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Saint Mary’s welcomes Fulbright Teaching Assistants

By TABITHA RICKETTS | Thursday, September 5, 2013


At the beginning of this academic year, Saint Mary’s welcomed two Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants to campus.

Alla Abu Elella, a native of Egypt, and Ye Zhenman, a native of China, said they went through a rigorous application process and were eventually selected for the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (FLTA). 

“What attracted me to the scholarship [was the opportunity for] sharing my own culture, sharing my own experiences, getting to know a different culture and the American people,” Elella said. Ye Zhenman said the application requirements at her university in China are very strict, since the FLTA scholarship has a very competitive applicant pool. Most English professors in China had attended graduate school in the subject before obtaining their positions.

“The age limit is 25 to 35,” she said. “[Applicants] must be college English teachers with two years’ working experience.”

In order to participate in the program, the women had to accept that they would be spending one academic year apart from their families and friends, according to the FLTA website. The distance and limited communication can make things difficult, especially for Zhenman, a young mother.

“It’s very worth it,” Zhenman said. “My whole family is very supportive. I have always wanted to go to the [United States]. Sometimes you have to [have make some] sacrifices in order to get something.”

Although she does get homesick, Elella said her experience so far is 100 percent worth it. 

“I was a little bit homesick at the beginning, but once you start the courses and once you start teaching, you get [very] busy,” Elella said. “You don’t think about [being] homesick.”

In addition to the physical distance, the women also said they have cultural differences to contend with.

“[There are] a lot of differences,” Elella said. “You [Americans] are very direct when it comes to communication. If you want something, you just say it directly. In Egypt, for example, if you want to ask somebody for a favor, you kind of have to start a story at the beginning to ask for a favor at the end.”

Zhenman said she experienced culture shock last weekend when there was a miscommunication about a gift that was presented to her.

“We Chinese people are not ready to take gifts,” she said. “We are sometimes quite indirect and we keep refusing until we have it.”

Elella said she often faces curiosity about her clothing.

“I am considered to be the only veiled [woman] here on campus, so people here are like, ‘Why are you wearing that?'” she said. “So I have to explain that. This is considered to be the huge cultural difference here for me. This is my major role here: to explain my culture [and] to spread my culture.” 

As teaching assistants, the women get the opportunity to teach their home language as well as to take college courses alongside Saint Mary’s students. The women said even the length and routine of classes is different from what they were used to. “I like the American classes here,” Zhenman said. “The students and teachers are quite interactive.”

Although they said there is still a slight language barrier that sometimes presents some problems, especially when students and professors speak English quickly, they both enjoy the open exchange.  Both women said they attended Activities Night on Wednesday in an effort to become more involved in the campus community. 

“You have a lot of activities,” Zhenman said. “I want to do some volunteer work, something like that.”

Elella said she would like to visit different states to get an idea of the diversity of American culture.

“I can’t judge American food just because of Saint Mary’s food,” she said.

The women said one of their biggest complaints about campus life is the College’s Internet connection. 

“This is the only connection we have to our families,” Elella said. “And how can we do that when the Internet is so slow?”

Elella said she also found it difficult to adjust to the time schedules of businesses in the South Bend area.

“[Everyone] sleeps very early,” she said. “In Egypt, if you want to go out at 12 a.m. to go eat at any restaurant, you would find a lot of restaurants [open].”

Of all the advice and training the women received before and after coming to the United States, Zhenman said former FLTA scholars gave the best advice.

“They gave us a lot of helpful advice, but the best was ‘How are you?'” she said.

Zhenman and Elella said the use of “How are you?” as a greeting and a formality rather then as a true inquisition was one of the hardest things to get used to in their transition.

Despite the differences, both women said they are glad for their experience at Saint Mary’s.

“We’re willing to learn,” Zhenman said. “This is a golden opportunity for us.

Contact Tabitha Ricketts at [email protected]