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Infectious Enthusiasm: How My Fulbright Year Renewed My Love For Teaching

October 22, 2019
By Ángela Otero del Castillo, Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant from Spain

I’m on a plane. Destination: Bangkok. I’m moving to Thailand to teach Spanish at Chulalongkorn University, the most prestigious university in the country, as part of an international teaching program funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education. As I float above the clouds, I can’t help but think back to my time with the Fulbright Program and feel a sense of profound gratitude. The Fulbright Program, after all, is the reason why I’m on this plane. That’s because the year I spent as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) at the University of Arkansas managed to do what I thought impossible: re-kindle my passion for teaching.

 

Let’s back up a little. In 2015, I moved to Scotland, where I taught Spanish at the University of Glasgow for two years. I loved teaching, but I wasn’t in the right mindset, and each day seemed harder to finish. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. So I made a decision: I returned to Spain to find something else to do. Moving back home after two years of independence proved to be hard, but I applied for a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship. I had no expectations of getting it, but—thank the universe—I did!

 

In August 2018, I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to begin my time as an FLTA. At first, I found the educational system a bit challenging to adapt to for several reasons. To start with, teaching assistants in my home country of Spain typically take on more of an observing and learning role, teaching with the support of the lead teacher for practice. I was surprised to find that here, teaching assistants direct language instruction. Soon, though, I allowed myself to take control of my classes and had lots of fun with my students. I taught two Intermediate Spanish II groups per semester, with around 10-15 students per group.

 

My first shock was finding out I would teach at 7:30 in the morning! Classes in Spain and in other countries, such as Scotland, where I had worked before, start at 9:00 A.M. at the earliest! I soon discovered, however, that most of the students really wanted to be there – even at that early hour. My students were receptive, active, funny—everything a teacher could ask for. I’m not one to stick to dry lessons that could lead to a group full of sleeping students, so I started creating my own materials while still following the official syllabus. I loved spending hours designing posters and making up games. I loved practicing with my students, and the best part was that they seemed to love it, too.

Colorful, eye-catching graphics encourage foreign language students to engage with the material

My enthusiasm rubbed off on my supervisors, who were supportive of me: they bought me materials — printed in full color, and introduced me to new teaching resources. I wanted to do more, so I took online courses in design and Spanish teaching methodologies as a way of exploring my newfound creativity. Yes, it was a lot of work, but if you put your effort and passion into something, your students will notice and be inspired to work harder, too. In an evaluation, one of my students wrote, “The devil works hard, but Ángela works harder.” I need that saying printed on a t-shirt!

 

My Fulbright experience wasn’t perfect. Moving to the other side of the world, to a different culture with a different educational system and values, not knowing what to expect, and all on my own, wasn’t easy. My advice to future applicants is to make an effort to integrate yourself within the community. There will always be hard times when you feel insecure and homesick, but if you give this opportunity a chance, it will be worth it. And, you never know: you may also discover your passion and future vocation while on Fulbright.

Ángela visits Washington, DC with her trusty Fulbright España tote bag!

If you want to know what Fulbright can do for you, picture me in 2017: no job, no passion, and no idea of what to do with my life. Now, picture me in 2019: I love teaching and have found a new passion and a sense of self-confidence. Now, having landed in Thailand, I’m ready to continue on this newfound path where I love what I’m doing – all thanks to my time as an FLTA.

Foreign Fulbright

Museums Shaping Cultural Understanding: A Fulbrighter’s Perspective

August 26, 2019
By Angeliki Tsiotinou, Fulbright Foreign Student from Greece

In May I visited the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York City. Dr George Tselos, the museum’s Supervisory Archivist, greatly endorsed my research project throughout the course of my fieldwork at the museum

When Fulbright brought me to the University of Illinois, Chicago in November 2017, I arrived ready to investigate the museum representations of North and Southeast European immigration to the United States with a particular– but not exclusive – focus on Greek immigration. Chicago was the ideal base for such research. The city is home to hundreds of distinct ethnic and cultural neighborhoods established during waves of migration to the city from all corners of the world that began as early as the mid-1800s.

As I pursued my research, I soon found myself reflecting on other, no less important topics, relating to the contemporary identity and role of museums. Museums today play a balancing act: answering community members’ diverse needs and backgrounds while continuously adapting to our dynamic, globalized and constantly changing society.

How can museums create a communal space in which to welcome this rich mix of sometimes-divergent perspectives and experiences, I wondered? And how can the study of museums itself help us question established notions of identity and develop innovative museum practices that address our emerging interethnic, inter-racial reality, globally characterized by increasingly complex patterns of human mobility, integration, and acculturation?

While I am still trying to find answers to these questions, my experience with Fulbright helped me realize the power that cultural practitioners have to shape people’s views of the world in a positive way.  As cultural institutions, museums have a distinct role to play in forming critical reflection and debate around ongoing societal shifts and in achieving reconciliation among diverse communities.

With my academic background in material culture and cultural representation theories, my research explored how objects associated with the immigrant past have been contextualized and interpreted in U.S. museum displays, as well as how these displays help articulate our shared interpretations of the immigrant past. My fieldwork took me to a range of ethnic, cultural and immigration museums across the United States, located in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Tarpon Springs, and New York City. The visits were complemented by interviews with museum staff and members of the represented community, particularly the Greek American one.

While in Chicago, I also volunteered for a non-profit organization called Chicago Cultural Alliance, a consortium of 40 Chicago-area cultural heritage museums and centers. Through this experience, I was lucky to meet inspiring people advocating passionately for a more inclusive, culturally diverse Chicago by bringing together museums and enhancing dialogue among their communities.

In Tarpon Springs, Florida, I met with Dr. Tina Bucuvalas who curated the ‘Greek Community of Tarpon Springs’ exhibit at the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum. Tina’s long experience as a Curator of Arts & Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs proved to be a valuable resource for me.

My Fulbright experience, also my first experience in the U.S., profoundly shaped my personal and my professional development in a variety of ways.

Researching a variety of museums and their day-to-day operations helped me see the tremendous resources that each institution devotes to achieve relevance and resonance with their community members. Speaking with community members of varying origins, ages and backgrounds, I realized that despite the differing ways in which they expressed their ethnic or cultural affiliation, they all shared a yearning for maintaining or regaining a connection to the culture of their ancestors.

My Fulbright experience empowered me. It made me realize that my voice matters and that my work is impactful.

Most importantly, it made me realize that in times of change, we – cultural practitioners and public humanities scholars – are more responsible than ever before to foster public dialogue on democracy, independence, and cultural diversity. By emphasizing what brings us all together rather than what pulls us apart, we can help shape a better future for the world that we all share.

Foreign Fulbright

Let’s See the Big Picture

August 15, 2019
By Jenny Melo, Fulbright Foreign Student from Colombia

With a learning and service journey to Williamson, West Virginia, I finished my first year as a grad student studying rural sociology & sustainability. I joined a group of 11 international Fulbrighters interested in first-hand community service experience to see how this rural Appalachian community has developed and changed throughout the years.

When I applied to the Fulbright Amizade program, my knowledge of Williamson was limited to information in the news. If you do a quick search, you will find mostly unflattering stories on the opioid and coal mining crises. There are fragments of reality in that, but I knew that was an incomplete story. I am Colombian, and I know from personal experience how the media can disseminate harmful stereotypes and create distorted and incomplete representations of particular communities, and even whole countries. Understanding communities is not monochromatic; it requires a complex and nuanced perspective. My experience in Williamson confirmed that for me, and I am grateful for it.

We spent a full week together in the town, visiting and volunteering at different health, well-being, farming, and education initiatives, and learning of community organizers’ unique perspectives on Williamson. I also spent an afternoon with a mother of three, talking about how the deterioration of the coal mining industry has negatively impacted her family. These conversations expanded my understanding of what systemic community interventions look like, and reinforced my belief in going beyond stereotypes and one-dimensional views in order to develop a multidimensional approach that includes political, economic, environmental and social dynamics.

One of the initiatives that impacted me the most was the Williamson Health and Wellness Center (WHWC), a project led by Dr. Christopher D. “Dino” Beckett. This initiative uses a holistic approach to community development and is a collective response to the crises that Williamson’s citizens face, including the downturn of the coal mining industry, unemployment, and the opioid crisis. Far from a simplistic approach focusing only on access to health care, the WHWC utilizes multidimensional practices, such as access to healthy food, parks and recreational activities, safe community spaces, education, transportation, housing, and economic diversification. With these resources, everyone has an opportunity available for them. The WHWC understands that a 360-degree problem requires a 360-degree solution.

The WHWC and Williamson face several challenges created from national and international dynamics. However, the community is doing its part to thrive despite difficulties, and is reclaiming the right to tell their own story. Williamson Forward is a local news initiative fighting against stereotypes by sharing other, positive sides of community life.

This journey was a genuinely compelling experience for me, a grad student working in rural areas, who believes in the need for community resistance and collective action. I hope to come back to this Appalachian beauty someday.

FLTA Foreign Fulbright

How to Foster a Global Mindset at Your Community College through the Fulbright Program

August 8, 2019

International students pose outside DCCC.

We spoke with Suzanne LaVenture, Director of International Education and Faculty at Davidson County Community College (DCCC) about how the Fulbright Program helped transform the semi-rural North Carolina community college, cultivating a global outlook on campus. 

Davidson County Community College (DCCC), situated among green rolling hills and forests an hour away from Charlotte, NC, is a standout among community colleges across the United States for its level of international engagement. Beginning with the college’s first engagement with the Fulbright Program, DCCC has benefited from a range of grants, institutional partnerships and global connections.

“Fulbright brings the world to DCCC,” says Suzanne LaVenture, Director of International Education & Faculty. “By having international students and Fulbright scholars on our campus, it gives all our students a chance to meet people from all over the world and learn about different cultures.”

To this day, the Fulbright Program remains a central pillar of DCCC’s international engagement activity. In August, two new Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTAs) will arrive on campus, bringing the FLTA total to 14 over the past eight years. Lately, the institution sent three campus leaders abroad with the Fulbright International Administrators Seminar program, and between 2008-2010 DCCC welcomed three Fulbright Scholars in Residence, two from China and one from Macedonia.

Breaking New Ground

DCCC’s international engagement accelerated in 2010, when Suzanne’s role was created. The college now offers four to five study abroad trips each year, helping U.S. students experience new cultures and countries.

“I think many community colleges don’t know about the opportunities that the Fulbright Program offers, or think that the return on investment of putting all the time and effort of filling out the applications will not pay off for them,” Suzanne says. “However, I would encourage interested community colleges to be persistent and apply for available Fulbright opportunities.”

Furthering the reach and impact of the international exchange network, DCCC does not work in isolation, but rather engages with a range of partners to support study abroad.

“One of the primary challenges for community colleges in promoting study abroad opportunities has been getting enough students interested to make [a given program] financially viable,” Suzanne says. “That is one reason why we often work in consortia.”

As Suzanne explains, the college recognizes that DCCC students face barriers to participating in study abroad. Many students have families, jobs and other responsibilities that prevent them from going abroad, so the college does what it can to lessen the burden of costs and scheduling conflicts. Hosting visiting Fulbrighters at DCCC has brought the world to the campus, and also serves as a living advertisement for study abroad.

Fulbright: a Springboard for Other Opportunities

For the past six years, the college has worked with the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland to run a popular spring break trip to Ireland. More recently, DCCC received capacity-building grants from the State Department to develop study abroad programs in Guatemala and South Africa, first implementing a service-learning program in Guatemala targeted to nursing students in coordination with Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC).  While developing these programs, DCCC tailored these initiatives to be compatible with the Department of State’s  Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship program, to provide extra incentive for students to consider studying abroad. The Gilman Program provides scholarships to U.S. undergraduates with financial need for study abroad, including students from diverse backgrounds and students going to non-traditional study abroad destinations.

Recently, DCCC applied for the same capacity building grant to develop a study abroad program with Central Piedmont in South Africa. The program will offer service learning opportunities for nursing and allied health, and zoo and aquarium science students, and aim to recruit minority male students.

Along with Guilford Technical Community College and Forsyth Technical Community College, DCCC has also twice received a State-Department-managed 100,000 Strong in the Americas grant to develop a study abroad program in Argentina along with Universidad Nacional de Villa María. U.S. students have gone to Argentina for the past two years, and Argentinian students visited the DCCC campus in March.

To encourage more students to think internationally, DCCC launched the Scholars of Global Distinction program in fall 2013. To earn this distinction on their transcript, students must complete 15 credit hours of globalized courses, attend eight Passport events, and must have a global experience – either study abroad or a local-global experience. As of the past semester, 100 DCCC students completed all the requirements, becoming Scholars of Global Distinction.

While DCCC was the first community college in North Carolina to start Scholars of Global Distinction, now more than 20 colleges offer this program. To implement programming, the college works with World View at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which serves as a convening organization for colleges in the state interested in global learning.

Leveraging On-Campus Ingenuity

Much of DCCC’s international activity outreach and coordination has occurred through innovative, in-house support – ensuring broader awareness on the campus of DCCC’s international programming, while also reducing program costs. DCCC’s digital media instructor and his students created a video to promote the college’s study abroad programs, and a computer instructor and his students created a database for Suzanne and her team to track students in the Scholars of Global Distinction program.

DCCC’s efforts to promote study abroad by its students comes full circle in the personalized support it continues to provide its visting Fulbrighters.  FLTAs not only benefit from a warm welcome by DCCC administration – which includes a campus buddy system to ensure Fellows are able to more easily integrate into campus life, but also  benefit from DCCC’s ingenuity.  The campus provides the FLTAs accommodation at the energy efficient “Green House,” a historical house across the street from the campus renovated by DCCC very own heating and air-conditioning students. In addition, DCCC allows eligible FLTAs to use of one of the college’s fleet of vehicles to get around during their award period. Finally, Suzanne has invited each cohort of FLTAs to her house for Thanksgiving and acted as their cultural liaison throughout the duration of their time at DCCC.

Given the barriers that DCCC overcame to cultivate a global outlook on campus, Suzanne believes that if DCCC can internationalize, other institutions can too. “I always say that the moral of the DCCC story is that if we can do it, anybody can,” she says.

Enrichment Foreign Fulbright

A Tree Grows in Williamson: Seeking Sustainability in Appalachia

July 31, 2019
By Sayed Masihullah Fakhri, Fulbright Foreign Student, Afghanistan

The Fulbright-Amizade trip to Williamson, West Virginia was one of the most thought-provoking experiences I had during my stay in the United States. I have often thought about the sustainability of a single industry supporting a local economy, such as Williamson’s dependence on coal. Through this experience, I had the opportunity to see first-hand these effects in an Appalachian town.

Before coming to the United States, I used to work for the Ministry of Mines & Petroleum (MoMP) in Afghanistan, where the coal sector dominates, although it continues to lose ground to more sustainable sources of energy. At the program orientation in Charleston, South Carolina, I began to hear about Williamson’s efforts to switch to sustainable power sources. Once in Williamson, that sentiment was corroborated in many conversations with the residents, who were keen to talk about the town’s changing energy policy and industry. I believe this will help me advise MoMP’s “mining roadmap” revision, and add a well-thought out plan to address community sustainability issues related to booming bulk commodities, as is the case in Williamson.

Furthermore, I was impressed by the Williamson residents’ strong social bonds. These bonds help the community care for each other in turbulent times. Alexis Batausa, a local resident who successfully improved his health through lifestyle changes, is an amazing example. His efforts to better his life impressed the whole community, and now others join him in running and other healthy activities.  Jessie Spaulding, another Williamson resident, also impressed me with his commitment to sobriety. Talking to him, I began to understand his desire to help other residents combat their substance abuse problems and follow a better path. These individuals demonstrate that one person can make a difference!

After seeing Williamson’s dedication to community, I searched for a way to maintain a lasting connection with the town. I wanted something to remind me of the amazing moments I spent with the genuinely nice people I met, including moments of serene silence on Second Avenue, where I had a veggie omelet. Thus, I came up with the idea of planting a red maple tree in a quiet corner of Williamson’s elementary school, and someday, I hope to go back and pay a visit.

Foreign Fulbright

Discovering the Unexpected in West Virginia

July 2, 2019
By Oyundari Ganbaatar, Foreign Fulbright Student, Mongolia

Oyundari visits a PK-8 School in Williamson, WV.

When I first received the email inviting me to attend the weeklong Fulbright-Amizade service-learning program in Williamson, West Virginia, I was excited to share the great news with my family and friends. However, their reactions were indifferent. My family in Mongolia had never heard of Williamson, and my friends in the U.S. told me that there is nothing to see or do in that part of the country. But I wasn’t discouraged. Instead, I was even more curious to learn about this unfamiliar town.

On May 11, 2019, I traveled from Houston to Charleston, West Virginia, where I met with other Fulbright-Amizade participants from 11 different countries. From there, we drove to Williamson. Our hour and a half-long drive to Williamson was filled with picturesque mountains and vibrant green forest.

During our first few days in Williamson, we learned about the town by visiting different sites, engaging in service activities and meeting with community members. One week is not enough time to learn everything about the town, but it was long enough to break the negative stereotypes we had heard before the trip. It is true that Williamson struggles with many hardships, including the opioid crisis, chronic diseases, unemployment, and depopulation. But are these not global issues that almost every city and country in the world also deal with?

The Fulbright-Amizade group on top of Death Rock Mountain.

We experienced many positive moments while in Williamson. We saw a community that has identified their problems and is doing everything they can to change things for the better. Despite the struggles caused by the decline of the coal industry and several devastating floods, Williamson is a town that works hard to solve their problems together as a community. They’ve implemented programs such as the Health and Wellness Center to provide affordable health and dental care for residents, a recovery center to deal with the county’s drug problem, sustainable tourism to attract new visitors, active living programs that encourage community members to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and in-home parenting education programs to make sure no family is left behind.

This experience was eye-opening. Through Fulbright-Amizade, I now understand the importance of working together to overcome difficulties. I witnessed the hard work and perseverance of the Williamson community. I learned about concepts that I can apply to my community when I return to Mongolia. Moreover, I believe we also impacted those we met in Williamson by not only sharing and introducing our cultures and stories, but also helping them to tell their stories to us. Ultimately, the trip was about the importance of mutual understanding and mutual benefit. I hope the community will continue its optimism and hard work towards positive change and sustainable development. I would be delighted to visit Williamson again in the future to see their progress and achievements in the years to come.

Oyundari is pursuing a master’s in public policy at the University of Houston.