Foreign Language Teaching Assistants Share Impressions of U.S.

By Lauren Monsen
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - When educators from 37 countries met in Washington December 15, they were eager to discuss their experiences as teachers of their native languages at colleges across the United States.

The teachers, all recent university graduates themselves, were participants in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FLTA) program, which allows them to spend a year at a U.S. college or university helping to teach 21 languages - including Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Korean, Bahasa Indonesia (a modified form of Malay), Russian, German and Swahili - to American students.  They also serve as cultural ambassadors to students and host communities.

Several teaching assistants said their preconceptions about the United States were wildly inaccurate.  Roswitha Damian Gowela, a native of Tanzania who is teaching Swahili at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, said she initially was afraid that Americans might be unfriendly.  But she discovered that Americans are receptive to meeting people from different backgrounds, she said.

“I was homesick at first,” she admitted, “but after two weeks, I met students from Nigeria and Somalia, and we shared African dances with American students who were enthusiastic” about learning African customs.

Gowela’s students have made steady progress under a method that minimizes the use of English.  “After three months [of instruction], my students can now write essays in Swahili,” she said.

Milood S. Al-Omrani, a Libyan native who teaches Arabic at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, said the U.S. educational system offers flexibility that surprises newcomers.  In U.S. universities, “you can transfer [credits] and change majors; you can’t do this in my country,” he said.  However, undergraduate education in Libya is free, and even graduate studies “are not expensive,” compared to U.S. graduate programs, he pointed out.

Al-Omrani made his first visit to the United States under the auspices of the FLTA program, but said he did not arrive with distorted ideas gleaned from media images.  “I don’t believe media accounts,” he added.  “If you want to understand the United States, you have to see it in context.”

Americans are sometimes intrigued to learn that he is from Libya, said Al-Omrani.  “Once they know you’re from the Middle East, they think you’re an exotic creature,” he said, “but we have a lot in common.”

Noor Astutiningtyas, a native of Indonesia who assists an Indonesian professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, agreed with Al-Omrani that the flexibility of the U.S. educational system is attractive.  “In Indonesia, you have to choose your area of study very early,” she said.

Astutiningtyas indicated that she enjoys lively exchanges with students at Johns Hopkins.  “My students are definitely interested in learning about Indonesia’s language and culture,” she said, “and we also have good discussions about American culture.”

Other FLTA program participants said interaction with U.S. students has helped to dispel stereotypes on all sides.  Zahida Sharmin, of Bangladesh, who teaches Bengali at the University of Texas in Austin, said she has been surprised by Americans’ misconceptions about Bangladesh.  “They think Bangladesh is very backward and conservative and that women can’t go out,” she said.  “So my very presence [in the United States] gives people a truer idea of Bangladesh.”

“It’s very multicultural in Texas,” she said, “with many Mexican immigrants, African Americans, whites, Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and everybody appears to be friendly toward each other.”

Russia’s Boris Penkov, currently teaching Russian at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, said he is impressed by students’ drive and self-discipline.  “American students work really hard, willing to memorize 500 vocabulary words a week,” he said.

Penkov expressed gratitude for the kindness of his U.S. hosts.  “The university and local community have been so warm and supportive in helping me adapt to the American way of life,” he said.  He hopes to pass it on “by helping Fulbrighters who are coming to Russia, or by sharing this warmth with my students [in Russia] and giving them a better understanding of American culture.”

Payenda Seddiqi, an Afghan native teaching Dari/Pashto at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville , North Carolina, said many Afghans “think Americans don’t like Afghans or Muslims.  But anyone can be anything they want here.”  He explained that he arrived in North Carolina at the beginning of the Muslim holy month Ramadan and initially was worried about how he would be able to meet his religious obligations but discovered there was a mosque near the university.

“I came here to learn things I can implement back home, such as [developing] the close relationship between students and teachers” commonly found in U.S. universities, said Seddiqi.  He also hopes to establish a Web site for his school in Afghanistan similar to those of many U.S. schools.

The FLTA participants said they expect to continue teaching when they return to their countries, armed with new skills, greater confidence and an enhanced appreciation for cross-cultural outreach.

For more information about the FLTA program, including eligibility requirements for applicants, see the U.S. State Department Web site.

For more information about U.S. society, see Education and Population and Diversity.