My experience thus far as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at SMK Tan Sri Abdul Aziz secondary school in Malaysia has truly opened my eyes to the importance of cultural exchange for building and maintaining lasting relationships with other countries. I am also realizing the importance of English not merely as a language but also an avenue to opportunity. At times it is clear that my students lack motivation when speaking English, not only because they are uncomfortable speaking it but also because they are unsure of its relevance to their lives. This is where I come in! As an ETA, I like to think of myself as the “Motivator” or “Confidence Queen.” Motivating my students to utilize their newly acquired skills as a means of social empowerment made me realize that my students are powerful in ways in which they do not always recognize themselves.
One of my most rewarding moments thus far was my school’s participation in the English-speaking Debate Competition. We were the opposition going up against the government on the issue that international schools hamper nation building. My students panicked upon realizing their position was the opposition. I remember one student saying, “Teacher, who is going to believe us? We are going up against the government you know.” I chuckled at this remark while immediately dispelling his conceived notions of doubt. “We are going to win,” I said and he believed me. It was in that moment that a seed was planted. On the ride to the competition I had students silently repeat to themselves affirmations including: “I am the best,” “We will win” and “I am the best English speaking student in all of Perak.” I saw their nervous energy transform into a burning desire to win. After much doubt from others and only one day to prepare, my students surprised themselves and their competition! They blew the competitors out of water! Everyone was amazed by how eloquently they presented their arguments in English.
This was the first time in the history of SMK Tan Sri Abdul Aziz that students won the first round of debate. The win was a reminder to my students that confidence goes a long way. It also showed my students they could do whatever they put their minds to. My students walked away with a greater sense of self and a new and profound love for the use of English. Who would have thought SMK Tan Sri Abdul Aziz, from small town Lenggong could succeed? I did!
It is the small victories like these that reinforce the importance of my role in Malaysia as an ETA. Underneath my students’ layers of shyness and fear of making mistakes, I have found resilience and curiosity.
If I could offer advice to prospective Fulbright ETA applicants, I would tell them to start their application with a new and fresh perspective. My mentor and Fulbright Program Adviser Maxine Sample from Virginia State University inspired me to apply for the Fulbright, and I encourage applicants to reach out to their professors too. We worked very closely in preparing my application and making it a winning one. So go after your dreams and don’t let fear stop you!