Malaysian Students Want to #SaveFulbright

Guest Article by Shannon Haberzettl
University of Scranton

Thirty million dollars. That is an enormous amount of money in any context. When I first learned of Congress’ plan to decrease the budget of the Fulbright program by this extraordinary amount of money, I was disappointed. Having had a very personal and life changing experience because of my involvement with Fulbright, it is understandable that I would be unhappy with this decision.
My unhappiness, however, would do no good unless those feelings were channeled into action. A petition was started to bring awareness to this decision. Many of my fellow Fulbrighters were taking pictures with their students asking onlookers to “Save Fulbright.” But what could I do? It was then that I decided to educate my students the process of informing elected officials of the issues you believe are important by having them write letters to Congress. This would give my students the chance to think about what the Fulbright program means to them, but also give them the chance to express those opinions in writing.
As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, or ETA, working in Malaysia, I have the chance to interact with students who all have varying abilities in speaking and writing English. At my small, rural school I teach both Form 2 and Form 4 classes, which are equivalent to grades 9 and 11 in the United States. While these students have very different abilities, I wanted to involve all of them in my “Save Fulbright” project in different, but equally important, ways.
Students in my Form 2 classes were able to write down their thoughts about the Fulbright Program, and generate different reasons why having an ETA is important to them. They were also able to get creative, with many students making statements such as, “Fulbright has helped me learn more about America,” or, “Fulbright has helped me become more confident in speaking English in public.
The students in my Form 4 classes were asked to write an official letter to Congress, asking them to reconsider the $30 million cut from the Fulbright budget. These students spent multiple class periods crafting their letters, which had to include ways the Fulbright program has helped them, and why the Fulbright program should continue with their full budget in the future. To begin the process of writing their letters, the students learned that Fulbright program awards grants to over 8,000 people to approximately 155 countries annually throughout the world. In Malaysia, there are 100 ETAs who work in the schools to help students improve their English. When my students learned that only one hundred schools in Malaysia hosted an ETA, and their school was one of those chosen, they were astounded.
However, the true impact of budget cut information did not hit home until my students asked, “does this mean no more ETAs?” This of course led to a discussion on how the true impact and who will be most affected will not be known right away if the budget cut were to take effect. However, an important fact many of my students seemed to recognize was that even if they are not personally affected by this decision, someone else will be, and that is just as important.
Armed with this new information, my students began the process of writing their letters. At first, many of my Form 4 students thought this was just another exercise. Their sometimes eccentric ETA is always asking them to participate in activities that require them to “think outside the box,” so they approached this assignment no differently. That all changed when one student raised their hand and asked, somewhat sarcastically, “Miss are we really writing a letter to Congress?” When I answered in the affirmative, and even went so far as to write the official address of Congress on the board, a new level of panic began spreading through the students. Various protests and incredulous remarks were sounded, but after some gentle persuasion that their opinions were important enough to be heard, the students returned to their work with a new level of dedication.
The results of this assignment have been inspiring and affirming to me as their ETA. One of the prompts asked students to think of reasons why Congressional leaders should care about the Fulbright program. The students responded in many ways, including, “because my confidence in speaking English has increased,” or “helping me to be more knowledgeable about the English language and America.” While these responses may seem simple at first, it is more impactful when they are put into their proper context. Many students prior to my arrival had never seen or spoken to an American before, nor could they find the United States on a map if asked. The first few weeks at my school were filled with nervous giggles and students responding, “I no understand” when asked how they were. Despite the language barrier, and even though I still receive nervous giggling instead of responses, the English levels of my students are improving beyond what I could have ever imagined. After only a few short months we are able to have conversations with each other and discuss important matters that impact them. My students are no longer intimidated by my presence, and as a result they talk a little louder, and express themselves a little more with each passing day.
The fact that my students are able to tell me (and Congress), that their English abilities has improved is proof enough for me that the Fulbright program is helping these students broaden both their English abilities and their minds. It is because of these reasons, and many others, why I believe the Fulbright program should receive the full and unquestioned support of Congress, through the restoration of the full budget of the Fulbright program. My students also agree wholeheartedly, you can ask them yourself.

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