Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir (centre, with blue scarf) sharing a light moment with some of the ETAs.

EXPERIENCING a different culture through educational and cultural exchange will allow you to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and those around you.

It will also deepen knowledge of foreign cultures and strengthen international relations.

This is the journey ahead for 100 American college graduates who are here in Malaysia for a 10-month lifetime experience under the Fulbright English Language Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme.

They will get the opportunity to work as assistants to English teachers in secondary schools in selected districts in Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis, Pahang, Sabah, Sarawak and a newly added state, Malacca.

For them, leaving the familiar behind and plunging into the unknown show their commitment to understanding other people and cultures, and learn about the world in a way that books, school assignments and a professional career cannot provide.

Most of them are so eager to develop leadership skills, self-confidence and a greater understanding of the complexities of other cultures around them.


From left: Emily Zapinski, Nathan Mathai, Pashoua Vang and Dustin Vessey.

Dustin Vessey, from Phoenix, Arizona, said participating in the programme would be a wonderful opportunity to explore the Malaysian student life, learn more about the diverse cultures of the people, make new friends and study the environment around him.

“I am excited to be here. I hope that every day is a new adventure while I am here. I want to be a part of the people here ­— getting to know not only the locals but the education methods and everything in between with food included,” said the 22-year-old chap.

Vessey graduated in political science from Yale University. He said he equipped himself with learning the Chinese language for this programme.

“I know that in Malaysia, there are three main races, and to be able to speak in Chinese will help me communicate with the locals.

“As for the lesson plans, it will have to depend on the school as I will work with their English Language teachers,” said Vessey, who is attached to a secondary school in Jerantut, Pahang.

Nathan Mathai, 23, from Dallas, Texas, said he applied for the programme after he heard a lot of good things from his friends who joined the ETA progamme two years ago.

“This is the best thing ever for me to be able to teach abroad and educate students in a fun way. I used to get involved in TED Talks and I know the importance of speaking comfortably in English in front of other people. Thus, I want to bring that element into the lesson plan,” said Mathai, who loves diving.

He said he would like to explore the food and maybe do a little bit of cooking besides diving during his stint in Terengganu.

“As a teacher, I will be able to meet the locals on intimate levels. I can ask them about interesting places to eat, visit or spend a leisurely afternoon together. Maybe parents will invite me to their homes for dinner or a local party,” he hoped.

Pashoua Vang, 26, from Minnesota, who graduated in Global Studies and Asian Languages and Literature, hopes to broaden her perspective when teaching abroad.

“Making a life for yourself in a situation like this will force you to take the reigns constantly. Not to mention, you will be responsible for a roomful of students. We, as teachers, must learn to relate to students in a new way. Teaching in a new culture will stimulate new ideas for me.”

Vang said being in Kuala Perlis will be a little scary, but exciting at the same time, because students are mainly shy about speaking in English, which she hopes to change by the end of the programme.

“I want to build their confidence and, hopefully, they will teach me how to speak in Malay along the way. It is like a win-win situation for us,” she said.

Since she enjoys art and craft, she would incorporate the elements into her teaching methods.

Emily Zapinski, 23, from Dallas, Texas, said English is important as an international language and being able to speak it would improve people’s lives and opportunities.

The Business Management graduate from University of Alabama said learning a new language will only be possible through practice and exposure.

“A main component of teaching English abroad will be having conversations with people and helping them have conversations with each other.

“As for me, being out of my country can be just as rewarding as I get to be involved in a community development project as well.

“It’s a great way to share your skills and discover talents and passions you never even knew you had,” said Zapinski, who is teaching in Alor Star, Kedah.

Present at the event were United States ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir and the Embassy of the United States of America Counselor for the Public Affairs Bradley A. Hurst.


Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir (centre) hosted a reception for 100 American Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Kuala Lumpur. PIC BY AIZUDDIN SAAD

The Malaysian ETA programme has been around for 11 years, with around 10 to100 graduates taking part each year. They are selected through a rigorous annual competition among America’s brightest young university graduates.

ETAs are assigned to schools for 10 months, where they work under the supervision of qualified Malaysian teachers to enrich the schools’ English language instruction.

They also organise school clubs, sports teams, English camps and other extra-curricular activities, all geared toward helping students develop greater interest and ability in using spoken English to express themselves.

Living in Malaysian communities and having close daily interaction with students, teachers and residents provide the young Americans with an in-depth cultural experience, which can be both enriching and unforgettable.

In addition, Malaysian students can benefit from interacting with native English speakers and learn first-hand about Americans and their culture.

The programme has been successful that both governments recently extended the programme for another three years.

Each ETA will have direct and sustained contact with hundreds of students.

In addition to contributing their skills and enthusiasm for teaching, the ETAs will bring additional technical support to the schools in the form of English Language Fellows, sent from the US to train teachers and advise on curriculum, as well as the latest English learning materials provided free of charge by the Department of State.

The ETA programme is administered jointly by the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (Macee) and the Education Ministry.

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