When our international teacher group started in mid-August in the heat of Washington, D.C., we were told that we wouldn’t be the same after this Fulbright program. I thought to myself: “Well, my true Finnish personality will stay strong, whatever may come.” Now I have only three weeks left of our 4-month program Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching, and I can happily admit that I have changed. Not much, but enough. I’ll return to Finland as the teacher I left, but with so many new perspectives, it’s breathtaking.
The University of Maryland has offered me a true American college experience. During the fall semester I have attended two courses: Children and the Media, and Fashion and Consumer Culture in the U.S. Both classes have experienced and interesting teachers who have taught about consumerism and the power of media and marketing, in a sense something essential about American culture. In contrast to the Finnish university classes, the students are encouraged to discuss in every class and they need to give presentations as well as do project work. The teacher is not a lecturer, but a facilitator here.
Watching, listening and talking to the other students almost half my age, and sometimes their parents, in the elevators and hallways have given me a good picture of their lives.
This fall I have spent a lot of my time with 18 other teachers from different countries from all over the world. Most of my time I have spent with my roommates Lynette from Singapore and Pallavi from India. Instead of going to my Finnish kitchen for the morning coffee, I go out of my room and having my breakfast while chatting with them. During the days I smell flavors and see foods not familiar to me except from the Asian restaurants back home. I didn’t know what Diwali was before learning about it from Pallavi. I hadn’t tasted Pho, before Lynette introduced it to me. Often Pallavi makes paratha bread in different flavors, and sometimes I see her having dinner with friends from India and everything on the plate is so different from the meals I’m used to. Even the way it is served and eaten is completely new to me.
Most importantly, I had no idea what it is like to teach in those countries and what kind of rules they have for students. Coming from a country like Finland, where we accept so many things and think quite liberally, it has been a good learning experience for me to hear about the practices elsewhere in the world. Now that it’s getting cold, it is kind of fun to see how others react to the weather, so warm still for me, but to them freezing cold. I put on jeans and a jacket, they wear layers and layers of warm clothes.
On Friday mornings all of us gather together for our Friday seminars at the university. It’s time to share experiences from the past week and tell others about our school systems and cultures. Members from every participating country have taken turns in preparing a breakfast for others, bringing their native flavors for others to sample. I have made new friends from Argentina, learnt a bit of Spanish and Latin culture; from Israel, learnt about their amazing desert and food culture; from South Africa, learnt about their different pace of life; from Mexico, learnt about dance and food; from Morocco, learnt about their religious habits. Individuals have met each other at many different levels, sharing personal and universal matters, making bonds to keep for life.
As I’m passionate about dance, in addition to taking Zumba and Bhangra classes at the university, I have attended hip-hop classes at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, D.C. and at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. Those moments of doing the thing I love so much, have given me another perspective on my stay here. I have had the opportunity to learn from such highly talented dance instructors, that those experiences will carry me on when I go back home and continue my dance there. It has also been a shared experience with all the other attendees, all of us trying our best to express the emotions in the dance, performing at our limits. One of the most memorable events was a Thriller Dance Workshop, which ended up in dancing out in the street on a late Friday evening with passers-by watching in amazement.
The main purpose of the whole stay is to create a final project, which will be used back home in our teaching or teaching-related jobs. The aim of the project is to improve the
cultural and professional exchange between the host country and our native countries. My project was to create a course of 16 lessons, U.S. Studies for 8th graders. At the moment it is almost finished, and during the time I have been writing it, the learning has greatly accelerated. Now I know about the history of hip-hop, I know about Go-Go Movement, have met and interviewed a local artist Christylez Bacon, know about the basics of writing hip-hop lyrics, Julia Childs, consumer culture, Native Americans, the American Dream, and so on. I can’t wait to get back to Finland and share my knowledge. I started a page on Edmodo to have a contact between my students, and teachers and students from the local Arundel High School where I have been visiting on Wednesdays.
There are only two and a half weeks to go for the presentation of my project – from there on it will change and be revised and at some point in the future it will be a valuable tool in my and other teachers’ work, because it is also meant to be shared with others.
I had the luck of traveling to Puerto Rico for a TESOL convention in November. Ivanna from Argentina accompanied me there, and for a while I could just keep quiet and listen: she did all the talking in Spanish. This experience was valuable in many aspects: I made new friends again, met people from countries I had never met anyone from before as it was the Caribbean Basin Conference, too, and learnt about the difficulties they have in Puerto Rico with the language – everyone speaks Spanish, but they should also know English. Furthermore, I was able to enjoy the lovely weather together with beach and sea life, and tasted again so many new flavors like mofongo and flan. I never knew about sweet plantain! Ivanna taught me to say salud!
I will be a teacher with so much more to give when I return home. Changes have taken place at so many levels, personal and professional. Some things have made me realize how well we are doing in Finland, and some things have made me think from a totally new perspective. As a person I have learnt a lot about myself, since my personality has been reflected from new people, and being with people from so many countries has helped me to understand the human nature better. All too soon it’s time to say goodbye to too many people. Shall we meet again? Shall our friendships last? After being at home for six months, what do I remember? All the encounters quickly passing by, still meaning a lot. What can I say, it has been the most rewarding experience and I recommend it to everyone.
Text and photos: Elina Sola