Have you met Michael Jackson? Is America dangerous? How many times have you been to Las Vegas? These were some of the questions Montenegrins asked when I arrived as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). Perhaps my answers were surprising as they represented a different American view from what was expected. I grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest, where nature was another parent and teacher, and these early experiences significantly shaped my perspective. In my role as an ETA, I was motivated to spark new questions about my particular American lifestyle within my Montenegrin community.
While assistant teaching at the University of Montenegro, I infused my communication and Academic English courses with stories representing the diversity of the American experience. I sought to provide an alternative picture from what is often presented through mainstream media as “THE American Lifestyle” with examples from my own rural upbringing. Throughout the year, my parents sent copies of my hometown weekly paper, the Hells Canyon Journal, and I thought: “What a great resource to engage students in a meaningful exploration of a rural American community!” Providing small groups of students with their own copy of the Journal, I asked them to select stories which they would use to prepare a short news broadcast. The students were particularly taken with the cover story of the drunken songbirds that ate fermented berries outside of the town library one winter day, and the inside stories of cowboy antics certainly drew lots of questions and laughter. Students later created their own scripts and newscasts that featured real and imagined events in Montenegro.
As time passed, I was delighted to find similar roots in Montenegro to that of my own. Yet when I asked about the traditional practices I had observed, such as fermented vegetables and the handmade haystacks dotting the countryside, many students knew nothing of the details. I was desperate to understand this disappearing side of Montenegro and believed others would be too. Thus, the Zavjestanje Project was born. Ten dedicated students conducted interviews with older members of their communities to gather and preserve the traditional knowledge and history of Montenegro. Many of my students were involved in translation studies and this was a superb opportunity to apply their skills, since these oral histories were told by those who only spoke Montenegrin. To infuse a cross-cultural element to the project, I supplied oral history articles from the Hells Canyon Journal that highlighted the correlative traditional experiences of the region.
In the spring, students’ hard work was honored by the community at a release party at the American Corners office. To reach an even broader audience, The Zavjestanje Project website was created. If you’re about to become a Fulbright ETA, or thinking about applying for an ETA grant, I encourage you to explore students’ writing to engage with the similar knowledge, traditions and lifestyles in your home and host community. The United States is a large diverse country, and your perspective and experiences are unique. Draw from what is close to your heart when applying, and do not hesitate to infuse your personal American experiences during your year abroad. In my experience, the results were transformative.