There were a number of shocks during the first few days of my arrival in Irkutsk, Russia, like the -30°F that left me literally breathless, when I arrived as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar at Irkutsk State Linguistics University in February 2010, which made me question my decision to go. Soon, however, I realized how very wrong my first impressions were.
My initial goal was to train undergraduates in methods of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and in linguistics. However, at their request, I expanded my teaching to include theoretical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and American history. My audience also expanded to include graduate students and professors. One interesting request from a colleague at the university was to compile a list of common American idioms and to present it to the faculty. Besides that, I was also asked to assist them in revamping their curriculum and in writing a textbook, neither of which I had planned on doing. That’s when I was reminded of one of the most basic tenets of teaching, being flexible. This willingness to meet my hosts’ needs and expectations and not just stick to my original plan led me to many experiences I would not otherwise have encountered. One of these experiences was visiting two high schools where I spoke to students about contemporary American culture and provided teacher training for the English teachers. All these unexpected activities caused me to draw on a wide range of knowledge that I didn’t normally need to make use of at my regular teaching position. This proved both challenging and interesting for me and it turned out to be a great bonus.
One of the surprising realizations I had after having been there for some time was how much the professors and the students were able to accomplish with very few resources compared to what is available in the United States. Most classrooms lacked computers, and the faculty didn’t have access to basic services, such as photocopying. Yet, the students were engaged and the professors were motivating. I could see how much learning was taking place under these less than ideal conditions. This was very inspiring.
When I came back to the United States, I kept in touch with many of the faculty and students. The head of the department and I continued working on the textbook, which was published about two years after my return, as well as other projects. We also made plans to present together at a future professional conference. Now the people I met there are not just passing acquaintances. They have become good friends that I will have for years to come. They learned from me, but I learned even more from them. That experience has enriched me both personally and professionally. I have been able to share my experiences with faculty at my college and other academic institutions, encouraging them to explore the great opportunities a Fulbright grant has to offer.