The District of Besut, the State of Terengganu … are you struggling to find those places on a map? I did too.
In 2001, my interest in education led to me to pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Malaysia. Little did I know that for the next ten months I would be working in one of the most ethnically, religiously, linguistically and culturally diverse nations on the planet.
I applied to be an ETA because I had truly enjoyed teaching English in Peru a few years ago. From that experience, I became very interested in education as a component of economic development and wanted to explore this subject further. Although serving as an assistant English teacher in Malaysia was initially challenging because of the cultural differences I encountered such as how men and women are regarded, religion and food, I adapted and grew to love Terengganu because of these differences.
In the classroom, I learned that as an ETA working with students from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, it’s important to respect their cultures and to recognize that you have a unique opportunity to share your views about the United States. There were instances when students and teachers asked difficult questions. When navigating these kinds of circumstances, the best advice I can give to prospective ETAs is to be open and honest. Doing so will strengthen your relationships and your colleagues and friends will appreciate your candor. While your students may initially be shy and hesitant to approach you, don’t reciprocate with shyness. Sometimes being silly, creative and energetic can help. The more open and relaxed you are, the more your students will gravitate to you and seek you out for academic and social reasons.
In addition to spending time in the classroom, I tutored; participated in school clubs and competitions; organized English camps; and planned community service trips. These events were extremely beneficial because they allowed me to interact with my students, and others, outside of the classroom.
My advice to those applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship:
- Be yourself when you write your Fulbright essays and during your grant.
- When writing your Fulbright essays, make sure that you demonstrate your flexibility and passion for assisting local English teachers.
- You never know what might happen during your grant, but you want to reassure reviewers that you’ll be able to adapt.
- Get outside of your comfort zone and try new things while in your host country because that’s where you’ll receive the highest reward.
- Mingle with your local community outside of your professional circles.
Photo: Kelley Whitson, 2011-2012, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Malaysia, learning how to fly a traditional Malaysian kite