Teaching assistants under the Fulbright programme arrived in Malaysia to help teach English at schools but leave with unforgettable experiences.
UPROOTING and moving from something familiar and comfortable to half way around the world is not easy. But these 100 English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) from 35 states and the District of Columbia in the United States did just that.
They arrived in January this year to volunteer and spend the next 10-months fostering a strong command and a love for the English language among primary and secondary school students in Kelantan, Kedah, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak.
The ETAs who had been placed in Kelantan were in for a shock as the state was then inundated with floods.
United States Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Y. Yun said the schools were closed but this did not deter the ETAs who went ahead and established temporary classrooms in shelters.
On completion of their stint last month, Yun and his wife Melanie Billings-Yun threw them a farewell party at their official residence in Kuala Lumpur.
Speaking after the farewell, he said it was very important to bring the two countries together and having programmes such as the ETA was helpful for Malaysians to understand Americans and vice versa.
Yun congratulated the ETAs during his speech and encouraged them to sit for the foreign service exam so they could continue to make a difference in the world.
Amanda Wolkin, 23, who was placed at SMK Semerah Padi, Kuching, Sarawak, said : “When I first found out I was placed there, I freaked out! I was like, “they’re shipping me to the jungle!”
The transition, she added, was difficult at first.
“Everything was different. I had culture shock but I was immediately welcomed by my community and the kindness that I was shown by my teachers and the excitement of my students was more than enough to make this an incredible experience.”
Wolkin was one of the two students who were invited to give a speech during the farewell ceremony.
“But once I was there, it was just absolutely incredible and I cannot imagine having this experience anywhere else.”
The English Creative Writing and Urban Education major at the University of Pennsylvania said that during her time as an ETA, she worked mostly with local teachers and taught at least 300 students in 22 different classes.
The Georgia native added that they carried out many fun activities together.
“I found that my students love music and dancing. Even though they were shy at first, the second you put on Wiz Khalifa, they’re having the best time.
“So I really connected with my students through music,” she added.
Wolkin shared that her life has changed after her stint as an ETA. She hopes to continue working in education.
“I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say that I am so grateful even for the rice and for the selfies but mostly new friends, from the fellow ETAs in this room to the 12-year-olds that I left back in my second home in Sarawak.
“I’m grateful that I have had this opportunity and that I got to share it with all of you,” she said.
Placed in Sri Aman which is three hours away from Kuching, Rachel LeWitt, 24, worked with her students at SMK Melugu in fitness dances such as zumba.
The English and Psychology major from Lafayette College, Pennsylvania said : “My students were bursting with creativity. They love singing and dancing.”
She and another ETA brought their students to Batang Ai National Park.
“We carried out art-related activities that tied back to environmental issues like pollution, recycling, trash and water pollution. It was an amazing experience getting to share that with the kids and showing them that there are creative solutions to these very real problems,” she said.
LeWitt confessed that it was hard to sum up her 10-month experience in Sri Aman but said she was constantly inspired and surprised by the depth of her students. When asked what inspired her to be an ETA, she said she was teasing out her future paths and sought to expand her experiences of other cultures.
“Looking back, I was searching for a way to understand more of the world, of its people and languages and culture. I wanted to abandon anything that seemed too comfortable.
“My advice to future ETAs is to take risks as you will be rewarded,” she said.
LeWitt said she travelled extensively throughout Sarawak and explored five Asian countries. She also shared her experience of river surfing in Batang Lupar.
She described hiking alone in the Mulu Caves as “a very intense and personal experience.”
For Rose Tran, 23, being posted to Terengganu was more than just an opportunity to teach English to the students at SMK Seri Nilam.
“My parents are from Vietnam but after the war they came to Malaysia to Pulau Bidong. They lived there for one year and later moved to the United States but they’ve never been back to Malaysia.
“My brother was born in Pulau Bidong. He came at the end of May and together we went to the island so for us it was an opportunity to reconnect with our own heritage and personal family past,” said Tran who is currently pursuing her Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of Central Florida.
Tran said her favourite experience was when she and her two roommates organised an elephant camp between their schools.
“It was like a district camp. We did it at the Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village in Tasik Kenyir. For many of our students, they had never left their ‘kampung’ before even though the village is about less than an hour away from their homes.
“They’ve never touched an elephant and they’ve never seen one outside of a television,” she said.
Tran shared that she did not find it tough to adapt to Bahasa Malaysia as it was similar to Vietnamese.
“The teachers and students wanted to teach me BM while I taught them English. I was able to teach whatever I wanted to teach. I could play games with the students. I did a lot of Jeopardy kind of games because they’re very competitive.”
She said ETAs were given the flexibility to do whatever they wanted as long as they were speaking in English and having fun.
During her speech at the farewell ceremony, Tran said that although she and her fellow ETAs were different from each other and that everyone came to Malaysia with different goals in mind, they all “learnt how to wear baju, we all know how to say ‘lah’ and we all answer questions with ‘can’.
“Ultimately, we came here because we wanted to experience something new and we wanted to learn,” she said, adding that she loved to eat nasi Arab and drink teh tarik.
Sandy Krueger, 24 who was placed at SMK Beaufort III, Sabah said that her school was one of the smallest schools in the programme with 350 students.
This gave her the unique opportunity to engage with and know every student.
“ As long as you are engaging with the kids and because if you are there, they will be speaking in English.”
Krueger said her favourite dish was mee kari. She also ate a lot of delicious sotong (squid).
“I learnt how to make ketupat though I wasn’t very good at it.”
Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) executive director Dr James Coffman said the ETAs had to go through a very competitive process before arriving in Malaysia.
“We want students who can show they are good students who have done a lot of extra co-curricular activities. Some of them have already worked in rural Nepal or built houses in central America.”
Dr Coffman said the ripple effect of the ETA programme is beyond the classroom as the English Teaching Assistants carry out activities outside their schools which involve the students’ families and the community.
“I think that’s the biggest impact. I think it’s the most successful programme I’ve worked on.
“Is there a big impact on their English language test scores at the end of the year? Maybe, maybe not.
“Our interest is giving the students the chance to communicate in English because it is more important for a student to be able to speak English to an English speaker than to simply get a score on a test and not be able to speak.”
This was the fourth Fulbright ETA cohort since the inception of the programme in 2012.
Due to the success of the first three-year phase, the Fulbright ETA programme has been renewed for a further three years and has expanded its reach to Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis.
Jointly managed by MACEE and the Education Ministry, the Fulbright ETA programme aims to increase students’ interest and ability in English language through classroom lessons, co-curricular activities and special projects undertaken with the native English speakers from the United States.
The programme also fosters cultural exchange through the direct people to people interactions of the participants over the course of 10 months.