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Wednesday, June 5, 2013
I have spent the past nine months living and teaching English in Indonesia through a U.S. State Department program called the English Language Fellow Program. My background is teaching English to speakers of other languages, and I have taught abroad before in the Czech Republic, Spain, England, and also in the U.S.
However, this program has been a unique experience as I’ve been living in Indonesia, a developing country and the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. It is no secret that knowledge of, and cross-cultural relationships between the United States and Muslim countries is a vital necessity in today’s world.
The English Language Fellow program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In effect, U.S. taxpayers pay for this program. The program sends experienced English as second/foreign language teachers with master’s degrees,to more than 80 developing countries to work on special English language projects.
In the field, we do what is known as “soft diplomacy.” Our expertise in teaching English is just as important as our ability to culturally adapt and provide personal connections between (in my case) Indonesians and Americans. The program is a cross-cultural one in which I am a U.S. representative to Indonesians, and I am an ambassador to my fellow U.S. citizens with whom I should share my experience in Indonesia.
The Indonesian ELF program had 20 fellows this year, spread across the massive archipelago, which is made up of more than 17,000 islands. Most of us taught in universities, and all of us participated in conferences, teacher-training workshops and camps for underprivileged Indonesian youth. All of us lived in our host cities, often without other Americans close by, and talked to neighbors, went to weddings, shopped at local markets and became part of our communities.
I worked at IAIN (Institut Agama Islam Negeri) Raden Fatah, in the city of Palembang, on the island of Sumatra. My school is an Islamic State University. My students are Muslims whose faith is very important; the call to prayer sounds several times throughout the school day, and I see students walk across campus to the mosque to pray.
When I walk through campus, students call out, “Hello Miss Dee!” (Deirdre is kind of difficult to say, even here in the U.S.) I don’t know the entire school population, being several thousand, but I am a celebrity. I pose for photos, I talk to students over lunch, and students tell me they want to improve their English so they can study in the U.S. or Australia (their much closer neighbor).
Most Indonesians I have met had never met a “real American” before, and the excitement is palpable. I have posed for probably a thousand photographs, and when I walk down the street in my city, I often hear calls of “Hello, Mister!” (Many apparently haven’t learned the difference between the English forms of address — mister and miss.)
Providing a positive impression of Americans abroad is one of the main goals of our program. Many Indonesians think of Americans as the people they see on TV or in Hollywood films. It is an important foreign policy goal to remind people around the world that Americans are just regular people, often with the same hopes and fears they have.
Cross-cultural programs are increasingly important in our global community. The United States has immense impact and influence across the world, and yet, often U.S. citizens do not know a great deal about the rest of the world. Before moving to Indonesia, I do not think I could have told you more than a few things about it; yet now, after spending almost a year of my life in this beautiful, friendly and colorful country, my friends, family, colleagues and readers of my blog know more about Indonesia.
The English Language Fellow Program is an incredible way for people across developing countries to get to know and form relationships with American citizens, and allows for us, as Americans, to experience how the rest of the world lives and bring back and share our experiences with other people.
The main thing I’ve learned: Although we come from different cultures, backgrounds and religions, people are essentially similar. Funding programs and projects like the ELF program serves to improve the image of Americans abroad, broadens the worldview of Americans and their families and friends, and is an incredible opportunity for people from developing countries to meet, learn from and teach the Americans they meet.
Weather JournalEarly mix, then ice storm Sunday