Q: What do you get when you put 65 well-traveled, well-educated, passionate young adults in a conference room for a week?
A: A whole lot of stories from a whole lot of type-A personalities getting ready to move a whole lot of miles around the world.
I spent a week in June in Austin, Texas at a Fulbright pre-departure orientation. The training was for those who had received Fulbright grants taking us to countries within South & Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Talk about well-traveled people – all but one of us had lived or studied abroad, many of us in multiple places. It didn’t take me long to figure out the kind of company I was surrounded by (and yes, I totally loved it). Before orientation even officially started, I was walking out of the building we were staying in search of food, and a young man stopped me. “Where are you headed?” he asked. “To find lunch,” I replied. “No, I mean what country?” he said, motioning to the Fulbright badges we were both wearing. I laughed and we quickly began our conversation with introductions of “Tajikistan” and “Sri Lanka,” later getting to things like our names and universities. This quickly became the norm for the rest of the week as the rest of us got to know one another!
First, the really exciting news: I got my teaching placement! Drum roll please… For the 2012-2013 school year in Sri Lanka, I will be teaching English literature to university students!! I will be spending my days at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, which is outside of Colombo. (The course I’ll be teaching is also known as “Academic Reading & Writing” at this particular university.) I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled. I was hoping for a university placement, and I got it! It’s going to be a whole new kind of intellectual challenge, and I can’t wait. More details on it below!
A little more about Fulbright
Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations. —Senator J. William Fulbright, 1976
In the language of the State Department, the Fulbright program is the flagship international academic exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. What that means to me – and what was helpfully explained to me during orientation by a highly respected ambassador – is that it’s a program designed to increase mutual understanding and empathy between people of different cultures. It emphasizes personal diplomacy over public diplomacy, and it’s the kind of thing where those of us selected were chosen in part because our life experiences have shaped us into young people who practice personal diplomacy in a myriad of ways. Around the world – in the markets we have shopped at, on the public transportation we have taken, at the sports games we have cheered at, in the ceremonies we have been invited to – we have come to understand how far genuine personal connections go when it comes to interacting with people from cultures other than our own.
Thus, as the ambassador and other State Department officials nicely but firmly expressed to us in Austin, we are not being sent abroad just to teach and complete research projects. We are being sent to make an impact, hopefully, but also to fully allow ourselves to be impacted; to encourage creative leadership and liberal education in cultures where those things are not always encouraged; to network and befriend everyone from the teachers we work alongside with to our students to the man or woman who will quickly become our favorite vegetable vendor in the village or town or city we are living in. We’re there to immerse ourselves deeply in our community, to go beyond the guidebook, and, yes, to do what we can to humbly show that, despite what many people around the world think, not all Americans are ignorant and close-minded.
“No one is going to tell you what you can and can’t say,” the ambassador told us. “You are there to be yourself. When you return, you will be forever a part of a global network of scholars and professionals. But for now, enjoy the adventure, because this year will be unlike any other in your life.”
An enticing job description, eh?
English-learning in Sri Lanka
Tertiary education in Sri Lanka is free, but it’s also very limited, with only 2% of students being accepted into university on the island each year. At the risk of making generalizations, I’ve been told that while these top students obviously have top-notch intelligence, English is often a weak spot for them. Considering that tertiary education in Sri Lanka is all taught in English, this can create difficulties at times.
There is a long history of English in Sri Lanka, and I will undoubtedly write more about it after I start teaching and learn more than just what books tell me. But at our orientation, my fellow Sri Lanka Fulbrighters and I got a taste of what we’re in for from Tissa, a soft-spoken Sri Lankan, retired English literature professor, and seemingly very wise older gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. (Tissa and his team are based in Colombo and will be supporting us while we’re in country – they are wonderful and I can’t wait to work with them.) “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality,’” Tissa told us. He went on to say that in many ways, English is viewed as a weapon in the hands of the privileged. (He was talking about Sri Lanka, but I’d argue this is true for many countries around the world.) The Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word “sword,” so this quite literally makes a serious statement. As a teacher, I will be helping to provide that sword, in a sense (especially seeing as I will be teaching a more elite group of students), and I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.
As I digest this, I find myself thinking about how I am going to reconcile it – and realizing that this may very well be an ethical dilemma I struggle with throughout my teaching year. But I truly believe that English is a tool, a way to connect to other worlds. I think many languages are like that – why else would one study Italian but to be able to truly immerse themself in al dente pasta and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? :) – but English does have a special status because of its global presence. English in Sri Lanka is not meant to replace Sinhala, of course, but I recognize that some fear this happening and as a result feel hostile towards English. On the other hand, I have taught and interacted with students in Sri Lanka, and so many of them share an overwhelming desire to learn English. ‘Eager’ doesn’t even begin to describe the young kids Jesse and I taught for a little while last fall, and while I will be working with a very different demographic this time around, I’m expecting similar levels of enthusiasm (though maybe with less giggling and shrieking).
So, I’m preparing myself to be confronted with this paradoxical relationship – the desire to learn English and the “crying need” for it, in Tissa’s words, juxtaposed with a sticky history of the language and current political leadership in denial of the want and need for it. But you know what? The students I’m teaching are smack in the middle of all that, so that’s where I plan on meeting them. I’m ready for that challenge.
University of Sri Jayewardenepura, where I just might be teaching my favorite books
So. I leave the States around October 7th, and I’m thinking about arranging an extended layover in the Maldives, because the State Department – who pays for our tickets – has told us that is allowed (suh-WEET!) I will spend October living in a rented house in Colombo with my fellow Fulbrighters as we undergo what I’m sure will be an intense month of language training. We’ll head off to our teaching placements around the country starting in November, I think. In December, we get to attend a holiday party at the U.S. Embassy. In January, there is a regional Fulbright conference in Nepal, which we will all be traveling to (again, suh-WEET! I’ve always wanted to go to Nepal!) In the spring and early summer, I have a handful of two-week breaks that I will spend traveling around the country and hosting visitors. Please come visit me! I am planning on renting my own apartment near Colombo – thanks to the generous monthly stipend I just found out we’re getting from the State Department, I’ll be able to afford this – and would love to show off Sri Lanka to anyone who wants to fly halfway around the world. I might ask you to bring me peanut butter and bug spray, but in return, I promise a good time on the island!
A little more about my teaching placement. I am excited to teach in a country where teachers of all kinds are highly revered. Teachers enjoy a different status level in Sri Lanka – and in many other countries – than in the United States, so that’ll be interesting to observe and be a part of. And I’m looking forward to meeting and getting to know professors at Sri Jayewardenepura (I really need to practice pronouncing that). Apparently the head of the English department there (who is Sri Lankan) was a Fulbrighter at the University of Vermont not too long ago! And I’m really looking forward to teaching more than just the basics of the English language. My students – who will be in their early 20’s – will have chosen on their own accord to study English, and I’m hoping that will enable us to take a deeper, more intellectual look at the English language through literature.
Although my official title is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I keep being told that I am not an assistant as I will be holding my own classes, giving assignments, lecturing, etc. As advised to me by a previous Fulbrighter who held this same teaching position, I think I will teach poetry and short stories in the first semester, and graduate to smaller novels in the second semester. I’ve also been told that I will be given the freedom to develop my own syllabus and choose the works that I want to teach – I’m thinking Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss alongside On the Road by Jack Kerouac, because those are two pretty unique pieces of America, wouldn’t you say? ;)
Do I have any idea what I am getting myself into? Not really. But I have a summer to get ready, and I’m pretty good at jumping right into things – especially when they have to do with reading & writing and especially when they involve embracing new challenges in foreign countries! And honestly, there’s a lot of this that can’t be planned for. The best kind of adventures are the ones where, once you get there, all your planning and pre-conceived notions go out the window. And I’ve learned enough from my travels to know that that’s where the real, organic fun begins.
So. This was a long post, but I’ll end by saying that I am so proud to have been granted a Fulbright award, to be a part of this “modest program with an immodest aim,” as Senator Fulbright once put it. And I really can’t wait to discover Sri Lanka for a third time, with fresh eyes and a new sense of purpose. While at a meditation retreat last month, I finally had the time and space to sit with the Fulbright and with what going back to Sri Lanka means to me. This is what I’ve wanted for four years – not a Fulbright award to Sri Lanka specifically, but the means to do something meaningful abroad for a long period of time after college (and yes, make a little money doing it). This time last year, I thought I’d be doing that by joining the Peace Corps. And I was ready for that, but as is the beautiful case with life, sometimes things come along that just make more sense and fit even better – and if you’re receptive to those opportunities, amazing things can happen. Being in Sri Lanka last fall convinced me that was where I wanted to be, that it was a country I already felt so connected to and wanted to keep investing in. That’s where I’m being pulled to go, and I’m ready — ready to do some fantastic adventuring on my own, to be vulnerable, to embrace ambiguity and be okay with things getting tough at times. I may know Sri Lanka fairly well, but I can’t wait to be profoundly transformed by the things I have yet to discover there. I have amazing friends and family supporting me in this adventure, and I couldn’t be more grateful. So, with that, thank you, thank you, and thank you some more. Three months until take off!