Shining Bright

Fulbright scholars, back row from left: Hong Vo (Vietnam), Mamadou Belem (Burkina Faso), Stefan Prima (Indonesia); front row, from left: Firdaus Navruzov (Uzbekistan), Mafina Sanou (Burkina Faso) and Hamed El Haj (Mauritania).

Fulbright scholars, back row from left: Hong Vo (Vietnam), Mamadou Belem (Burkina Faso), Stefan Prima (Indonesia); front row, from left: Firdaus Navruzov (Uzbekistan),
Mafina Sanou (Burkina Faso) and Hamed El Haj (Mauritania).

Mafina Sanou, an international student from the West African country of Burkina Faso, was a bit surprised to discover that her classmates in the Teaching English as a Second Language program hadn’t heard of her home country. But then again, when she first learned of her acceptance as a Fulbright scholar at Minnesota State Mankato, she had to research the location of Minnesota, which wasn’t familiar to her and her family.

Sanou has been on campus since August. Since then, she has had to adjust to the dramatic changes in the weather—in Burkina Faso, daily temperatures year round can be in the 90s. She has had her share of cultural and language barriers to overcome as well. Upon her arrival, for example, the native French speaker missed a domestic flight because of a miscommunication. But Sanou couldn’t be happier with the education and connections she has made at Minnesota State Mankato.

“The education system here is totally different. In my country, we have at least a thousand students in the same class, and teachers don’t have time for us,” Sanou explains. “Here, everybody has attention from the teacher. I’m very thankful, and I know I’m learning a lot.”

Sanou, who had worked as a translator previously, intends to return home and become a TESL teacher; at some point, she’d also like to start her own fashion-design business. Her classmate Stefan Prima, another Fulbright scholar in the TESL program, was already teaching English in Indonesia. His master’s degree will help him elevate his teaching curriculum.

“I taught nurses at a school of health science,” Prima says. “We made our own curriculum with special English terms for nurses. But we only had one standardized test, and it wasn’t appropriate enough to measure English for the nursing field. By coming here, I hope I get more skills, so when I return later I can apply what I have learned to create a valid assessment.”

The Fulbright Program, which is managed by the Institute of International Education, aims to create cultural understanding between Americans and people around the world through scholarship. Originally crafted by Senator J. William Fulbright after World War II and signed into law by President Truman, it now works with 160 countries around the globe and provides 8,000 grants a year to graduates and young professionals through a highly competitive application process. The program funds scholars in a variety of disciplines and also supports teacher exchanges.

Sanou and Prima are two of six Fulbright scholars who were in the TESL program, which is part of the English Department, last fall. It’s unusual to have more than two or three Fulbright scholars on the same college campus, and even more rare to have six all in one program.

“The fact that we’ve got six at a time is an extraordinary statement about the relationship we’ve built with Fulbright and the respect Fulbright has for students’ experiences here,” says Stephen Stoynoff, dean of Global Education at Minnesota State Mankato. “Fulbright has to have a high degree of confidence in our University in order to make us one of its elite partners. We have been able to demonstrate that we offer high-quality academic programs, and therefore they place students here in large numbers.”

TESL Program Director Karen Lybeck was a Fulbright scholar herself and knows firsthand the value of broadening cultural horizons. “The international students gain more than an American education; they also have a chance to be friends for a lifetime with other students who are here,” Lybeck says. She uses the classroom to teach life skills as well as academics and helps students navigate through language confusion and day-to-day interactions as they go through the program.

Although he had a good grasp of the English language when he came, Prima had not been exposed to different American accents in his home country. So being in the classroom setting helps him learn various pronunciations and nuances. “In the classroom, I like that I can interact with a lot of people and compare our ways of speaking,” Prima says. “It’s also a great opportunity to share our point of view.”

These rich exchanges among students and faculty are really the essential piece in creating a truly global university. In addition to this cohort of Fulbright scholars, there are more than a thousand international students on campus—a number that has almost doubled in the last five years. These students are sharing their cultures in classrooms, through student organizations and at campus-wide events. Furthermore, they are taking their experiences home and sharing them, which helps to widen the reach of Minnesota State Mankato overseas.

The Fulbright scholars are a small but prestigious subset of the international community on campus and represent the best and brightest in their countries. “They come to us for the kind of education that will prepare them to make important contributions to the national development plans for their respective country,” Stoynoff says. “We believe that we have a very important responsibility for their educational experience, and we want to impact their ability to contribute to their country’s national development.”

Both Stoynoff and Lybeck revel in the success stories they hear about students who were once Fulbright scholars in the TESL program. One student returned to Mali and is now empowering other teachers to help thousands of children. A South African’s capstone project was discovered by a UCLA professor in the Cornerstone Repository and requested for reprint and inclusion in his course materials. These are the experiences that create lasting impressions.

Prima knows about lasting impressions. He chuckles when he tells about how he shared the Christmas holiday with a Minnesota family and tried his very first casserole—which he liked. But it’s more than the taste of hotdish that he will take with him when he leaves. He also knows that the taste of culture and education he experienced as a Fulbright scholar will be what he carries home and pays forward to others.  —Lisa Thiegs