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Always have a backup plan

March 22, 2016

ASU grad and Fulbright winner has to be ready for anything when English in Senegal

Nearly every Fulbright grant winner who spends time abroad faces challenges with a new language.

Those who work in developing countries face other issues as well.

Michelle Kunkel is teaching English in Senegal this year after receiving a Fulbright award. She earned a master’s degreefrom the Department of English in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from Arizona State University in TESOL — teaching English to speakers of other languages. Her undergraduate degree, from Webster University, is in international relations.

“The Fulbright grant seemed like the perfect fit for someone with my background because it combined all of my interests — teaching, language learning, cultural exchange and cultural immersion — and that’s why I decided to apply,” said Kunkel, who is originally from St. Louis.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been dealing with electricity cuts. I try to incorporate technology into my classes, but it can easily be derailed if the electricity suddenly stops or if the Internet decides not to function properly that day,” she said.

“I’ve learned to over-prepare for everything and to always have a backup plan so that I can carry on with my lessons in case there is a power outage.

“Luckily, my students are quite used to it, and they seem to be pretty forgiving when these kinds of interruptions occur.”

Kunkel answered some questions about her Fulbright experience as an English teaching assistant.

Question: Can you give an overview of what you’re doing in Senegal?

Answer: I’m posted at the national teacher training college of Senegal in the capital, Dakar. My job is to teach courses in general English development and English-language pedagogy for pre- and in-service English teachers.

In addition to my regular classes, I mentor students in the English Club at the university, conduct workshops and presentations on English Language Teaching for the national association of English teachers, and assist with many English language programs provided by the U.S. Embassy in Dakar.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: Some days, I teach classes and prepare my lessons for the next week, while others I might have meetings with my students to talk about assignments or to plan the next event for the English Club on campus. Wednesdays are “early release” days for students and teachers, so I often work at the Embassy hosting professional-development webinars, leading conversation groups or running film screenings.

Q: What do you do on the weekends?

A: Sometimes I work at English Club events, teach special classes or give presentations to different groups of English teachers.

When I’m not working, I usually meet up with my friends, go to the beach or the fabric market, or go to other cultural events around town.

The music scene in Dakar is really great, so there are usually a lot of opportunities to enjoy live music. Even though I’ve already been here for five months, I still feel like there are more places to discover around town.

Q: What’s been the best part of your experience?

A: The best part has to be all of the amazing people that I’ve met. This includes all of the other Fulbrighters here, my contacts at the embassy, the English language teaching community, my host family and my students. Everyone has been so welcoming, and they have really gone out of their way to make sure that I’m having the best experience possible. I’m so lucky to have such a great network of people here who have really become more like family to me.

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: Most funny situations that I’ve been in have been a result of language or communication errors. Just a few days ago, I unintentionally insulted my host mom when she asked me if I had ever heard her complain (“As-tu entendu me plaindre?”). I thought she asked me if I had heard about her plans (“As-tu entendue mes plans?”), which I had. So I said, “Yes, of course. A lot!” She looked completely shocked, while everyone else in my family found it hilarious. Needless to say, I learned my lesson well--always listen closely because one vowel sound can make a difference!

Q: What will you bring back from your experience that will help you in your career – or your life?

A: I’ve learned so many things from this experience, not just about teaching, but about myself and about people in general. Having the chance to observe classrooms here has shown me that a lot of learning can happen, even in a resource-poor environment. I’ve also learned a lot about humility and collectivity, as Senegalese people are amongst the nicest and most inviting people that I’ve ever met. So many people have shared what little they have with me just to make me feel welcome and included, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to repay the overwhelming gratitude that I took from those situations.

Q: What would you tell someone who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: Take the risk! Yes, the application process is intense and, at times, overwhelming, but you have so much to gain, even if you aren’t selected.

If there’s a country that you’re really passionate about applying for, then do your research and take the time to really reflect on what you’ll write in your essays.

Also, you have really great resources on campus, from the Fulbright adviser to other alumni to the campus interview committee, who are all there to help you succeed.

Top photo: Michelle Kunkel, with microphone, teaching a writing seminar in Senegal.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Fulbright Day to help launch ASU students, faculty abroad

ASU faculty, student Fulbright winners tell of joy, challenges of life abroad.
Interested in studying or working abroad? Find out how at ASU Fulbright Day.
March 22, 2016

Current winners describe joys, challenges of living overseas

People in the Arizona State University community who won Fulbright awards this year are living abroad and studying subjects ranging from virus engineering and flamenco guitar to a World War II resistance heroine.

One ASU Fulbright grantee lived through the earthquake in Nepal and watched her community cope with the chaotic aftermath.

Another volunteers helping mothers and children in India.

Several Sun Devils get up every day in countries where they don’t speak the language and face classrooms full of children who are eager to learn English and hear about America.

They’ve unintentionally insulted their hosts with their primitive language skills, taught in schools when the power went out, evaded wild animals and eaten live octopus.

The experience is daunting and challenging and rewarding beyond measure.

Allison Weidemann, an ASU graduate who is teaching English in Turkey, said: “My first time at the grocery store, I remember thinking, ‘Here I am, a Fulbright scholar at the height of achievement, and I’m making my shampoo selection based purely on the color of the bottle since I can’t make anything else out!’ "

Despite the language struggles, Weidemann has found warmth and hospitality.

“I have joined in the lively traditional dancing at an engagement celebration, and stood solemnly at a graveside as flowers were arranged in memory of a beloved sister,” she said. “I’ve watched my host community react to the refugee crisis with concern and respond to the bombings in their capital with courage.”

And now is the time for ASU faculty members and juniors to decide whether they want to pursue the challenge of living and working in another country.

The Fulbright is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program, which pays for winners to work, study and teach abroad. ASU has 10 faculty members, called Fulbright scholars, and 22 students who won the grants this year. (Read about some of their experiences here.)

ASU is holding Fulbright Day on Wednesday, March 23, so current faculty and students can find out how to apply for the prestigious program. The event, to be held at the Memorial Union, will include faculty and students who won the awards in the past, plus representatives from Fulbright.

“We want to introduce students to the program to get them excited about it, particularly on the heels of our success,” said Kyle Mox, who’s the director of the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement at ASU.

ASU was the top producer of Fulbright scholars among research institutions for 2015-2016 and was in fifth place for student awards.

The application process is rigorous, but ASU provides a lot of support, said Mox, who also is associate dean at Barrett, the Honors College.

“We get students started and work with them throughout,” he said. “We prep them on coming up with a proposal and drafting their proposal.

“It would not be strange for me to read five to eight drafts of one essay for an applicant as the student revises over three months.”

After that, a faculty committee screens the student candidates, who number up to 75 each year. The students get feedback on their proposals and interviews, as well as coaching on writing if needed.

The process takes months and can be grueling.

“We recognize the intrinsic value of the process in that it’s a transferable skill to a lot of other things,” Mox said.

There are two main types of student awards — academic research and English Teaching Assistant. Applicants for academic grants propose a yearlong research project or area of directed study.

Jaxon Williams in Seville, Spain.

Jaxon Williams in Seville, Spain, where he is studying classical and flamenco guitar after winning a Fulbright award.

Jaxon Williams won a Fulbright award to study classical and flamenco guitar in Seville, Spain, this year after earning his undergraduate degree at ASU in music and guitar performance.

“I've always felt that to reach the next level as a musician, I need to live abroad and connect with the classical guitar's roots, which are in Spain,” said Williams, who has been playing concerts and studying with guitar masters. 

“Much of this music is passed on orally and in person, so it's very hard to learn these things outside of Spain.”

For Matt Ykema, one of the biggest advantages of the Fulbright is that he has no required classes, so he can immerse himself in researching viruses at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam.

“I spend about eight to 10 hours in my lab, doing experiments, making viruses, reading papers and writing publications,” said Ykema, who earned bachelor of science degrees in molecular biology and economics at ASU.

Students who apply to be English Teaching Assistants write a proposal describing how they would engage students, Mox said. Those applicants don’t need to aspire to teach English as a career, but should show how a year instructing people in other countries will benefit their goals.

“It’s like a job application in many ways,” Mox said. “The judges are looking for leadership, responsibility and self-reliance.”

ASU grad Claire Cambron plans to go to medical school, but she wanted to live abroad first. She earned her undergraduate degree last year in biochemistry and genetics.

“I felt that by traveling, I could learn more about a different culture, which would help me be a more open-minded and receptive doctor and person,” said Cambron, who is teaching English at an elementary school in South Korea. “I also was looking for an opportunity that would push me out of my comfort zone and challenge me.”

Fulbright scholars are faculty members who win awards to study and teach abroad. They, too, get help in the process, according to Karen Engler, the ASU provost liaison for the Fulbright program.

“We connect faculty to Fulbright representatives for individual consultations and mentoring on their applications,” she said. “If the faculty member has an idea of what country they’re interested in, the Fulbright office can provide individual support for the applicants.”

Maureen Goggin is a professor of English at ASU who is spending this academic year at Karl Franzens University of Graz in Austria. She studies needlework as a form of communications and is an expert on samplers, pieces of embroidered cloth that were typically created by women.

Among her Fulbright projects is research on one piece of needlework — a sampler created in 1942 by a woman who was imprisoned in Terezin Small Fortress, part of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The woman, accused of aiding in the assassination of a Nazi leader, was executed in 1943.

“It offers an interesting insight into Prague resistance during World War II,” she said. “It is a piece that has been ignored.”

Goggin said that faculty members who want to apply for a Fulbright should investigate the country, university and department they want to study in.

“Make sure you have something to offer in teaching that will complement but not compete with what is already available in the department,” she said.

“Research, research, research is the key.”

Fulbright Day will be held at Pima Auditorium 230 in the Memorial Union on Wednesday, March 23. An information session on faculty applications will run from 1 to 2:15 p.m. Faculty members can then meet one-on-one with Fulbright representatives from 2:30 to 4 p.m. A student information session will run from 2:30 to 4 p.m. A networking reception with faculty and students who have won Fulbrights will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Ventana Ballroom 241-C.

  • Read about ASU faculty and students' Fulbright experiences here.

Top photo: ASU graduate Allison Weidemann in Turkey, where she is teaching English after winning a Fulbright award. 

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now