This past fall, the Iowa Chapter of the Fulbright Association became the first to launch a pilot program of the Fulbright-in-the-Classroom initiative in partnership with the Van Meter Community School District in Van Meter, Iowa. Through two organized visits to the Van Meter Community School District, visiting Fulbright grantees from Iowa State University engaged with middle school students to share their international education experiences.
The Fulbright-in-the-Classroom program is designed to connect Fulbright alumni with U.S. K-12 schools and introduce students to other countries and cultures. The Iowa Chapter’s proposal is unique in working with current foreign Fulbright students and scholars and linking them with schools in their local communities, particularly in rural Iowa. “We are working closely with each school to tailor our program to their particular needs and curriculum,” says Sonia Gunderson, President of the Iowa Chapter. In 2018, the chapter plans to expand the program to the Oskaloosa school district using a similar model.
Two chapter board members were essential to the planning and supervision of the fall Fulbright-in-the-Classroom visits. Erika Cook, Ph.D., is the Bureau Chief, Standards and Curriculum for the Iowa Department of Education, and Ann Russell, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and the faculty advisor for the Fulbright Student Organization at Iowa State. Dr. Russell assisted in identifying and scheduling the Fulbright grantees from Iowa State who were interested in participating, and Dr. Cook worked closely with Jen Sigrist, the Director of Personalized Learning and Innovation in Van Meter, to organize the initial visit of Iowa State Fulbrighters to Van Meter classrooms. That visit was such a success that the Fulbright grantees were invited back for a second presentation the following month.
Six Fulbright grantees — Alfred Kono and Reny Revariah from Indonesia; Eka Novita, Aleena Ahmad and Muhammad Mohsin Raza from Pakistan; and Hee-seong Lim from South Korea — participated in the program. After their initial introduction to an assembly of 200 Van Meter School students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, the Fulbrighters were each assigned to a classroom where they engaged in an hour-long discussion with a smaller group of students. Throughout the day, students rotated between the classrooms so that each group had the opportunity to interact with each of the Fulbrighters. After the final session, the grantees posed for photos with the students, who treated the Fulbrighters “as if they were rock stars.”
The event organizers observed that for most of the middle-school students at Van Meter, this was the first time they had the opportunity to meet someone from a predominantly Muslim country. The students were curious to learn about the hijab that two of the grantees wore and asked questions about the Fulbrighters’ cultures. “The goals of this event were twofold: for the middle-school students to become aware of cultures, religions, and current issues of countries that are not represented in their school; and for the Fulbright scholars to see the structure, culture, and mindset of middle-school students and teachers from schools in rural U.S. settings,” Drs. Cook and Russell said. The two Fulbright-in-the-Classroom sessions were successful on both counts, creating a natural environment for cultural exchange.
Iowa State’s University Public Relations Office sent a videographer to the second presentation and spoke to students and Fulbrighters about the experience to produce this news piece (embedded below) about the initiative. Iowa Chapter President Sonia Gunderson reflected on the momentum the program has gained from these visits, noting: “We’re enthusiastic about the Fulbright-in-the-Classroom program, especially after seeing the excitement of students in these rural areas. They were well-prepared by their teacher as the result of our careful coordination with her, and their enthusiasm spread to the whole school. This is a grassroots way to increase cultural knowledge and bridge differences — and to raise awareness of the Fulbright Program. We’re using lessons learned from this first experience to refine our approach and expand the program’s reach in Iowa.”
“For the Association, this is the kind of work that truly fulfills our mission to promote international education,” adds Fulbright Association Executive Director John Bader. “We are thrilled by the success of the Iowa Chapter’s pilot and the enthusiastic response of middle school students, and we look forward to expanding this program to chapters nationwide.”