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ASU grad receives Fulbright Intercountry Lecturing Award

September 29, 2008

Wayne E. Wright, a doctoral graduate of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, has received the Fulbright Intercountry Lecturing Award in educational leadership and administration to support the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Master in Education program in 2009.

Wright, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has worked with Cambodian refugees in the United States since 1986, and he is proficient in the Khmer language. At UTSA, Wright was granted early tenure and promoted at the end of his fourth year. This summer, he mentored his first doctoral student through to graduation. His student’s dissertation compared literacy practices in U.S. and Chinese heritage schools.

“Wayne Wright has been on a very fast trajectory,” said Professor Terrence Wiley, director of the Division of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies in the Fulton College. “Among all the students I have worked with, he has been the most productive and prolific and has done consistently excellent work on top of it. His bilingual skills have done him well.” 

The Royal University of Phnom Penh is still recovering from the devastation of civil war and genocide during which schools were decimated and teachers were systematically executed. There were few educated people left to rebuild the country’s school systems. As a Fulbright lecturer, Wright will teach two classes and support the university’s graduate education program, which is only two years old but a milestone in the rebuilding effort. The program addresses the critical need for training education professionals in Cambodian government and nonprofit organizations.

“Up to this point you couldn’t get a master’s degree in Cambodia, so anyone who had an advanced degree in education got it somewhere outside of Cambodia,” Wright explained. However, the graduate level courses are taught in English, even though the students aren’t proficient in the language.

“Some students are struggling, so they are looking at ways to improve the instruction program for them to learn enough English to learn through English,” he said. “I’m hoping to show them that they don’t have to do it all in English. There are ways to teach and learn in their native language.”

From Volunteer to Scholar

Wright was 19 years old when he began volunteering to help Cambodian refugees in California. He said he was touched by the remarkable stories of the survivors of civil war and genocide during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

“Everyone had lost at least one direct family member and I was just amazed by their resilience and their ability to come back and rebuild their lives in the United States,” he said. “They were just so grateful to anyone who made an attempt to learn about their language and history and culture. I wanted to be more involved and to go back and do whatever I could to help their country.

Wright lived and worked in Cambodia from 1993 to 1994 as a volunteer with the Cambodian American National Development Organization (CANDO), a USAID-funded project modeled after the Peace Corps. There he met his wife, Phal, who with their three children will accompany him to her home country.“My experience in Cambodia really launched me into my teaching career,” Wright said. “It solidified my interest in issues of language education and culture. I wanted a better understanding of how our schools can do a better job of understanding and working with the needs of language learning students.”

He returned to California from Cambodia to earn his master’s degree and became a bilingual elementary school teacher. His frustration with policies that made it difficult for him to meet the needs of his students ultimately led him to pursue his PhD at Arizona State University.

Wiley first met Wright as a graduate student in Long Beach, Calif., and the professor was impressed by his student’s compassion for the Cambodian people and by his award-winning thesis on the background and history of Cambodian/English bilingual education.

“Wayne was known throughout the Cambodian community there as a friend and supporter who would help them in the schools. He was a teacher, and he implemented the first Khmer bilingual education program in Long Beach. He is a very rare person in that he is so involved in both scholarship and the community.” 

At ASU, Wright also received the Outstanding Dissertation award from the National Association for Bilingual Education for his study on how teachers and program coordinators were involved in the implementation of policy change. He also helped organize and served as the advisor to the university’s Cambodian student organization. 

“He really is too good to be true, but it is true,” Wiley said. 

Wright’s research has been published in leading academic journals including Education Policy, Language Policy, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, the Bilingual Research Journal, the Heritage Languages Journal and the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, as well professional journals including Educational Leadership. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement and is the book review editor for the International Multilingual Research Journal. He also serves as co-director of the Language Policy Research Unit of the Southwest Center for Educational Equity and Language Diversity and as vice president for publications of the National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans.