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Alumna shares experience

Bridget Feeney | Friday, February 8, 2013

 

A recent Saint Mary’s alumna and Fulbright Scholar retuned to campus Thursday to discuss her time abroad in Asia in a presentation called “Take It With You When You Go: A Fulbright Journey.”

Rachael Chesley received a degree in business administration with concentrations in management and international business from the College in 2011. She then lived and taught in Malaysia for 11 months with a Fulbright English teaching assistantship.

“I loved my experiences abroad,” Chesley said. “I knew the Fulbright Scholarship was something that was for me and something that I’d enjoy.”

Chesley said Sen. J. William Fulbright founded the Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, in 1946 to encourage mutual understanding and cultural exchange between countries. The program now operates in more than 155 countries, according to its web site.

Chesley served as the student body president during her senior year at Saint Mary’s. She also studied abroad in Rome and Seoul, South Korea, while she was at Saint Mary’s. These months away from the United States shaped her decision to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship.

Though Chesley said she was initially hesitant to apply for the program, her parents and professors gave her the push she needed to take the first step.

“I thought, ‘There is no way I am going to get [the scholarship],'” she said. “But my mom and dad and professors encouraged me to apply, and then I earned it.”

Although the application process was lengthy, Chesley said she wanted to remove herself from her comfort zone.

“I knew I wanted an experience that allowed full immersion in a foreign environment with nothing familiar,” Chesley said.

Chesley spent the duration of her scholarship living in the rural state of Terengganu, Malaysia, teaching English as a second language to students aged 12 to 18. Her town and school were located in the Muslim village of Besut near Thailand, she said.

She said adapting to Muslim culture was challenging.

“I learned a lot about Islam and found it so interesting,” she said. “But as a woman, it meant I had to adapt. I made sure I was covered at all times, especially my wrists and ankles. I would also always wear a scarf.”

A native of Chicago, Chesley said her day-to-day experiences in Malaysia were significantly different than those she had known.

“Things that were familiar were replaced by something completely different than something I had ever experienced,” she said.

Chesley had to get used to new shopping and dining options, she said.

“My Walmarts and Targets and Starbucks were replaced with local stalls, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants that had cats that became your friends,” Chesley said.

Chesley said she was not fluent in Malay, Malaysia’s national language, when she arrived. She said she struggled to communicate with her students at first.

“People in my school didn’t speak English, or were too scared to,” Chesley said. “As I spent more time there, I learned and spoke more Malay to them to build up some trust. It was an intercultural experience, so there’s going to be some frustrations sometimes.”

Homesickness posed another challenge, Chesley said. Although she was used to having Internet access and a cell phone, she had to adjust to a quieter lifestyle in Malaysia because these tools were not always available.

“I had to prevent my mind from wandering,” Chesley said. “It was a question of ‘How do you reinvent yourself somewhere else?’ I had to find new things to keep myself busy. One thing I did every day was write. I wrote a lot in journals and on my blog.”

Chesley also occupied her free time by completing the projects and initiatives that are required of Fulbright Scholars. For one of her initiatives, Chesley said she turned to her hometown in the United States for help.

“I spoke with one of my teachers from my local high school and we set up a pen pal program with my students,” she said. “At first, I thought it was a really bad idea because my kids didn’t understand the concept. It took five weeks to write and send that first letter.”

However, Chesley said the results were impressive once the language barriers were knocked down.

“It was so worthwhile when my students received those letters back,” she said. “We exchanged six letters total, and they were even published in one of the newspapers in Malaysia. My school was one of the low-performing schools in the country, and for my students to be recognized like that made me so proud of them.”

Chesley, who completed the Fulbright Scholarship program a few months ago, said she is thankful for the experience despite its difficulties.

“Perhaps the most rewarding part of an adventure is the aftermath,” she said, “when the traveler gains a new lens towards the way she sees and experiences the world.”