Most of you have probably heard of Fulbright Scholar grants and the prestige associated with them. But how familiar are you with the other programs authorized by the 1961 Fulbright-Hays Act? Passed around the same time that the Peace Corps was created, the Act’s stated purpose was to:
Increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange; to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments, and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations, and the contributions being made toward a peaceful and more fruitful life for people throughout the world; to promote international cooperation for educational and cultural advancement; and thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.
One of the programs falling under this umbrella is the Exchange Visitor Program. This year, I began to work with an organization that sponsors visas for exchange teachers. From what I have seen so far, these teachers, who come to work for 3-5 years in all subjects and grade levels of K-12 schools across the southeast and the whole country, are astounding individuals whose diverse perspectives, adventurous attitudes, and commitment to excellence in education are of immense benefit to US students. After this time, these individuals return to their home countries and share what they have learned, not only about American pedagogy and classroom management, but about American culture and life as experienced firsthand.
Although these teachers are in a classroom setting and not at an interpretive center, I think this program would be of interest to southeastern interpreters because it, too, aims to create unique learning experiences and heightened understanding among the individuals it touches.
On one hand, international teachers can fill unique needs within K-12 schools. A recent article in Education Week described the results of a recent investigation which found that there is currently a discrepancy between the focus areas of college students who are studying to be teachers – many of whom choose to major in elementary education – and the subject areas that commonly have too few qualified candidates to fill vacancies, including “special education, high school math and science, foreign language, and bilingual education.” Over the short term, cultural exchange teachers can fill some of these roles.
Secondly, and more directly related to the heart of interpretation and experiential education, international teachers bring the ideas, customs, and traditions of their home countries directly into US classrooms. I think living history programs are a particularly good parallel to cultural exchange in schools. In the same way that a visitor to a historic battlefield viewing a well-done reenactment may feel genuinely transported back to a different moment in history, students who have the opportunity to learn from an exchange teacher can truly see into another culture and place, all the way on the other side of the world.
The Exchange Visitor Program requires participants to incorporate two ‘cross-cultural activities’ each year, meaning their community or campus may get to participate in a traditional dance, learn about famous scientists or artists in their home country, or taste the exciting flavors of typical cuisine from the teacher’s region. Do any of you remember having a pen pal in another country in school? With today’s technological advancements, many students in a cultural exchange teacher’s classroom get to speak to their counterparts in another country face-to-face using Skype or another video chat software. This is about as close to traveling abroad as some students may ever get, and it can spark their imaginations and stoke a lifelong interest in a place, language, or society. Interpreters at parks, museums, and historic sites throughout our region know firsthand how exciting it is to make that connection between a visitor and a resource, and I see the same excitement in international teachers as they open their students’ eyes to different cultures.
The Definitions Project defines “benefit” as “Lasting, positive and meaningful change over time that results from multiple and diverse learning experiences; refers to collective sociological, psychological, economic, and/or environmental outcomes of education and learning.” The Exchange Visitor Program ticks off all these boxes. With immigration policy in the spotlight and the American attitude toward the outside world rapidly shifting, non-immigrant exchange teachers are more important than ever to provide that window between cultures and keep minds and hearts open as they teach – and learn from – their students.
For more about the Exchange Visitor Program, visit https://j1visa.state.gov/programs/.