Mackenzie Dalton and Angela Jirik didn’t have to do any googling to learn about life abroad as a Fulbright Scholar when they received the honor in the spring.
All they had to do was contact any number of a long list of former ACU students and faculty who have received the same honor. Just a year ago, three ACU students – Mackenzie Sanderson, Kyle Yarbrough and Lindsie Lawson – got similar Fulbright Scholar awards to teach abroad. Sanderson and Lawson graduated from ACU in May 2018. Yarbrough was a 2013 graduate, but was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant in 2018 and left last September for a 10-month stay in Kyrgyzstan.
Sanderson and Lawson made history a year ago when they became the first two ACU seniors to receive the scholar awards in the same year. This year, ACU gained even more Fulbright fame by being included in the list of U.S. colleges and universities that produced the most 2018-2019 Fulbright U.S. students. ACU is one of only three Texas institutions to earn that distinction.
Sanderson, Yarbrough, and Lawson either have ended or are close to ending their stints as Fulbright Scholars, with a lifetime of experiences and stories to share. One thing they share in common – they all missed Mexican food while living in Germany, Kyrgyzstan and Malaysia.
Following are some of their experiences and reflections:
Sanderson was assigned to teach in Germany from September 2018 through the end of June 2019. Thanks to going through ACU’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification class and working as a teaching assistant with the university’s English as a Second Language classes, she said was well prepared. She loves living in Germany and will miss the lifestyle and routine she has developed there.
“Although it has been a longer, ongoing process to adjust to speaking in a foreign language,” Mackenzie said, “I feel more confident each day.”
In her job teaching English, Mackenzie was pleased to discover the school she was assigned to was open to her ideas and allowed her to participate in classes in various capacities. She split her time teaching her own lessons, assisting other teachers in their classes, and working with students on things like projects and plays in English.
While in Germany, Mackenzie lived in an apartment with two roommates, one a German student finishing her master’s degree in agricultural science and the other a French foreign language teaching assistant at the school where Mackenzie taught.
“We became good friends at work and obviously love being roommates too,” Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie decided not to come back to the U.S. during her stay in order to experience all the holidays in Germany. But her mother visited over Christmas and her brother came for two weeks so they could tour Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg and France.
Besides Mexican food, Mackenzie missed Chick-Fil-A, her car and Texas friendliness. Germans are incredibly nice, she said, but don’t engage in small talk like Texans, not even a “How are you doing today?”
The next step in Mackenzie’s life will be enrolling in the Global Policy Studies program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. But when she leaves Germany, she will take with her the experience of establishing a life in a foreign country, connecting with a new culture and learning a new language. And, she knows the friendships she formed will be maintained, no matter how far apart the new friends are.
Lasting impressions were formed while hiking the Brocken Mountain in the Harz Mountains and Sachsische Schweiz, and trips to the Czech Republic and Estonia.
The second time around in Kyrgyzstan proved to be just as rewarding for Yarbrough as the first. His first trip, for seven months, came several years ago when Yarbrough and three ACU friends toured South and Central Asia, working on farms as they went. That trip strengthened Yarbrough’s interest in the literature, history and culture of the region, especially Kyrgyzstan, where he vowed to return. In fact, a long-term dream is to use his entrepreneurial skills to start a hospitality and tourism business there someday. That goal is on hold for now while Yarbrough completes a master’s program at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. He will return there in August and will teach English at the same university, not as a Fulbrighter but on his own, in a program called New Generation Academy.
Yarbrough landed in Kyrgyzstan in late August last year, just ahead of his September start. It proved to be perfect timing.
“I was lucky in that I arrived just in time for the third World Nomad Games, which was a fantastic experience for me to hear some of the Kyrgyz folk music and witness some traditional games and cultural performances,” he said.
Yarbrough taught two semesters at the Academy of Tourism, leading six English classes and hosting six “talking clubs” for students, tour guides and teachers wanting to improve their conversational skills. He also volunteered for programs such as Education USA and the Access Micro-Scholarship program.
Yarbrough lived by himself in an apartment in Bishkek and came back to the United States for a wedding during his stay. Over winter break, he was able to meet his parents for a week in Rome and Barcelona.
Besides Mexican food, Yarbrough said he missed home cooking and the ability to jump in his car and drive. Living abroad as a Fulbright Scholar is a life-changing experience for anyone fortunate enough to receive the honor. Yarbrough said there were many such moments for him. Among them was developing a friendship with three other Fulbright Scholars in Bishkek.
“Whether through crazy shared experiences or long conversations,” Yarbrough said, “being in Kyrgyzstan during this time with them for me was life-changing.”
Like other students and travelers, Yarbrough took advantage of his opportunity, visiting places such as Issyk-Kul Lake, Kel Suu Lake and Song Kul Lake.
“These experiences on the road and being at these locations with my friends will be unforgettable,” he said.
Like Yarbrough and Sanderson, Lawson missed chowing down on tacos while away from Texas. She landed in Malaysia in January for a 10-month stay and has experienced quite a cultural change. One thing she misses more than tacos is a shared faith community. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, and the school where Lawson teaches is 100 percent Muslim. That means that her students must attend religious ceremonies, lectures, Quran recitations and daily prayers. As a result, many classes are delayed or skipped altogether.
“As you might expect,” she said, “much of this experience has been about understanding what is important to my community and entering that space from a position of curiosity, authenticity and willingness to learn.”
Lawson has learned that living as a religious minority has been a good experience and believes all people who wish to challenge their faith should do the same.
“I have grown more spiritually during this time than at any other point in my life,” she said. “As messy and uncomfortable as it is, I think we can all benefit from releasing fear and embracing the unknown.”
Lawson’s work has turned out a little different from what she expected. The timetables change every month, so she always has new classes. The school wants every class to have a few lessons with her, which she finds ineffective for longterm progress.
As a result, she has requested to stay with some lower-level classes for the entire year. She has found some of her best students and greatest sense of purpose in those classes.
Lawson hasn’t decided yet what she will do after she completes her Fulbright obligations. But she knows that whatever that might be, or wherever she ends up, the life-changing experiences in Malaysia will go with her and the friendships she made will be for life.
“I have experienced a marked transformation in my personal faith, as well as my understanding of other religious communities,” she said. “I am learning to nix my assumptions and ask better questions.”
An unusual experience for Lawson was visiting Vietnam. One of her good friends back home was from Vietnam and had treated her to home-cooked Vietnamese food. Lawson encourages Americans who visit Vietnam to engage with the country’s history, especially as it pertains to the U.S. presence there, and to ask people in all parts of the country how they interpret their own story.
“Vietnam is a fascinating place with a unique story,” she said, “and I hope to return soon.”