Two Armstrong grads have been awarded with English Teaching Assistantships with the Fulbright U.S. Student Grant Program.
Lauren Griffin, a 2008 Armstrong High School graduate and 2012 Luther College grad and Amy Conner, also a 2008 Armstrong High School graduate and a 2012 University of Minnesota grad will travel to the Balkans, a region in the southeastern part of Europe.
Griffin will embark on a nine-month journey teaching English at Montenegro at the University of Donja Gorica.
Conner will travel to Karlovac, Croatia, where she will spend nine-months teaching English at the Karlovac University of Applied Sciences.
Griffin and Conner, both 22 and Plymouth natives, have known each other since high school when they were both Chamber Singers members. Though they had kept in touch throughout college, it came as a shock to both women that not just one, but both of them had received Fulbright grants.
As the largest student exchange program in the U.S., the Fulbright Student Program offers opportunities young professionals and students to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching and primary and secondary school teaching throughout the world.
When Griffin was a sophomore at Luther College, where she graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in women and gender studies, she heard about the Fulbright grant. After studying abroad in Norway the same year, she became more familiar with the Bosnian War that involved Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later Serbia and Montenegro) as well as Croatia.
After receiving a scholarship through the Nobel Peace Prize Forum to return to Norway she was even more inspired to observe dialogue sessions with students from the Balkans.
“It was really inspiring to see the power of dialogue and building relationships and breaking down ethnic barriers,” Griffin said. “Those experiences led to Montenegro.”
Originally an alternative to go to Montenegro, Griffin was informed the organization rallied more funding and the day after she found out she was accepted, she flew to Washington D.C. the for a training session.
Griffin will be one of two other Fulbright grant winners that will be in Montenegro. There, they will each have to find individual apartments in Podgorica, the country’s capital city. As part of the grant, Griffin will be teaching English at the small private university and grant requirements will have her taking on some sort of side project during the nine months.
“I’m hoping I will be working in an organization related to peace building and democracy,” said Griffin, who has already been in contact with a dialogue center in Podgorica.
Griffin will leave for Montengro on Sept. 6 where she will be immersed into the foreign country. To get her ready for the experience, she said she is frantically listening to her language CDs.
“I’ll be able to make my way around,” she said. “The students have been learning English since kindergarten so they will be able to speak it, but may not be fluent. I’ll help them become more comfortable.”
Always having had an interested in teaching, Griffin said she is excited to be in the classroom and to share her love of learning.
“I’m thinking I’ll end up learning more from my students, then them from me,” Griffin said. “I’m excited to be in a new part of the world. A lot of people don’t necessarily visit there, it will be interesting to see how my perception of the area compares to what it’s like.”
The one thing Griffin has her hesitations about though, is making friends in a country with a language barrier.
“I’m going to have to put myself out there,” she said. “I hope maybe other people will be interested in learning English and they can help me with Montenegrin. People have already been incredibly friendly and helpful. I’m confident it will be a good nine months.”
After taking courses that referenced the Balkan region during her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in political science, history and Spanish, Conner knew that after she graduated, she wanted to study abroad and Croatia seemed like a great opportunity.
“[The Fulbright grant] was always in the back of my mind and the ‘U’ advertises the scholarship so I thought I would try for that,” she said. “I’m just excited because the environment I want to create is a really relaxed space where we can talk and I can teach them [students] about the culture in the U.S. and the Midwest.”
When Conner arrives in Karlovac, a city of about 50,000 , she will work, like Griffin, to find an apartment suitable for a nine-month stay. She’s hoping to spend not that much time in the apartment, and all she is looking for is a small apartment that is furnished with laundry.
“I’m just really excited to meet people there and to learn how they live and view themselves and us and to eat the food and learn the language,” Conner said. “I’m really excited for the cultural immersions I’ll be having and being on my own with very limited language skills. The challenges will be finding a place to live and making friends.”
For her part of the Fulbright grant, Conner hopes to work with a nonprofit organization in Croatia that works with human rights.
“Twenty years ago, they had that terrible, terrible war,” she said. “There’s still a lot of dialogue and stuff going on regarding the conflict and moving forward and I would love to be a part of that process as much as possible.”
Though Conner does not yet know whether she will have her own classroom or be a teaching assistant, she hopes that her age and having just graduated from college will help the students relate to her.
“I learned that some of the education ways in the Balkans are pretty lecture based and not really into student-participation, since that’s an American novelty, I might just go for it.”
Though the Fulbright grant program has restrictions for how many days participants can travel out of the country, Conner said she and Griffin have plans to visit each other during their nine-month stays.
They will be joined with two other Minnesota women that also received Fulbright grants to travel to the Balkans.
“We are going to be spreading our Minnesota niceness,” Conner said.