Most of my teaching experiences have been in majority “minority” environments. Whether at a predominantly Black university or a high school a few miles from the Mexico/U.S. border, I’ve learned much from teaching and learning with people who probably check different racial/ethnic demographic boxes than I do.
In this similar way, I spent the last week as an organizer of a Fulbright Gateway orientation with the most diverse group I’ve have even been around. I mean the term “diverse” here in the true sense of it—not as a proxy for Black, Brown, minority, or something else. This group consisted of 56 scholars from 35 countries representing 22 different disciplines including economics, film, law, music and public policy. As one of the organizers for this week, I was charged to help orient them to a variety of ideas that would make their upcoming one to five years in master and doctoral programs in the U.S. a success. Naturally, I also learned many lessons from this group along the way.
One idea the group made me reconsider was the dire imperative to make knowledge practical and applicable. By design, Fulbright programs structure for scholars to return to their home countries after studying in other places around the world. Numerous times, I heard scholars expressing this sentiment: their desire to apply what they learn here in order to mend economic and political ruptures in their home communities. In other words, meeting economists from Greece and documentarians from Syria gave new meaning to the phrase “applied knowledge.”
Another lesson dealt with curriculum. In what is perhaps one of the most fascinating meal-time conversations of my life, a group of scholars from countries including Syria, Israel, Germany and Peru discussed how schooling can teach young people—quite basically—to hate people from their neighboring countries despite having no personal contact with them. While this topic may seem distantly removed from the U.S., in our conversation, it connected to the recent removal of the “N-Word” from new editions of “Huckleberry Finn” as well as proposals to remove the word “slavery” from Texas social studies textbooks. In every country around the word, what goes in textbooks matters.
The week also made me think about the ability for a single person or interaction to alter the way one perceives current world events. At the end of the week, some students left organizers such as myself with gifts of appreciation upon their departures to their institutions of study. These cultural acts of appreciation and generosity are humbling in and of themselves. But, when one student left us with a small Afghan flag as a gift of appreciation, it tends to change the way you view the news reports from “the war in Afghanistan” the following day. Of course, this is equally an indicant of the insidious and inhumane lens that one develops when mediated representations of people take the place of actual people. The news isn’t in 3D, and neither are the representations of people in it.
Overall, it’s probably good that I’ll have some explaining to do when somebody asks why I have a small Afghan flag standing up in my office or a colorful handbag from Vietnam with the words Buon Ma Thuot stitched in it.
Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment, and Higher Edutainment (Routledge Press).