic liberalisation processes in Czechoslovakia, starting in 1956 and leading to the Prague Spring of 1968, and the concurrent process of rejuvenating cultural dialogue between Czechoslovakia and Great Britain. So I spent basically five years researching in archives, conducting interviews, and putting it together since I was the first person to write about the topic.

What were these channels of communication?

The main channels of communication between the two countries were two-way cultural and academic exchanges, emerging and limited tourism, and an increasing inflow of British popular culture to Czechoslovakia. The ongoing academic debate about the origins of the Prague Spring often neglects the increasing transnational experiences of Czechoslovaks coming to capitalist countries from the country’s gradual opening, and the effects of the subsequent inflow of Western culture to Czechoslovakia. So that’s why I find the topic very interesting.

What has Poetizer taught you?

“That people actually really like to write poetry! It just started off as a fun project and then more and more people kept on downloading it and using it – now we have almost 8000 users, and about 300 new poems a week which is awesome!”

Connection between IR and Poetry?

“Poetry is an art, and art has a very important role in international affairs. In the late 1980s, Joseph S. Nye developed the concept of soft power that highlights the importance of culture in international relations. Simply put, he argues that a country’s soft power can shape relations with other countries through attraction and cooperation rather than coercion, and culture alongside with political values constitutes this soft power. I think he made a very important point, through culture we communicate with other people, cultures and nations, and we establish relationships through it – so as for myself, poetry and IR are certainly interrelated.”

From piano, to teaching kindergartners, to learning French in Grenoble, to academia… thoughts on your diverse background? Is it important?

“In the terms of my studies at Oxford, it was very important for me to have a background in arts because it was an interdisciplinary program. I wrote my thesis on cultural exchanges in the Cold War, so it was important that I knew a lot about music and cultural arts, along with international relations and politics, so that I could use my knowledge of both fields.

I also believe that if you do more diverse things it makes you more open minded and creative so you’re not scared of trying new things.”

Best Czech bands?

“J.A.R. and Monkey Business.”

If you could travel back in time to see any concert?

“Freddy Mercury and Queen”

Not Mozart?!

She laughs… “No, Queen would be more fun”.