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Learning to laugh instead of cry

March 22, 2016

ASU grad and Fulbright winner finds confidence while teaching English in South Korea

Living abroad can be fraught with awkward situations, but the experience also nurtures the confidence it takes to laugh instead of cry when you have to eat a octopus.

For Jenna Smith, the challenge of her Fulbright year in South Korea has revealed an inner strength and perseverance she didn’t know she had.

“I have done so many things this year that I look back on and think, ‘I can’t believe I did that and survived,’ “ said Smith, who is an English Teaching Assistant at a middle school in Gwangju this year.

Grappling with the language, a heavy workload of teaching and even chopsticks has been tough.

“You surprise yourself. I have found that my mind gives up way before my body is willing to cave,” she said.

Smith, who is from Scottsdale, earned a bachelor’s degree from ASUfrom the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2015, double majoring in classics and philosophy, with a minor in symbolic systems. She’ll attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the fall.

She answered a few questions about her Fulbright year:

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

Answer: I teach 24 English-as-a-second-language classes every week at Jangdeok Middle School in Gwangju. I live with my co-teacher and her family, so we have become really close. I also teach smaller after-school classes for teachers and some students who want to improve their English.

Jenna Smith

Jenna Smith, left, in South Korea.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: I wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast with my host dad, then head to school with my host mom around 8 a.m. The walk to my office from the parking lot in the morning is the highlight of my day. It’s a blur of “Hello Teacher!” shouts, bows, waves and the occasional hug tackle.

Class starts at 9 a.m. and I typically teach three 45-minute classes before lunch. Lunch is always a traditional Korean meal: rice, soup, kimchi. All the teachers sit together in the middle of the gender-segregated cafeteria so that we can monitor the students.

After lunch I teach two classes and then I walk home, which really helps me to decompress before I exercise at the gym in our building, plan lessons or finish writing my articles for the Fulbright Korea Alumni Newsletter. I eat dinner with my host family every evening before retiring to watch American TV in my room on my computer. It helps me combat homesickness. And sometimes there is a late-night knock on my door from my host dad, beckoning me to eat fried chicken with him on the floor of the living room.

Q: What do you do on the weekends?

A: I typically travel on the weekends to Seoul to hang out, explore, eat and relax with my English teaching assistant friends. We also enjoy hiking and traveling to other Korean cities such as Gyeongju, Busan, Sokcho and Sejong.

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

A: My students are definitely the highlight of my grant year. They challenge me every day to be more creative and excited. They never cease to bring a smile to my face as they navigate expressing themselves in English. Their willingness to try to use a foreign language makes it easier for me to laugh at myself and to not take myself super seriously as I simultaneously navigate living in a foreign country.

Q: Have there been any challenges?

A: In the beginning of my grant year, I was a fish out of water. The first time I heard Korean and ate Korean food was on the plane ride to my new home. I had never used chopsticks before, let alone taught an English class to 35 students or lived in a country where I couldn’t speak any of the language.

I think teaching poses its own set of challenges, but teaching English in a foreign country comes with its own unique difficulties. At first, it was hard to express myself at school given the language barrier and cultural differences, and even harder to eat lunch. But it gets a lot easier with time and patience. I would be nothing without the support and generosity of my host family, my students, my co-teachers, and the Fulbright Korea ETA network.

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: Two things:

Since I don’t speak Korean very well, I assumed that what my host mom called my host dad at home was his name, so I also starting using this name when I wanted to reference him or get his attention. Each time it was met with a strange and awkward look, which I chalked up to my poor pronunciation — until I realized after asking my students that I was calling him “sweetie” or “honey” in Korean. Oops.

At the beginning of the new school year, all the staff and faculty at my school went out to celebrate with special Korean soup. I had a seat at the table right in front of the pot where our soup was cooking. This also meant that I had a front-row seat as three live octopi were lowered into our soup pot one by one and cooked to death as their tentacles squirmed inside and out of the pot, begging for mercy. In Korea eating live octopus is a delicacy. I courageously tried a small piece in an effort to step out of my comfort zone. I ended up screaming and panicking when the suckers on one of these octopus's tentacles latched onto the inside of my cheek and wouldn’t release as I tried to swallow.

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

A: Take one day at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself. When navigating unchartered territory you are bound to make mistakes, so laugh at yourself, learn from the experience and move on. Don’t dwell. When things aren’t going as planned and you want to give up, be brave. 

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

A: Fulbright is a once-in-a lifetime experience, but you should understand what you are applying for and the nature of living and working in a foreign country. With that said be brave, take courage and apply. I have learned invaluable lessons about myself and what I am capable of doing this year. My perspective on the world, my American identity, and what it means to be human in this day and age have changed profoundly for the better. If it weren’t for this experience, I think I would be a much different person embarking on adulthood in America.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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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 News