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April 25, 2003

Three Fulbright Winners Prepare for International Work

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Seniors Rocío García (middle), Sylvia Lee (right), and Casey Brienza (left) recently won Fulbright awards.

While peace activists demonstrate and diplomats negotiate, Fulbright scholars work toward peace and understanding between nations by teaching and studying in more than 140 countries worldwide. Three Mount Holyoke scholars are eager to join that global effort. With generous awards from the Fulbright Program, they will depart this summer for academic exchanges in Korea and Mexico.

Rocio Garcia '03

Foreign-owned assembly plants on Mexico's border, maquiladoras, are notorious for low wages and poor working conditions. Nevertheless, they are the destination of thousands of workers (mostly women) who migrate from across Mexico. Psychology and Spanish major Rocío García would like to examine the barriers women who may want to emigrate to the United States face, as her mother did in the 1970s. Thanks to a Fulbright grant, García will soon be able to study this issue.
García will begin conducting research on emigration barriers to Mexican women this August, when she becomes a student at La Universidad de las Americas in the central Mexican state of Puebla. A pioneer in migration research, the school offers García a two-year master's program in United States studies of North America and the chance to study with Jose Antonio Alonso, a professor who has written extensively on the sociological aspects of maquiladoras.

"Once I have gained an understanding of the barriers women must overcome to emigrate from Mexico to the United States, I will have a better comprehension of the barriers women who have immigrated have overcome," says García, who ultimately hopes to become an attorney involved in immigration or labor laws in the United States.

García is well on her way to understanding this important aspect of the Mexican community. In addition to her family background, she is connected to the community through leadership positions in several organizations dedicated to raising awareness of Chicano issues, immigrant rights, and social justice, including Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán and the East Coast Chicano Student Forum. She also spent the summer of 1998 living in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, where she promoted community health with the program Amigos de las Américas. Living on her own in a new country and carrying out such a large-scale project with the help of community leaders was difficult at the age of sixteen, says García. But the experience challenged her to become independent and fueled her desire to understand Mexico's political, social, and economic systems.

"I plan on staying involved with education, immigration, and social justice issues," says García, "anything I can do to remain an active part of the community. I am absolutely thrilled to receive this honor and take another step toward building a bridge between cultures and better understanding the immigrant culture. Gaining this understanding is crucial to me so that I may be better equipped to serve the Mexican community as a leader and activist."

Casey Brienza '03

Casey Brienza doesn't speak a word of Korean and hasn't been to Korea since a New Jersey couple adopted her as an infant. Still, she has no doubt she will thrive as a Fulbright teaching assistant in Korea. "I teach English as a foreign language now and I love it," says the English and Asian studies major who has worked as a language tutor and Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program mentor for nonnative speakers of English in the course Writing Across Cultures. "During my years at college, much of my most valuable time spent inside and outside the classroom has been in conversation with these students," she says.

Language has also been an important part of Brienza's learning experience at Mount Holyoke, where she has studied both Spanish and Japanese. In Korea, she will have six weeks of intensive language training at Kangwon National University in Chunchon before being assigned to teach conversational English twenty hours each week at a Korean middle or high school.

"Each new language that I have learned has added depth and formality to my understanding of English and ability to conceptualize my own native language from the perspective of a foreign speaker," says Brienza. "As such, I adhere to no one philosophy of teaching and, indeed, have never studied education per se. I work with students strictly on a case-by-case basis, determining a practical course of action based upon their abilities, needs, and desires. I work to allow my knowledge of the language to complement the students' knowledge and learning styles, not to override them."

Brienza's assistantship will not only introduce her to a third foreign language and formalize her teaching experience—both useful for her future as a professor of English—it will also allow her to better understand a cultural identity she calls "totally American." "At Mount Holyoke I discovered I loved spending time with international students, especially students from Asia, not because I believed I was one of them, but rather because they, far better than anyone else, understood that I was not," says Brienza, who was born in Korea but adopted at three months old. "These international students accepted me as purely American in a way that the bulk of white America never will. Without misguided presuppositions of ethnic or national identity as we shared our lives, we saw eye-to-eye. And, indeed, much of what distinguishes one culture from another are 'superficial elements' such as food, holidays, name brands, and mass media. However, there are occasional subtler elements as well. With their guidance, I learned what underlying beliefs, attitudes, and cultural assumptions make me truly American." Says Brienza, "The cliché is eminently true—we do need others to understand ourselves."

Sylvia Lee '03

It is ironic that history major Sylvia Lee will be a Fulbright teaching assistant in Korea next year. Lee's parents, originally from South Korea, introduced their daughter to their childhood home when she was in seventh grade, a two-week trip that Lee calls a "vacation gone wrong." Feeling miserable and out of place, Lee vowed not to return to Korea. As a child Lee also vowed never to become a teacher, the career her parents urged her to pursue.

"It's funny and fitting that I'd apply to do both now, to live what was once my worst nightmare," says Lee. "I find that I am drawn to the classroom, and I am honestly eager to go back to Korea—to strengthen my language skills and to immerse myself in the culture from which I once felt so disconnected."

Like Brienza, Lee will receive six weeks of language and teaching training, then be assigned to live with a family and teach in a middle or high school in a rural or small metropolitan area of Korea. She hopes to create a classroom environment in which students feel comfortable learning English. "I anticipate that my encouraging attitude and willingness to acknowledge myself as a learner will help my students feel more at ease," says Lee, who remembers struggling to learn Korean during Saturday classes at the Korean language school she attended as a child.

In preparation for her new adventure, Lee is researching techniques for teaching English as a foreign language and increasing the amount of Korean she speaks at home with her family. But Lee, who now envisions a career as a high school history teacher, already has lots of ideas about how to create an effective curriculum, such as incorporating newspapers, films, and other elements of everyday life and building on the interests and joys of her students. "I truly want my students to have fun with English and the curriculum that I help develop, as well as gain confidence in their own conversational skills," she says.
To get to know her students, Lee plans to lead school activities and organizations, develop a pen-pal program with Korean American students in the United States, and be as visible as possible in day-to-day operations. "I want my students to know that I care about being in the school, and more importantly, that I want to be there for them."

"Living in Korea for a year and teaching English to middle and high school students is everything the seventh-grade version of myself would have feared and loathed. Yet having developed a passion for the classroom and a true longing to know more of my Korean heritage, serving as a Fulbright English teaching assistant is an opportunity to feed the passions I have for my future and for my own personal growth."


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