Interview with Sierra Stopper
For introduction, can you sum up your life briefly?
I’m from Oregon, and I’m one of four siblings. Well, I was born in Idaho and moved to Oregon when I was nine. My family has been kind of complicated because my mom passed away when I was young and I’ve had two stepmothers since. So my family is kind of big and crazy, but we love each other. I went to a private Christian high school, and elementary school, kind of like Narnia and Bilgym. I graduated from there and went to a small college called Linfield College. I studied Spanish and Anthropology, and studied abroad for a year, in Spain. Then, when I graduated, I worked at a bank for two and a half years, and then ended up here!
How did you end up here? And why Slovakia?
I had wanted to work in a different country for a while. My friends Mike and Stephanie told me about this school. Even though Slovakia had not been on my radar, I really liked the idea of this school- the ideas they have for a different education. I really wanted to be a part of that, so I ended up writing to the school and there was an opening in the spring of 2014, so I came here.
What were your first impressions of Slovakia?
I was really excited to be here, I probably kind of scared some people, because I was too excited. But obviously when you go somewhere, you have rose-colored glasses, as we say, it’s kind of the honeymoon phase of culture shock. I was excited, everything was new. Obviously, Petržalka is not the prettiest place in the world and at the time I was working and living here as well. I really liked Old town from the beginning, and I loved the country, I got to travel a little bit throughout it. The first impressions were that people were a lot friendlier than I thought they would be, based on people’s stereotypes of Central Europe. I think it’s a place people should know more about.
How does Slovakia compare to the US and Spain? What are the main differences?
Well, it’s colder! And hotter in the summer, but not as hot as Spain. And the Spanish people are much more affectionate, and kind of in-the-streets culture. They go outside, they don’t really go over to people’s homes as much, whereas here people often invite you to their house for lunch and things like that. Bratislava is kind of similar to what I’m used to in Oregon. Obviously, there are some cultural differences, the weather is kind of different, but the people are similar. Then in the US we make friends faster, but I feel like we also, kind of stereotypically, don’t make friends as deeply. Though it depends of course, on that person.
Is there any philosophy you live by?
Oh, that’s deep…well, I grew up in a Christian home and then when I kind of had my own thoughts in my head, I decided that I really do believe in God. So the philosophy is based on that. One of my favourite verses in the Bible, which is kind of a verse for life for me, is: “ Teach me your ways, Oh Lord, and I will walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your name.“ And the idea of it is that I want my life to be so that God teaches me what to do, what path to go on and my heart is undivided, so that I have a single purpose.
I wanted to ask who’s your role model, but I guess we kind of got that answer already.
Yeah, but I look up to people as well, I’ve had some really good mentors over the years, Mike and Stephanie, for example. My dad is also a big role model for me.
What experience influenced you the most?
Tough question…there’s probably two that changed my life the most. The first was losing my mom to cancer. In both good and a bad way, it changed my life completely. I moved to a different state, I ended up doing a lot of things that I might not have done if that hadn’t happened. For better or for worse, it did happen. It has also given me a lot more compassion and empathy for people, maybe an understanding that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The second experience was when I moved to Spain. It proved to me that I could live in another country, and I really fell in love with the Spanish language, finally. I just kind of liked it earlier, but when I actually got to use it and meet people from a different country, in their country, I really fell in love with it.
When I asked people what they’d like to know about you, they said you’re pretty much an open book. Could you tell us something that we don’t know about you?
Ooh, well, there’s this funny thing. For less than a year (I ended up not having time because I was in high school) I used to train a llama. Some people might know that, I’m not sure. We have a thing called 4-H in the US, where you learn how to take care of animals, to sew, to cook, to take photos and a lot of other skills, so I was going to train a llama for that, but I ran out of time.
What do you like most about this school?
I really like the fact that it’s young and willing to change. There’s still a couple of things that need work, like we’re in a new building and that kind of stuff. But I feel like the energy level is higher here than in a lot of schools. A lot of people come here because they know it’s a good school, it has a good reputation, but it also has room for improvement. I think that’s how teachers and learning and schools should be. The moment we think we have everything done is the moment we stop teaching well. So I think there’s always this idea in our heads that we can improve.
Do you have any specific improvements in mind?
Well, I think this school is doing a really good job. The students work hard overall, I love my colleagues and there’s a lot of good energy. There’s not anything super huge – just keep doing what you’re doing.
Lastly – how do you manage to be so happy all the time?
Well, I think I’m not always happy, but I’d say it comes from the philosophy we talked about earlier. I would say it comes from this knowledge I have- knowing God gives you a perspective on life. Sometimes I lose that perspective, I’m not always, obviously, perfect – I get frustrated, angry and tired. But I know that there is a purpose to life. I feel like God gave me a lot of love for the people in my life that I already had a little bit of, but it…expanded. I wake up everyday and I like my job, I like the students, I like my colleagues and there’s a purpose to each day. And each day is interesting and different, it’s not routine and boring. I’m just glad to be alive, I guess.
Interviewer: Maruš Žilinčíková
Photo of Sierra and Dávid: Mária Bernátová