Czech bounces between two worlds


Photo by Candace diCarlo

If you knew Tereza Slepickova (C’00) only by her curriculum vitae, you might imagine her as a scowling, prematurely middle-aged woman who never encountered an abstruse political theory she didn’t like.

You’d be wrong. But the mistake would be understandable.

A native of the Czech Republic, Slepickova graduates from Penn this spring with a double major in international relations (honors) and German studies plus minors in economics and political science — and with a G.P.A. of 3.9 out of 4.0.

She is valedictorian of the International Relations Class of 2000, winner of the Arthur M. Daemmrick and Alfred Guenther Memorial Prize for an outstanding graduating German major, a Phi Beta Kappa, a Delta Phi Kappa, and a Dean’s Scholar. She made the Dean’s List in 1996-97 and 1997-98 and joined the Golden Key Honor Society in 1999.

She spent a semester studying at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, eight months working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — as research assistant to former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski — and she finished in the top five percent of her Prague high school class. She speaks German, Russian, Slovak and Czech, and she began studying English at 10.

Ah, but that is not all.

Don’t forget the ballroom dancing. And the squash. And her 15- to 20-hour-a-week job at Van Pelt Library.

“I do a lot of stuff. I have a lot of fun,” she said. “I do not think I suffer from being an over-achiever.”

Slepickova speaks quietly and thoughtfully, and moves delicately. She stands only five-foot-two, and she sits straight-backed in her chair, her perfect posture the product of years of competitive dancing as a teenager. While she did win a few prizes in high school, she was never in it for the competition: “I love dancing for its social, aesthetic and entertaining value.

“I’m very passionate about it,” she said. “You still have a great ball season from December to the end of March in Prague. I would spend my whole winter just going to these balls.”

She still dances when she returns home every Christmas. And although she has less time to compete, Slepickova also remains a member of the Penn Ballroom Dance Society, which helped give structure to her social life and helped her overcome her loneliness when she arrived in the United States four years ago.

Slepickova had been 12 years old when Czechoslovakia began to split into the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As a witness to the upheaval — the first pro-independence demonstrations took place just a few blocks from her school — she saw the initial wave of euphoria quickly deteriorate into selfishness and corruption. The political sophistication she gained from that experience was shared by few of her American contemporaries, and she felt that difference deeply at first.

“It took me a while to understand the system and to understand that people are the same everywhere. That’s my big lesson,” she said. Now Slepickova values the pragmatism and open-mindedness of Americans as well as the professional opportunities open to women here.

She plans to pursue a doctorate in comparative government at Georgetown University. She is not sure whether she will stay here permanently. But now she has friends here and communicates with her family and friends at home almost every day through e-mail.

“I feel very connected to my country,” she said.

Originally published on May 18, 2000