Always have a backup plan

By

Mary Beth Faller

Nearly every Fulbright grant winner who spends time abroad faces challenges with a new language.

Those who work in developing countries face other issues as well.

Michelle Kunkel is teaching English in Senegal this year after receiving a Fulbright award. She earned a master’s degree from Arizona State University in TESOL — teaching English to speakers of other languages. Her undergraduate degree, from Webster University, is in international relations.

“The Fulbright grant seemed like the perfect fit for someone with my background because it combined all of my interests — teaching, language learning, cultural exchange and cultural immersion — and that’s why I decided to apply,” said Kunkel, who is originally from St. Louis.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been dealing with electricity cuts. I try to incorporate technology into my classes, but it can easily be derailed if the electricity suddenly stops or if the Internet decides not to function properly that day,” she said.

“I’ve learned to over-prepare for everything and to always have a backup plan so that I can carry on with my lessons in case there is a power outage.

“Luckily, my students are quite used to it, and they seem to be pretty forgiving when these kinds of interruptions occur.”

Kunkel answered some questions about her Fulbright experience as an English teaching assistant.

Question: Can you give an overview of what you’re doing in Senegal?

Answer: I’m posted at the national teacher training college of Senegal in the capital, Dakar. My job is to teach courses in general English development and English-language pedagogy for pre- and in-service English teachers.

In addition to my regular classes, I mentor students in the English Club at the university, conduct workshops and presentations on English Language Teaching for the national association of English teachers, and assist with many English language programs provided by the U.S. Embassy in Dakar.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: Some days, I teach classes and prepare my lessons for the next week, while others I might have meetings with my students to talk about assignments or to plan the next event for the English Club on campus. Wednesdays are “early release” days for students and teachers, so I often work at the Embassy hosting professional-development webinars, leading conversation groups or running film screenings.

Q: What do you do on the weekends?

A: Sometimes I work at English Club events, teach special classes or give presentations to different groups of English teachers.

When I’m not working, I usually meet up with my friends, go to the beach or the fabric market, or go to other cultural events around town.

The music scene in Dakar is really great, so there are usually a lot of opportunities to enjoy live music. Even though I’ve already been here for five months, I still feel like there are more places to discover around town.

Q: What’s been the best part of your experience?

A : The best part has to be all of the amazing people that I’ve met. This includes all of the other Fulbrighters here, my contacts at the embassy, the English language teaching community, my host family and my students. Everyone has been so welcoming, and they have really gone out of their way to make sure that I’m having the best experience possible. I’m so lucky to have such a great network of people here who have really become more like family to me.

Q: Has anything funny happened during your adventure?

A: Most funny situations that I’ve been in have been a result of language or communication errors. Just a few days ago, I unintentionally insulted my host mom when she asked me if I had ever heard her complain (“As-tu entendu me plaindre?”). I thought she asked me if I had heard about her plans (“As-tu entendue mes plans?”), which I had. So I said, “Yes, of course. A lot!” She looked completely shocked, while everyone else in my family found it hilarious. Needless to say, I learned my lesson well--always listen closely because one vowel sound can make a difference!

Q: What will you bring back from your experience that will help you in your career – or your life?

A: I’ve learned so many things from this experience, not just about teaching, but about myself and about people in general. Having the chance to observe classrooms here has shown me that a lot of learning can happen, even in a resource-poor environment. I’ve also learned a lot about humility and collectivity, as Senegalese people are amongst the nicest and most inviting people that I’ve ever met. So many people have shared what little they have with me just to make me feel welcome and included, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to repay the overwhelming gratitude that I took from those situations.

Q : What would you tell someone who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: Take the risk! Yes, the application process is intense and, at times, overwhelming, but you have so much to gain, even if you aren’t selected.

If there’s a country that you’re really passionate about applying for, then do your research and take the time to really reflect on what you’ll write in your essays.

Also, you have really great resources on campus, from the Fulbright adviser to other alumni to the campus interview committee, who are all there to help you succeed.

Top photo: Michelle Kunkel, with microphone, teaching a writing seminar in Senegal.