Fulbright Scholar Stories | Virginia Elizabeth Jones
Virginia Elizabeth Jones
Associate Professor, Louisiana State University—Alexandria, Alexandria, Louisiana
Discipline: American literature
Lecturing: African/American Literature: Influence and Identity
Host Institution: University of Montenegro, Niksic, Montenegro
September 2006 – June 2007
As a teacher of African-American and women’s literature at a small southern school, I am well aware of how discrimination, poverty, and a lack of basic human rights can influence writers and writing. When I read that Montenegro would become one of the newest independent countries in the world, I wondered how teaching in a country named by Italians, invaded by Turks, and dominated by Yugoslavian politics would work to realign its society. I was curious about how the country’s independence would influence traditional values. Sandwiched between a rapidly developing economy in Croatia and a fairly rudimentary one in Albania, would Montenegro sustain a typical Old World culture, one that supported submissive women and domineering men? I thought that living and teaching in Montenegro would give me the opportunity to teach and learn more about cultural geography and personal identity.
My first class consisted largely of students whose impression of Americans had been formed by recycled TV series, old hip-hop videos, and childhood memories of parts of their country being bombed by NATO. I introduced myself, and explained my syllabus and my life in Louisiana, telling how it, like Montenegro, is familiar with a collision of cultures. I knew my students were familiar with masking balls, usually held in the month of February, but found out they did not know the balls were related to Carnival or Mardi Gras, a day important in the religious practice of Lent. I described the celebration of Mardi Gras in my home state, explaining the use of decorated floats in Louisiana Mardi Gras parades. To float means to be buoyant, they told me. I did the best I could to explain how a tractor trailer decorated like a stage from which costumed people threw necklaces seemed to float down a street. What for? The students wanted to know—Does their church want them to? Well, no, their church doesn’t care, I said, thinking now that we could discuss “tradition” and what that means, a discussion actually easier than the one about floats.
To bring the idea of tradition and culture to life, I brought out the box my university colleague, Teresa Seymour, had sent—the one filled with Mardi Gras beads. For several swift minutes, we were all kindergarten kids, me lifting hands full of green, gold and red necklaces, and the class ooohhhing and exclaiming at the sight of so much glittering treasure. I handed out the beads at first, then I began throwing them, then the students began throwing them to each other. Some took pictures with their cell phones of classmates sitting happily in class wearing Louisiana Mardi Gras beads. Even without the parade and the floats, everyone shouted with surprise and pleasure at catching Mardi Gras beads. The class left excited, happy, and wearing strings of multi-colored beads around their necks.
The dedicated English language and literature faculty was quite excited when I suggested we establish a chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society, at the university. We eventually had a candlelight ceremony where we reviewed the history of the organization, its mission (to promote the mastery of written expression, encourage worthwhile reading, and foster a spirit of fellowship among those specializing in the English language and literature) and its motto (Sincerity, Truth, and Design, elements fundamental to the most effective written expression). The local TV stations came to record the ceremony, attended by parents and friends of the twelve honor students. The students were interviewed about the organization on afternoon talk shows for a week after the ceremony, and pirated DVDs of those interviews were soon floating around campus.
I saw the new honor society members wearing their society pins (badges, they called them) with subtle pride. The members in my American Women Writers class seemed to sit just a little straighter. They now dream of attending one of the annual Sigma Tau conventions, and perhaps with the help of their energetic faculty sponsors, they one day will. They did, after all, make history by becoming the first honor society in the country.
When any friends and family visited me I invited them to speak to my classes or at the American Corner in Podgorica’s Cultural Information Center. My Montenegrin colleagues and friends got to know several Americans in this way, including a physician, a theater director, a Belgian-American artist, an independent business woman, and a rhetoric professor. My American friends got to meet Montenegrins and to visit one of the most geographically diverse countries in Europe.
The beauty of Montenegro is unchanging and unending, but what is most impressive is the generous spirit of the people. I fell in love with their small, courteous gestures, their gifts of home-made juices, brandy, spinach pies, and their quiet hospitality that showed genuine interest in a guest, not mere politeness. I was given tickets to plays and concerts, where I watched performances by excellent young musicians and established national playwrights.
I was treated to traditional foods I cannot make sound as appetizing as they truly were. I was hugged, kissed, praised, advised, and protected. I don’t believe any of these things happened because I was an American, or a university teacher, or a woman. I think these things happened because the people of this country care about what foreigners think of them. Like people anywhere, Montenegrins want to be appreciated and respected, and when they are, their warmth is reciprocal and perpetual.
I have long heard it said that just one person can make a difference. I didn’t make the kind of difference in Montenegro that Senator Fulbright made in American life (particularly mine), yet I know that by interacting with Montenegrins I was able to change at least several people’s perceptions of the United States. For example, as I was leaving a Slava celebration (a family saint’s feast day) hosted by my neighbors in the old Tito-era apartment block where I chose to live, the family’s godfather made a ceremony of kissing my cheeks and shaking my hand good-bye and told the gathering in his language that I was nothing like the Americans he imagined. He said he liked me, that I was polite and behaved as a Montenegrin, something he had not expected. At the end of my second semester, while I sat in the faculty café, two young Montenegrin women, students of mine during both semesters, came to tell me good-bye. They announced in English that even though I was an American, they learned from me and realized that not all Americans were the same. Two nights before I left the country, three more students e-mailed asking me to meet them for a farewell coffee. They gave me a gift, a necklace, because they said they wanted me to remember them as they would remember the American teacher who treated them with respect. The tenderness of these reactions (and there were many like these) deepened my respect for teaching, and reminded me of the positive impact the United States can have in the world.
My Fulbright year allowed me to go from being a hard-working rural university teacher to being a student again. I learned more about teaching than I thought I knew. Living and teaching in another country gave me the chance to renew my sense of wonder about the young people I work with, and to be something of a cultural ambassador. My life is richer and fuller because of the Montenegrins I met who supported and nurtured me. When I see the Montenegrin coast on a map or hear of Montenegro in the news, I think of it as “my” country too—I had a home there, I worked there, and I know people who live there now. The Fulbright Scholar Program did indeed increase cultural understanding, but it also made me a better teacher, helped me become more empathetic about people everywhere and gave me a greater sense of how small kindnesses impact the lives of others. I will be forever indebted to the wisdom and vision of the senator from Arkansas and the people who continue his work.