GENESEO, N.Y. -- For Sarah Phillips ’18, winning a U.S. Student Fulbright award to Colombia as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) means infinitely more than just being given the opportunity to represent her country, travel, and teach. She will have a chance to share the gift of potentially life-changing language abilities that so many of the world’s citizens are never afforded.
“When I studied abroad in Granada, Spain, in the spring of 2017, my Spanish host mother, who grew up during the Franco era, spoke strictly Spanish with me because, as she explained ‘Yo no hablo ni entiendo inglés’,” Phillips remembered. “One day halfway through the semester, when we began getting close, she stared me directly in the eyes and slowly said, ‘happi burfday.’ Except it wasn’t my birthday. In fact, it wasn’t even close to my birthday. But it was, quite literally, the only English phrase she knew. She learned it from a plastic, hot pink, singing birthday cake that her husband had purchased years earlier.”
After the two chuckled in Spanish at both the mispronunciation and misuse of the phrase, Phillips’ host mother asked in a more somber tone for assistance in filling out some paperwork. Her daughter would be traveling to the United States in the fall through a grant from Rotary International, and every form that was sent home with her was written in English, “a language as foreign to my host mom as the sweltering sun in the dead of night.” Phillips was taken aback by the complex medical and business terminology lining these sheets, unsure of how to translate words like “co-payment” and “pre-existing condition.” After more than a few Google translation searches and copious hours translating, they managed to work their way through the paperwork.
That moment still resonates with Sarah, as she observed first-hand the real-world benefits of language ability, which at times can be incredibly inclusive, something to bond over and revel in. Yet the absence of language understanding can also be deeply isolating, confusing, and maddening.
“For my host mother, English appeared as Chinese might to me -- hopeless. I began to realize how powerful my native language can be,” she said. “That’s not to discredit the power of other languages, but English is unique in that it is considered a ‘global language.’ Learning English can give others the agency to become global citizens, who can contribute to and communicate with an international community. I want to empower others to become global citizens through the power of English, which was a significant driving factor behind my Fulbright application.”
Phillips joins five other Geneseo students or alumni to win a Fulbright for 2018-2019, matching last year’s record setting total, and the 26th award winner in College history. For the applicant period, Geneseo had a record 19 applications, with eight of the applicants becoming semi-finalists, also the highest number in the College’s history. Shauna Ricketts ’18 will teach in Bulgaria; Leandra Griffith ’16 will spend next year in Belgium; Matt McClure ’16 won a Fulbright for South Korea; Amanda Langan ’18 will serve in Argentina; and Sarah Simon ’17 was awarded a grant for Uruguay. Semi-finalist Martin Beach ’14 (Malta) was named an alternate.
Phillips is from Syracuse, N.Y., and believes that her undergraduate training as a Spanish and international relations double major with a minor in Latin American studies will enrich her Fulbright experience.
“I am aware of the historical and anthropological context of this region of the world, and am very excited to deepen this academic experience with time in the region,” she said. “As I have a passion for international service, I see myself working as a foreign service officer in the future, ideally in the public diplomacy track. It is important to me that in my future career I am able to continue to hone my Spanish language skills, as aptitude with multiple languages is increasingly important for success in government, business, and other occupations in the United States.”
Earlier in the year and for the first time in the College’s history, SUNY Geneseo was named a Top Producer of U.S. Student Fulbright awards for 2017-18, a recognition the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced in its annual article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Six Geneseo alumni won U.S. Student Fulbright awards for 2017-18, placing the College third among all 742 Carnegie classification master’s degree institutions. Geneseo was the only dedicated SUNY institution to be named a Top Producer of U.S. Student Awards in any category – bachelor’s, master’s, research, or special-focus four-year. If historical trends hold, Geneseo’s second consecutive tally of six Fulbright awards will mean the College will again be awarded Top Producer status for 2018-19 when the rankings come out again next February.
Phillips’ undergraduate coursework and her own research on foreign language education have helped her to more fully grasp the power dynamics associated with teaching in a foreign country. English language teaching, she maintains, “must be sensitive to cultural values, and cannot be used as a form of cultural imperialism.” Building on this idea, she will use course content with her Colombian students as a vehicle for cultural examination. For example, course units on consumerism and environmental rights would be chosen for high-level English learners, because they have political as well as educational significance.
“I want to make learning English both fun and accessible for students by tying in aspects of American culture through the use of popular music, podcasts, and videos,” she said. “This pedagogical technique is especially important in Colombia, where research by the British Council found that high language proficiency is directly related to exposure to English language media. As an ETA, the classroom activities I plan to execute will be engaging, culturally aware, and informative.”
Last summer, Phillips worked as a teaching assistant for the West Side Learning Center in Syracuse with non-native English speakers on basic reading, writing, and speaking skills. She is currently interning for the U.S. Department of State as a virtual tutor for Ecuadorian English majors. These experiences have allowed her to interact with audiences who previously had not been exposed to native English speakers and to understand foreign language pedagogy at a more intimate level.
As part of her ETA placement, Phillips will undertake a special project to create an “intercambio,” or form of cultural exchange, between Colombian and American university students. She notes that many American college students have little to no knowledge of Colombia, and the knowledge they do have is usually gleaned from popular media.
“I want to digitally connect Spanish-speaking Americans with Colombians to spark a dialogue about the ‘real Colombia’ -- a country that is so much more than its stereotypes,” she said “This experience would be two-fold, as interactions with Americans would help to dispel myths and harmful stereotypes some Colombians may have about U.S. culture.”
For Phillips, finding out that she had won the Fulbright ETA was “one of the most indescribable and important moments of my college career. Reading the acceptance email flooded me with a feeling that can only be described as sheer, unadulterated euphoria,” she said.
“What made the moment even better for me was not just my excitement, but the excitement of my friends around me,” she said. “This application process served as a substantial reminder of what incredible people I am surrounded by, and how lucky I am to have friends who support me in every sense of the word.”
As for the future, Phillips’ ultimate goal is to work as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State, and ideally learn another language along the way. After 10 or 15 years in the field, she would like to return to academia to become a professor of international relations, Latin American Studies, or an associated field. But for now, she is looking forward to her Fulbright year and the chance to share and receive the benefits of language.
“As an ETA in Colombia, I will strive to instill in my students a confidence in English that awards them the agency, if they wish to exercise it, to go beyond the borders of the Spanish-speaking world, and to allow them an opportunity my host mother in Spain was never afforded.”
The U.S. Student Fulbright 2019-20 competition, which is open to students and recent alumni, is administered at Geneseo by the Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships, Michael Mills, who can be reached at email@example.com and 585-245-6002. More information about the Fulbright and other nationally and internationally competitive scholarship and fellowship programs can be found at https://www.geneseo.edu/fellowships_and_scholarships.