Charles M. Hornstra, 2012-2013, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Malaysia (sixth from right, in green shirt), with the SMK Indahpura Dodgeball Team posing for a picture in the rain after practice
Living on the outskirts of a jungle, adapting to different spicy foods, eating with your hands, bearing the relentless heat, and being the only foreigner in the community who does not speak the native language were all experiences that quickly became a part of my life while living in Kulaijaya, Malaysia, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMK Indahpura.
At the beginning of the year, most of the students were excited to see me, but many of them would only stare from afar and avoid interaction for fear of having to use their English. After a few weeks of embarrassing myself through games, lessons, and many awkward attempts to get a laugh, I finally was able to gain the trust of the students while forming one of the most amazing bonds that I have ever experienced in my life–one that I will never forget.
Janice Feng, 2012-2013, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Malaysia (center), with her students attending a district wide art workshop
Three weeks before the Fulbright U.S. Student Program application deadline, I walked into my Fulbright Program Adviser’s office and told her that I wanted to apply for a grant to Malaysia. Rather than turning me away, she helped me prepare my application, critiqued my essay drafts, and was an invaluable resource throughout the entire process. For every Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) applicant, one of the most daunting tasks is tailoring his or her life story to the country of application. For me, the questions were, “Why Malaysia? And why me?”
In order to take full advantage of the opportunity to live and understand a country at its roots, I wanted to pick a place as far removed from the United States as possible. Malaysia offered the unique challenge of living and teaching with three distinct races, religions, and languages. Why choose to delve into one culture when I could learn about three?
My placement in a secondary school of over two thousand students was a melting pot of the country’s demographic blend. Although I got exactly what I hoped for, I had no idea what lay ahead. The classroom not only contained the typical high school obstacles, but the students would also self-segregate themselves according to gender and race. As an ETA, I served in many roles: as a teacher and a cultural ambassador for the United States, yes, but also as a friend, mentor, and even mediator. There were days I struggled with the stress of adapting to such a different environment, but there were also countless moments that made it all worth it.
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