A Journey of Growth

Published: May 29, 2024

A collage of images showing students traveling with mentors and teaching with children

International journeys offer ample opportunities to stretch yourself—one minute you may be the expert and the next, completely clueless about how something works. Retrievers currently in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program—teaching English or researching around the globe—find themselves oscillating between their teaching and student roles on a daily or hourly basis. By engaging their host communities through openness and cultural humility (and many shared cups of tea or coffee), these Fulbrighters are finding their balance along the way.

Fulbright Milan Richardson at Taroko National Park, one of many stops while on a journey around Taiwan on a scooter with new friends.

All eyes are on Milan Richardson ’23 as she helps her co-teacher keep score in a Jeopardy-like game her students are playing. Richardson teaches English to several classes of first through sixth-grade students at Jinsha Elementary School in Kinmen County, Taiwan. As she completes the Mandarin character for the numeral 5, a wave of giggles and chatter flows through the room. 

Similar to a U.S. tally—four strokes and a strike though, the Mandarin character has 5 strokes total and needs to be written a certain way to represent 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. “The students were so confused because I wrote the character strokes in the wrong order,” says Richardson, who is used to solving complex math as a Meyerhoff Scholar having earned a bachelor’s degree in bioinformatics and computational biology and minors in computer science and modern, languages, linguistics, and intercultural communication. 

“I wanted to write the character correctly. I asked, and they showed me the proper order to write the strokes,” says Richardson, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). “They started clapping once I got it right. This was one of the many cool moments where my students were able to teach me.”

While she may be new to teaching in Taiwan, Richardson brings with her four years as an English and math tutor and a minor in Mandarin. “Taiwan was so different from any place I’ve ever been to. I was overwhelmed at first,” says Richardson. “I like it a lot, now. In my second month, I applied for a scooter license. Now I ride around the island and have taken my scooter other places on trips.”

Diplomas earned. Visas in hand. Vaccines completed. Luggage packed. Destination confirmed. Last summer, UMBC’s eight participants in the 2023 – 2024 Fulbright U.S. Student Program checked off all the important items on their to-do lists. The only thing left was to get to their placements on islands and in landlocked countries, cities, and countrysides across East Asia and Eastern Europe. It’s easier written than done. To adapt well to a new community, job, language, and culture, they must practice the art of humility and flexibility as their roles shift regularly from teacher to student.

Milan at the local lantern festival celebration in Taiwan. International travel

Leading the Fulbright charge

English Teaching Assistants and others from Kimmen and Penghu (two of Taiwan's islands) at a Thanksgiving event. Photo courtesy of Kara Gavin.

All technicalities aside, the Fulbright experience is the beginning of building an international network of teachers and researchers who share the diversity and possibility of the U.S. with the world. In return, across the globe, communities welcome the next generation of leaders into their cities, neighborhoods, schools, and homes to share their country’s history, innovations, and culture. Since Fulbright’s inception in 1946, these reciprocal acts of kindness have created multiple paths forward to lifelong worldwide collaboration and understanding based on the simple act of giving someone different than yourself a chance.

“The Fulbright Program truly demonstrates public diplomacy in action,” says Brian Souders, M.A.’19, TESOL, and Ph.D. ’09, language, literacy, and culture, the associate director of global learning at UMBC’s Center for Global Engagement. In this role, Souders, who received a 2023 Fulbright International Education Administrator award to Germany, has led hundreds of Retrievers through the Fulbright application process as UMBC’s Fulbright Program advisor. “Whether in the classroom as teachers, students, or researchers, recipients learn about the world as much as they share what it means to be from the U.S. and UMBC alumni,” says Souders. 

Thanks to Souders’ guidance, UMBC is one of 57 doctoral universities nationwide and three in Maryland to receive a Fulbright Top Producing Institution designation for 2023 – 2024, for the third time in the last five years. In the last decade, more than 80 UMBC alumni have received  Fulbright awards. Out of the 10 Retrievers who received a 2023 – 2024 Fulbright, eight are currently placed internationally, seven are ETAs and one is on a research grant.

The hard work of play

There are U.S. Fulbright student scholars in more than 100 countries worldwide. Three Retrievers were placed in Taiwan—they keep in touch regularly, see each other at ETA trainings, and are planning to travel together during their Fulbright year. But they all arrived in Taiwan separately and faced different challenges settling in. 

“I arrived in Taiwan and immediately changed my plans because the airline lost my luggage,” says Humanities Scholar Kara Gavin ’20, English. She was grateful to have a carry-on. “It was chaotic. I was taking it all in,” says Gavin. A day and a 50-minute plane ride later, she arrived in Penghu County, Taiwan, an archipelago of about 90 islands between China and the main island of Taiwan. “The little beach town is in its own little world,” says Gavin. “The smell of the sand gave me comfort.”

Gavin teaches beginner English at two local junior high schools. New to Asia and Mandarin, Gavin’s thinking cap is on 24 – 7, including learning Mandarin in between teaching classes. “Living independently for the first time is hard on its own, but doing it in a foreign country is a whole other ball game,” says Gavin. “I’m acquiring many new life skills that will last me a lifetime.” 

Kara Gavin at the Fulbright Taiwan English Language Teaching Program for first-year grantees in April 2024

One of those is sympathizing with her students and anyone learning a new language and culture. “I teach the English pronunciation and spelling of a word,” says Gavin. “Then, they like to share the Mandarin equivalent with me. It’s all about patience, balance, and trust.” She also models intercultural teamwork by developing and teaching lessons with her bilingual (Mandarin/English) Taiwanese co-teacher to foster student engagement and enrichment.

For Fulbright Scholars, it is equally important to engage with communities beyond the classroom. When they apply for the grant, the Fulbright Program asks them to develop ideas to share their passions and skills in a community project. For Gavin, this meant adding a little drama to have a lot of fun. As a performing artist, Gavin knows the theatre can be a powerful community-building outlet. “I wanted to encourage students and other community members to express themselves and share their culture with me and others,” says Gavin. 

She found a kindred spirit in a professor at a local university. They formed a drama club at the university for English language learners at all levels to explore American play formats with Taiwanese traditions and histories.“Writing original bilingual plays, in English and Mandarin, based on folktales about island traditions is creating an artistic and fun cultural exchange and understanding outside of my ETA duties,” says Gavin. 

Finding the right pace

For fellow Humanities Scholar Nailah-Benā Chambers ’23, global studies, a Fulbright award to Taiwan was a natural next step. Chambers began learning Mandarin and all things Taiwanese in sixth grade at a Taiwanese Mandarin language immersion school in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. As her Mandarin improved, she tutored other English speakers. This oscillating pattern of being a student and a teacher makes Chambers adaptable and persistent, she says. 

But it hasn’t always been easy. When she first visited Taipei, Taiwan, in the spring of 2023 on a Mandarin language-intensive study abroad program, “I was so confident. I walked into a 7-Eleven to shop. No one could understand me,” says Chambers. “It was a bit embarrassing. Even with my language and cultural skills, I had a long way to go to mastering Mandarin.”

Now on her Fulbright ETA grant, Chambers arrived on solid ground, both culturally and linguistically. “I felt such a sense of calm and familiarity. Taiwan is so welcoming,” says Chambers. “It calms you down. Things are much slower here than in the U.S.” Soon enough, Chambers was balancing classrooms at Huludun Elementary and Fu Chun Elementary in Taichung City, on the main island of Taiwan, with students at both schools on the extreme spectrum of English proficiency.

Nailah-Bena Chambers with her host family at a shrimping restaurant where you can catch, cook and eat the shrimp.

The upside of working with proficient English language learners is connecting on more advanced topics and sticking to Fulbright’s English-only immersion model. At one of her schools, the students are beginning English language learners, and the administrators only speak Mandarin. “My experience as a bilingual teacher and learner with a high level of understanding of the local language and culture has helped with classroom management and fostering powerful connections with students and administrators,” says Chambers. “It also helps to advance their grasp of the nuances of American English, especially when there are gray areas or misunderstandings.”  

Keeping your ears open

Paul Ocone in front of a display of shikishi, or illustrated boards, at a fan event in April.

Watching anime, reading manga, (Japanese graphic novels), and participating in their fandom inspired Paul Ocone ’22, individualized study, a Linehan Artist Scholar, to research these subjects and learn Japanese. “I have deeply engaged in fan social life and communities—from leading an anime club to participating in and running conventions to moderating online communities—my affinity for and interest in anime fan spaces runs deep,” says Ocone. Part of Ocone’s observations include witnessing how some fan subcultures limit their membership in fear that a broader fanbase would weaken their subculture identity. In contrast, he says, other fan subcultures are more flexible while maintaining their identity.

Interested in adding to his initial research in U.S. fan spaces, Ocone is now at the epicenter of anime and manga culture as a Fulbright Student Researcher doing anthropological research with Morikawa Kaichirō, a leading scholar in this field at Meiji University’s School of Global Japanese Studies in Tokyo, also home to the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures.

“I have had some amazing experiences participating in anime pilgrimage or anime tourism, including learning much from other fans and benefitting from their generosity,” says Ocone. “My Japanese is conversational—sometimes it’s challenging to understand specialized topics, but this has not deterred me from adding anime and manga tourism as a second research project.” In January, Ocone presented his work at the Popular Culture Tourism Stakeholders Summit in Japan.

Ocone is a sort of tourist himself, enjoying various aspects of Japanese pop culture. The daily musicality of Tokyo teaches him about enjoying the rhythm of the day. “Each train station plays a unique melody when the train departs,” says Ocone. These melodies or “hassha merodii,” are catchy and echo around in his brain like the convenience store jingles that also greet customers. “I was happily surprised when I heard a loudspeaker playing a symphony in my neighborhood,” says Ocone. “Another one played the following day and the next. I learned this was a daily sunset ritual.” He knows these sound experiences will play in his head long after returning to the U.S.

Learning new languages

This is not the first time David Bullman ’22, ancient studies, visited North Macedonia. He first went in 1995 as a performing musician and public affairs representative for the U.S. Army.

“North Macedonia was very different coming out of the Cold War,” says Bullman. “The infrastructure and general state of repair of public spaces and businesses is much better than I recall from that time.”

Now, as an ETA, Bullman teaches British civilization and American civilization in addition to three different levels of English at the University of Totovo in the Republic of North Macedonia, a landlocked country north of Greece. In Totovo, students begin learning English in elementary school and are fluent by the time they reach college. “I thought I would be teaching English basics,” says Bullman, “but it’s been great to teach a complex subject in the context of where my students live.” 

His students are equally glad to help him with the local language. Macedonian and Albanian are the country’s two official languages. Bullman began learning some key Macedonian phrases in preparation for his trip. However, Albanian is the preferred language in Tetovo. After traveling with the Army to more than 15 countries on three continents, Bullman is used to rapidly switching gears and accepting help.

He eagerly takes on the student role when it comes to learning about new foods. Bullman’s apartment faces the Hapësira Socio-Kulturore Tetovë, a community center where locals and the nearby Peace Corps Volunteers sometimes organize activities, like an ajvar-making gathering. Ajvar is a delicacy across the Balkans made every fall. It’s a tradition passed down through centuries with many recipe variations. “Ajvar is made by charring red bell peppers that are then peeled, minced, seasoned, and cooked for hours,” says Bullman. It boils down to a relish that can be preserved for months, but locals tell Bullman that’s rare because it’s too good to keep for even one week. After participating in the preparation and getting to take home a few jars,  Bullman agrees with the locals. Ajvar is now his go-to condiment on eggs, pasta, toast—anything goes.

Albanian and cooking are not the only languages Bullman tapped into while in Tetovo. As a lifelong clarinet player, Bullman hoped to create a musical exchange with local musicians. The opportunity presented itself when the dean of the Faculty of Art wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving. Bullman collaborated with the music faculty, the orchestra director, and students to create a concert of six songs. “I’m glad I returned to North Macedonia. The people are as warm and friendly as I remembered them to be,” says Bullman. “I wanted to come back and experience it myself again.”

First image: Ajvar, a red pepper relish native to North Macedonia. Second image: David Bullman at an Iftar dinner on the last night of Ramadan.

Tapping into curiosity

Sianna Serio at Bojnice Castle, a medieval castle in Slovakia.

On her way to her Fulbright placement, Sianna Serio ’23, computer science, went city hopping. “I was headed to Žilina, Slovakia, east of Austria and south of Poland,” says Serio. “I flew into Vienna, Austria, then I took a one-hour bus ride crossing Austria’s eastern border into Slovakia to get to Bratislava, the capital.“ There she met other ETAs for orientation. “A week later, I hopped on a two-hour train ride to my teaching placement in Žilina and I met my wonderful mentor, Maria Veršova, who became my second mom.”

Serio teaches at the Hotel Academy, Žilina. The academy focuses on hotel management, gastronomy, and tourism. “My students are beginning English language learners,” says Serio. “I teach what the class is interested in, like American pop culture, because they rarely meet a native English speaker.” During outings with her students, they ask about a wide range of topics. “There are many topics that I would not have thought to cover if it were not for time spent outside of the classroom,” says Serio, “Some of those conversations became formal lessons, like the lesson on the three branches of the U. S. government.”

Serio appreciates her students’ curiosity. She tapped into her love of website development and design to improve her students’ confidence in writing and speaking English and prepare for their Maturita exam, a national high school exit exam. “Some of my students are helping me design a class webpage for them where I will showcase their class and post some of their practice writing in English,” says Serio. “These posts will include topics covered in the Maturita exam, information about their school, and answers to questions about Slovakia.”

Serio’s mentor Maria Veršova, head of the English department, is her motivation. She guides her through lesson planning, class schedules, and the challenges of relocating to a new country. “When my original housing plans fell through, Maria found housing for me five minutes from her house,” says Serio. “She helped me find health insurance and open a bank account. Her husband set up my internet.” They have welcomed Serio almost daily into their home for dinner, tea, coffee, or wine. Serio is a gracious guest and lent her graphic design expertise to help Veršova design invitation cards for her 50th birthday party. Veršova tells Serio she will always have a place to stay in Žilina.

Fulbright: The next generation

Teaching has defined the last decade for Tiffany Powell, a master’s student in UMBC’s TESOL program, a passion she invested in as an English language learner teacher in Seoul and in Miryang City, South Korea, for five years, and in Florida this past year. Now, she is in Iași, Romania, southwest of Ukraine, at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University teaching American studies. Powell is committed to bridging culture, community, and belonging by bringing technology into the classroom. 

Powell also decided to bring the research and cultural understanding closer to home by partnering with Romanian teachers to develop a five-part series on African American women’s history. “We talked about Black women in science in the context of the movie Hidden Figures and discussed Hollywood’s portrayal of Black life,” says Powell. The class is now creating a series on Romanian women. Helping students better understand the similarities and differences between U.S. and Romanian cultures has been an eye-opening experience for Powell.

Tiffany Powell with her American studies class

She sees the impact of a country formerly under communism. In Iași, sometimes the internet doesn’t work and, in her school, there are no clubs or student organizations to gain the skills needed to earn a Fulbright award. “My students have given me a new perspective. You may want to come in and make changes, but you must understand where they’re coming from. There is a saying in Iași, ‘It’s not impossible. It’s just difficult,’” says Powell. She is trying to help with the difficult part by leading Fulbright application and leadership workshops. 

Powell, like the other Fulbrighters, will bring her experiences home with her and wherever she ends up teaching English next. When their Fulbright year ends, these Retriever ambassadors will find themselves as emissaries yet again, returning to their hometowns, sharing the good news of ajvar made in community, the freedom of a scooter ride along a Taiwanese beach, or the correct stroke order for writing the Mandarin number five. The lessons their students and host families passed along—including pausing to take a breath and appreciate their international successes small and large—will continue to form and shape the way they see the world.

“Having a flexible mindset and under-standing the historical context of your placement is key,” says Powell. “I carry myself as a U.S. representative. Living abroad teaches humility, adaptability, and open-mindedness to press on through challenging times.”

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