“For fourteen years, she has been behind a scholarship program that sends Czech students to universities abroad. Now she’s going to one herself. Michaela Bakala, at the age of fifty-two, is a psychology student in Berkeley, California. Her eldest daughter begins her studies in the same place but at a different school. This was said to be an essential condition,” Robert Čásenský, editor-in-chief of Reporter magazine, opens the interview with Michaela Bakala, that is a part of the June special.
Text by Robert Čásenský / photo by Tomáš Binter
Every year you review the applications of scholarship applicants. Is there a story that has personally captured your attention so much that you still remember it years later?
There were many interesting stories; I can’t even begin to list them all. But for one example, I remain in regular contact with the extraordinary pianist Tomáš Kač. I also remember a remarkable moment when we had Gabriel Eichler, who was then a major shareholder in the AVG antivirus company, on the selection committee, and an IT candidate, without knowing who he was, described how he could bypass antiviruses. And then this year, among the applicants was a girl who had decided to study ancient history and was interested in naval history, not exactly a typical field for young women.
How many scholarship recipients do you usually select each year?
This number has been quite affected by Brexit. Since Brexit, British schools have become dramatically more expensive for Czech students. The cost of studying there has almost equaled that of America. Before Brexit, we typically supported some thirteen or fourteen applicants each year. Now, after Brexit, it’s about eight or nine, even though we’ve increased the overall budget a bit.
When will applicants find out if they will get your support? Before they apply to the school or after they’re accepted?
It’s both. Students can apply while in high school in their senior or junior year, but they can also apply after admission or while studying abroad. If they are successful in our selection process in their pre-graduation year, they apply to the foreign university of their choice with the promise of a scholarship.
For how long do students receive their scholarships?
If they have good marks and meet the conditions, they can count on support for the entire duration of their chosen study program.
Is there a limit to the maximum amount a student can receive?
At the foundation’s beginning, we covered all the costs associated with the studies. Over time, however, we have concluded that there should be at least a minimum contribution from the student and their family, depending, of course, on their particular capabilities. It reinforces the sense of responsibility. However, there is no exact numerical limit.
Money to those who truly need it.
In the first round, written applications are assessed, and in the second round, the family’s financial situation is assessed. What does this mean in practice? Do the families of applicants present their financial situation to you?
Yes, we assess all their family finances, including property or investments. We need to document everything. We want Scholarship support to go to those who really need it, not to applicants whose families can afford to support their student independently but simply want to save money.
Where is the line of “need”? Suppose a student got into Harvard, which reports that the average four-year tuition is $330,000, or nearly seven million. Such costs would be expensive even for a family with an income of two hundred thousand crown a month. So can they try to come up with one of those?
The costs at Harvard and other American universities are indeed extremely high. And even a well-off family may not be able to afford them. In your model case, they could certainly apply for aid. At the same time, we take into account the fields of study.
We consider whether the applicant is going into a commercially attractive course where it is highly likely that they could take out a loan to study and repay it without too much difficulty. And there are some majors, such as education, where you might not make enough to pay tuition from a prestigious American university for half your life.
As part of the Scholarship Program, you also advise students on choosing schools. What can they learn?
First, they learn to navigate the vast array of possible universities, courses of study, and conditions. Digging deeply into such research can become so overwhelming some can feel like giving up. Our counselor helps students and their parents in this regard to find relevant information and data to make good decisions.
Do they also help with administrative requirements?
Yes. For example, correctly filling in the application form is very important so that the applicant is not excluded or disadvantaged because of an omission or error. Similarly, recommendations from domestic teachers need to be in the right format and have the correct details. Most Czech teachers and mentors, for obvious reasons, do not know how to submit such a recommendation correctly.
Who can contact your organization for a consultation? Is this only for scholarship applicants?
No, it’s open to anyone interested in studying abroad. Just make an appointment.
Does this include consulting schools regarding the cost of tuition? For example, finding cheaper continental alternatives to the expensive British ones?
Yes, that’s been a big theme in recent years. The jump in cost has been dramatic, and so many students are looking for other quality schools that don’t cost as much.
Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of all your scholarship recipients in the program’s history have gone to the UK (124 out of 196 awarded by 2022). Does that interest continue with much higher prices? And do your scholarships to study in Britain continue?
There is still a lot of interest in studying in the UK. The greatest interest surrounds attending Oxford and Cambridge, as has been the case for a long time. They are schools with a remarkable history offering a top-notch education, and a student accepted there will find themselves among the best of their peers worldwide. We continue to provide scholarships to study at these schools. Still, we have to budget for fewer of them.
In the United States, you give the most scholarships to the so-called Ivy League schools of the most prestigious historical universities (Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Yale, etc.).
Because that’s the goal of our applicants, these schools have long ranked, with the aforementioned Oxford and Cambridge, as among the top ten or fifteen universities in the world. That’s why excellent students want them. And that’s why they come to us for support.
Why is the Bakala Foundation involved in supporting students at foreign universities?
For one thing, there is a piece of personal history. My husband emigrated so that he could get a free and quality education. His experience convinced him that his education changed his life and enabled him to succeed later. He wants to pass on this life-changing opportunity.
Secondly, the Bakala Foundation and The Kellner Family Foundation are the only two organizations in our country dedicated to such support in a long-term and systematic way.
Are you competing or collaborating?
In the long term, we work side by side in a way that benefits the students. Sometimes we complement each other in support; sometimes, we take over support. We keep each other informed to avoid inefficient duplication. We do it for the students and not for ourselves.
My husband didn’t know.
Starting this fall, you’ll pursue a master’s degree in psychology at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. I assume you haven’t used the services of a guidance counselor.
Yes, I have. Since I studied at FAMU from 1992 to 1997, I had no idea how valid my marks were for my current application. As it turns out, they weren’t so bad. I also used the help to check my completed application, ensuring I included everything.
Do you know when your semester starts yet?
We start September 5th. So now I’m dealing with getting my family moved on time and many other practicalities.
How long have you been dealing with this?
The whole process started two years ago. I was accepted then and could have started last year, but I requested a one-year delay.
For what reason?
My oldest daughter graduated from high school this year but on the east coast of the US. So this school year, she was going through the college admissions process, and we were still determining where she would end up. So, I told myself this was my priority: I would address my school enrollment once the kids were settled.
Will your daughter end up studying in the same place?
But at a different school, University of California, Berkeley. This was her condition, quite understandable for a young person: Mom, I definitely don’t want to be at the same school as you.
You’ll be more like study neighbors.
That’s what you could call it. When we discussed her studies, I had no idea how difficult it would be to arrange high school for her three younger siblings. Not only finding and choosing them but going through all the formalities.
Which ones are they?
For example, not only the children have to go to school for interviews, but also the parents. This is further complicated in our country because the children have been international from a young age and have been through the Czech Republic, Switzerland, South Africa, and the United States. So, just getting all their vaccinations, documents, and so on together is a pretty solid operation.
At our age, which is quite similar, very few people start studying anymore. What made you apply?
I asked myself what interests me and what I want to do. I don’t think it will be business anymore, we have a lot of charity activities on several continents, and I enjoy working for them. However, if I want to move on myself too, it’s probably high time at 50. Psychology has always interested me, and in the future, I might combine my professional education with my own life experience. Oh, and there is an element of personal maintenance, I still exercise regularly, but it would be good to exercise my brain as well.
And for that, university study seems like a good vehicle.
It will be a very regular exercise because I will be doing a standard full-time course.
So, backpacking to school every day?
Even over the summer because I’d be doing a three-year master’s degree in a shortened two-year period.
What did the kids and husband say about putting your shirt and jeans back on and going out among the students?
The kids were excited about going to school together in the morning. And my husband was a little surprised to hear that I had successfully applied to college.
You didn’t tell him ahead of time?
I didn’t want to make a big deal about it when I didn’t know if it could work. So, of course, he was a little surprised. And I’m grateful he accepted because it’s a bit of a constraint for him, too.
Describe to me what the admissions process was like.
In the application process, recommendations and the essay you submit with the application are very important. The results of previous studies also play a role, where it turns out that my old high school diploma and grades from FAMU scored decently. And apparently, they’re interested in my story, too. Also, schools are thinking a lot about diversity now. So having a 50+-year-old lady from the former Eastern Bloc can be a plus. I was glad there was also an hour-long in-person interview; I think that was a plus for me.
We are not like America
But full-time study means you’ll have to put some of your existing activities on hold.
The school has a maximum number of hours you can miss. I can’t exceed that. It will also be a nine-hour time difference from Prague. So I have already warned my colleagues here in the Czech Republic that I might not be able to respond to some things as quickly as we were used to together. Still, I want to maintain a strong connection with our philanthropic activities even within those constraints.
There are quite a few, so let’s review them briefly. You have two educational activities in the journalism field; in the summer, it tends to be Journey: Journalism Bootcamp, and over the winter, it’s the Achilles Data program. Why do you support journalism students in particular?
When we started working with Václav Pecha, now the director of the Bakala Foundation, he was already thinking about how we could support investigative and independent journalism. It plays an important role in the functioning of a democratic society. And what better way to develop it than with journalism students right away? Targeting students or young school leavers seems logical to us. That’s why we also have the Kaplicky Internship program aimed at recent architecture graduates.
Is your support for journalism students also related to the fact that your husband is the owner of the Economia publishing house, which includes Hospodářské noviny, Respekt, and Aktuálně.cz?
Business or publishing interests do not play a role in this. When we planned the foundation, my husband owned Respekt but not Economia. Moreover, I think we have shown over the years that the media we own are truly independent and that the owner’s personality does not reflect on their content.
In this context, however, I recall your husband’s remark ten years ago to the effect that it would actually be all right if newspapers held different views from different owners because that would naturally develop pluralism of opinion.
I think he meant it differently. The practice has shown that neither Respekt nor later any title in the Economia publishing house reflected his views. In my opinion, it was more of an analogy with the American media market, where the positions of individual titles and their owners are much more politically profiled.
However, the European and Czech environment is different from the American one in this respect.
This is undoubtedly the case and has been proven many times. I remember well the considerations in ODS just after 2000 that it would be good to publish a tabloid newspaper with a broad reach, which would, of course, take political positions close to ODS. It ended in a fiasco.
Yes, the paper was called Super, and it was published for about a year.
It proved that you could not successfully combine unrelated genres and that Czech readers did not want a politically profiled tabloid.
De Klerk and Havel, each different
Let us now turn to politically oriented organizations. You support two organizations that preserve the legacy of former presidents – the Václav Havel Library and the Frederik Willem de Klerk Foundation. Why the de Klerk Foundation?
First of all, I want to say that they cannot be compared. Václav Havel was the first great representative of the new emerging democracy. On the contrary, Frederik Willem de Klerk was the last representative of the outgoing apartheid, who played an important role in regime change. We got to know him on Václav Havel’s last major foreign trip. It was a private trip, but they had arranged a meeting.
Although de Klerk was the last representative of the segregationist regime, he was also involved in its dismantling, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, together with Nelson Mandela.
He was undoubtedly a controversial figure, but he was also certainly instrumental in ensuring that the regime change in South Africa was essentially peaceful without any major bloodshed. The constitution he and Mandela championed is still regarded today as a very successful political work of its time. And the FW de Klerk Foundation, which we support, is particularly concerned about the legacy of that constitution. However, once again, I would not compare it to Václav Havel, and I would not compare his foundation to the Václav Havel Library.
The Václav Havel Library is currently undergoing several changes. Firstly, it is formally changing from a public benefit corporation to a foundation. At the same time, a Founder’s Family Committee and a Donors’ Committee have been established. What is the reason for these changes?
The Library was founded with enthusiasm, of course, but at a different time. It was also during the lifetime of Václav Havel. The changes today are to make management more practical and functional. And also to ensure that it will function for a time when none of those who founded it will be here.
At the same time, the long-time director of the Library, Michael Žantovský, has retired, and the Library will now be managed by a Board of Trustees. How will it be different than before?
Michael Žantovský was close to Václav Havel; he undoubtedly shared the same values. He is also a professional who has guided the Library through the good times and the more difficult ones, strengthening its role as a major and respected institution. The Board of Trustees will have the task of developing it further, making it even more accessible and open to the public and other donors, and striving to spread awareness of the Václav Havel Library further, not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad.
Did the break-up with Michael Žantovský go well?
I am convinced that it did. Moreover, in his person, President Pavel is gaining an excellent advisor.
Dad, Mom, can you feed your family?
You are the patron of the Top Women of the Czech Republic project, which aims to highlight extraordinary female personalities. Do you feel that the perception of successful women is changing for the better over time?
I sincerely hope so. But I also see how the attention paid to women’s issues provokes a certain backlash. Be it from specific individuals or in certain political circles. But I believe that this will level out because I think women still deserve increased support. We still see disproportions in pay and social status in many countries. There is still the issue of equal opportunities, domestic violence, and many other problems. The issue of the status of women, but also relations between women and men, is multilayered.
It is also dynamic, I would say…
We see how the division of roles in relationships and families has changed over the last decades. Some traditional patterns of behavior no longer apply, or certainly not in all families. We are asking questions we might not have considered thirty or more years ago.
Conversely, some issues remain the same, like the ones that ask women how they balance family and career. Men don’t usually get them.
But the question is already there; it’s just expanded and asked differently. It used to be a question for men: Can you support a family? Today it’s a question for both partners simultaneously: How will you provide for the family and keep it running? That’s the change.
She became Miss Czechoslovakia in 1991 under her maiden name, Maláčová. She studied film and television production at FAMU. She worked in public relations and communication, and from 2000 to 2003, she was a spokesperson for ODS. She subsequently founded her own PR agency and her own beauty contest. She manages family activities and investments, but her main focus is on developing family philanthropy. She is the chairwoman of the Bakala Foundation’s board of trustees and is involved in various philanthropic projects across industries and countries.
As of September 2023, she will be a psychology student at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. She and her husband, Zdenek Bakala, have four children: Anabel, Arona, Aram, and Adele.