Fourteen NIU College of Education students will travel to Kenya and Tanzania in 2022 for a personal immersion to understand the challenges of not only learning another language but learning in it.
Pending COVID restrictions at the time, the new Educate Global experience in East Africa will transport seven undergraduate teacher-licensure candidates and seven graduate students who are already professional, practicing teachers.
Next summer’s journey will come at little or no cost to those students, thanks to funds from a Fulbright-Hays grant awarded to College of Education faculty Teresa Wasonga and James Cohen along with NIU Department of Public Administration Chair Kurt Thurmaier.
The travelers also will receive pre-departure orientation that includes pedagogical training, lessons about race and culture, a book discussion and some basic Kiswahili.
During their five-week visit, the Huskies will interact with students and teachers at three schools to observe instruction in action, share U.S. pedagogical strategies through conversations – not lectures, Wasonga says – and help the teens to write their autobiographies.
Visits to nonprofit organizations and meetings with local leaders also are planned.
Grant recipients Wasonga, Cohen and Thurmaier foresee numerous and widespread benefits, especially for the NIU contingent.
One is “a crash-course in self-understanding,” Cohen says.
“They will learn who they are as cultural beings,” he says. “The fastest and easiest way to learn your strengths and your weaknesses is to travel to a different country. The language, the culture, the people – everything is different. You’re doing a lot of self-reflection that is forcing you to understand yourself better.”
Another is professional.
“We want a situation where the teachers from here can interact with the teachers there and, in that process, see how they can benefit the other side and how the other side can benefit them,” says Wasonga, co-founder of the Jane Adeny Memorial School in Kenya that will serve as one of the sites.
Because instruction in Kenya “doesn’t quite allow for critical thinking, we tend to do a lot of rote learning over there,” Wasonga says. “It’s very narrow, very limited and very academically focused so that kids literally just learn what the book says and not question it.”
Yet that doesn’t mean the children are not intelligent or competent, she adds, as Kenyans speak three languages: the mother tongues of their various regions; the national language of Kiswahili; and English, the language of instruction.
“Our students probably will find that to be confusing – or maybe thrilling,” she says. “We think it will be a significant observation for them.”
So will their unfamiliar status as the minority in countries where everyone is Black.
Cohen wonders how that will change their perspectives as teachers. Will they become aware of the role that race plays at home? Will they reflect on themselves differently as cultural and racial beings? Will they grow?
“The United States is a highly racialized society, and despite the fact that both Kenya and Tanzania were colonized, they’re more tribal than racial,” Cohen says.
“The people we’re going to be taking there, having been raised in the United States, all have racialized perspectives, whether they acknowledge them or not,” he adds. “What we’re hoping is to remove race, in a sense, from the equation – and to see how our students can actually interact with their students as much as possible by mediating that racialized perspective. It’s going to be an experiment.”
He will require the NIU students to reflect through journaling about their experiences, observations and realizations while visiting a foreign country.
“It shatters your assumptions about how the world is,” says Thurmaier, who has led six NIU Study Abroad groups to Tanzania since 2009 and traveled internationally as a student himself, “and shattering assumptions is, I think, really good, because you want to make judgments, decisions and plans based on evidence. That’s fundamental to what’s going to happen here.”
“I’ve been to nearly 40 countries. When I went to Tanzania, it changed me. It put things into perspective that I needed as an adult and as a human being,” he says, referring to the destitution. “I was only there for two weeks – not five, but just two weeks – and it really made a difference of who I am. I don’t really complain about many things anymore. I really don’t.”
Wasonga points to an interview of Oprah Winfrey.
“Somebody asked, ‘You know there are many poor kids in the U.S. Why did you go to South Africa to build a school?’ And she said, ‘Poverty is not the same,’ ” Wasonga says.
“Poverty in Tanzania and Kenya is very different from poverty in the U.S.,” she adds, “and what I’ve noticed in students who’ve come to Kenya is that their lives are completely transformed when they come back here. Things that they had thought were problems for them begin to look like, ‘This is not anything to worry about.’ ”
In the end, the grant recipients say, the travelers will become better teachers.
They will question preconceived notions about how students learn, revise lesson plans, modify instruction and reconsider expected outcomes.
And, Wasonga says, if any of the selected travelers work in less-diverse schools districts, the African experience should benefit their students of color.
“Sometimes we need to shock ourselves, and we can’t do that if we stay in the same environment,” she says. “When you change environments, you begin to see things very differently.”
“My hope,” Cohen adds, “is that when they come back, they’re not going to be looking at black people – and brown people, too – from a deficit lens. They will be looking at different people from a strengths perspective, a funds-of-knowledge perspective.”
Thurmaier, co-founder and president of Tanzania Development Support, shares that goal.
“First, I hope that it will guard NIU students against jumping to conclusions or assumptions about their own students, especially students of color,” he says.
“Just because someone has a Hispanic-sounding name doesn’t mean that you know anything about them, or their life, or their family. You have to actually engage with them to find out. Just because someone has black skin doesn’t mean they all have the same experiences on the West Side of Chicago.”
Second, he says, is for future and current teachers “to appreciate how learning about others helps you understand yourself better.”
It’s basic to studying abroad, he says.
“You learn so much about yourself, your aspirations and your assumptions, and you appreciate better how you got to where you are now because you appreciate how other people got to that moment when you engage with them,” Thurmaier says, “and, knowing that you got there that way, and that the people in front of you got better that way, fundamentally changes the way you engage with your students, with their peers, with their parents, with the stakeholders and so on. That’s a big win.”