Fulbright ETAs leave lasting impression

Dec 17, 2018
Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir (third from left) visiting an exhibition booth at the 2018 Fulbright ETA Showcase. Pic by NSTP/Rohanis Shukri

Being a fluent English speaker involves speaking with speed and clarity. There is no better way to improve English communication skills than by engaging in a conversation with native speakers. At the same time, English learners are exposed to the values, customs and cultural nuances of the native speakers.

This is the premise of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme where college graduates and young professionals from the United States are sent abroad for year-long assignments as teaching assistants in classrooms around the world, including Germany, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.

The programme was first established in Malaysia in 2005 as a state-level programme between the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) and the Terengganu government with only 12 ETAs. The programme was expanded by the US Embassy and the Education Ministry in 2012.

This year, 100 ETAs were deployed to 100 schools in Terengganu, Kelantan, Perak, Kedah, Pahang, Perlis, Melaka, Sabah and Sarawak to boost English proficiency and communication skills among students in rural areas.

ETA Nathan Mathai, 23, from Texas, was stationed at SMK Putra in Jerteh, Terengganu.

New to teaching, Mathai said it is a challenging profession, especially when the students are from the rural side of town.

“Teachers make a lot of decisions. We are constantly thinking about what’s happening in the classroom, what activities are going to be next and the extra-curricular aspect of the school.

“It was challenging to come up with activities suitable for all students. Lessons should also cater to students’ proficiency level.

“Warming up to the students, I was trying hard to get them not to be afraid of me because they see me as someone who’s coming to test their English. It took them some time to see me as a friend.

“I am a 23 year-old from US trying to figure out what’s cool for teenagers in a foreign country. I had to find ways where they could naturally be comfortable with English and that was probably with music, so my lessons revolved around that.”

The language barrier did not stop Mathai from being committed to his role as a teacher or a mentor to his students.

“We started from nothing. They didn’t speak English at all, even in English class. In Jerteh, they speak the Kelantanese dialect.

“However, when I see my students improving, it makes everything worth it. I am probably going to tear up as I say this now,” he said.

“One of my students decided to participate in a public speaking camp organised by the ETA programme. I am so proud of her.”

Mathai, who graduated with an accounting degree from the Furman University in South Carolina, plans to pursue his master’s degree in the same field once he returns to US.

To some, teaching is one of the most rewarding professions. Despite the everyday challenges, many find great satisfaction in what they do.

This is what ETA Vanessa Avalone, 23, experienced during her 10 months of teaching in SMK Mudzaffar Shah, Perak.

“I love the fact that I am able to share my knowledge. It is a very fulfilling thing to do.

“At the end of the programme, I saw students coming up to me speaking complete English sentences and raising their hands in class. At first, they were too shy to do all. I am proud of them.”

Apart from teaching, all ETAs go through cultural exchange through direct interaction not only in classrooms, but at home and in routine tasks.

“I love community-based programmes. That is something you don’t get to experience when travelling. Here in Malaysia, I have been invited to iftar, visited temples and tasted all kinds of food.

“Being an ETA, I have grown tremendously as a person. It has also improved my confidence as a teacher, and I learnt a lot about religion and culture living in this diverse and multicultural society.”

Avalone, who graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Biology and French, plans to pursue medicine to be a doctor.

After 10 months of teaching and community engagement, the Fulbright ETA programme, involving nine states and 100 secondary schools, came to an end.

At the closing ceremony, students held an exhibition on the activities they have done. Present at the 2018 Fulbright ETA Showcase were US Ambassador Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir, MACEE executive director Suseela Malakolunthu and Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching.

Lakhdir said: “This year, we have more national and international camps and activities. I think that this year’s ETAs worked very hard to develop more activities and programmes for the students.

“I hope that the students learn from the ETAs that English is not just an exam subject, it is a way to think about travel, education and employment.”

By MURNIATI ABU KARIM https://www.nst.com.my/education/2018/11/435272/fulbright-etas-leave-lasting-impression

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