KUALA LUMPUR: It was heartbreaking for many of the 100 American English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) who had to leave after the US Fulbright programme ended abruptly in March with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but plans are underway to bring them back.
The English language education programme was called off following the complete closure of schools under the movement control order imposed in Malaysia on March 18.
US Ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir said Washington and Kuala Lumpur were working to resume the programme in January.
“The new (Malaysian) government, the embassy and our colleagues in Washington have agreed that our objective is to resume the programme.
“It will be a smaller number, but if everything goes right, the ETAs will come in January 2021. We are working with Malaysia’s Higher Education Ministry on this,” she said in a video interview from her home in Westport, Connecticut.
The ETA programme, which was into its 15th year here, places American Fulbrighters in classrooms abroad to provide assistance to the local English teachers.
Close to 1,000 American ETAs have helped in Terengganu, Johor, Pahang, Perak, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak and Melaka since 2006.
Under the programme, some 200 English camps and leadership programmes are organised each year.
According to records, about 292,000 students were engaged between 2012 and 2019.
Lakhdhir, who left for the United States in February for work and has been unable to return due to travel restrictions, said the programme had proven itself in Malaysia with undeniable benefits.
“I know the new government is also concerned about education and English language education.
“We are also talking to the Higher Education and Education ministries about renewing the programme for another three years starting in 2022,” she added.
The jointly-funded ETA programme has been touted as a cornerstone of the people-to-people partnership between the United States and Malaysia.
An embassy spokesman said it was an emotional experience seeing those selected for the programme off here.
“That was when the ETAs and their students were forming bonds that make this partnership so special. We had to get them back to the US at that time because we did not want them to be a burden on Malaysia, the schools or the healthcare system,” he said.
He said as the Americans departed, many posted touching messages on Facebook and Instagram.
Ashley Blazek, who taught at SMK Long Yunus in Kelantan, broke down as she sang You Are My Sunshine, a song popularised in Louisiana in 1939, to her charges.
Another departing ETA, Miah Hardy, dedicated this message on Instagram to her students at SMK Dato Haji Mohd Taib in Chemor, Perak: “Please continue to practise your English and feel free to reach out to me on Instagram for anything. Hopefully when the virus dies down, I can show you all what my life is like in America.
“Please be safe, wash your hands with soap and wear your masks!”
Others created short music videos on social media platform TikTok with a helping hand from their Malaysian students.
Read the interview with Lakhdhir in Sunday Star Focus page 20.
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