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How to describe ten months? July 2, 2012

Posted by Georgia Ennis in Ecuador, Fulbright.
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Georgia Ennis

As I near the end of my grant, I often think I have gained more from my ten months in Ecuador than I have been able to give. One of the primary goals of the Fulbright program is intercultural exchange in order to promote mutual understanding. This idea is highlighted throughout the application process, and even more so during program orientation in the U.S. and in the destination country. At the beginning of my grant, I thought frequently of what I was there to give, but at the end it is much harder to measure the effect I have had on my co-workers, students, friends, and acquaintances—have I changed, even slightly, how people think about the United States? Have I represented my program and myself well? Has this time made some sort of difference? I hope so, but I can’t be sure.

What I can be sure of is how I have been shaped and changed by this experience. It has not always been easy, and as a result I have grown more flexible, independent, and patient. As discussed in a previous post, I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to organize my work as an English Teaching Assistant—I thought I would arrive to a set work schedule, a group of teachers who wanted to work with me, and a supportive university community. Rather, I found I was responsible for making my own schedule, attempting to coordinate with teachers and navigating a complicated bureaucratic system. The first few months I was here, I was frequently depressed; I felt ineffectual and like I was doing little of importance. But this was how I learned greater flexibility, patience, and—to a certain extent—independence. I saw that I had to take the initiative for myself, and also accept that things are done very differently in academia than what I am accustomed to. Even though I felt quite lonely at the beginning, I became more independent as I grew comfortable living alone for the first time in my life, in a new place, where I had few friends.

Like many people from my personal and educational background, I have always thought of myself as a generally open and tolerant person. However, this experience has  exposed to me both my underlying prejudices and cultural assumptions, while  also helping me to become more accepting. Although I had visited Ecuador before, and thus thought I was prepared for culture shock, I really wasn’t. Some of the smallest (and most cliché) things were often the most trying—primarily, our different relationships to time and different conceptions of personal space. As the first few months went by, I frequently found myself deeply annoyed that buses wait in the market until they are full, that meetings don’t convene until all participants are present, and that people touch me so often. After ten months here I have learned not only to appreciate living in a people-, rather than time-, oriented culture, but also to orient myself towards other people’s needs instead of a rigid schedule. I like hugging and kissing my friends each time I see them, and I anticipate scaring my friends in the U.S. when I greet them as if we haven’t seen each other for years.

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I have also had some of the most amazing experiences of my life here. I have camped at 14,000 feet and woken up to snow on the equator. I have seen the Milky Way in startling clarity while in the Amazon Rainforest, and looked at the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper in the same sky. I have been cleansed by shamans. I have danced at weddings and walked in funeral processions. I have learned a little bit of Quichua. I have swum in the ocean and watched plankton light up around my hands. I have walked colonial streets, visited Incan ruins, eaten guinea pig, and climbed mountains. I have watched my students develop as English speakers. I have made friends. I have made a life for myself in another hemisphere. I don’t know if I have changed anything. But even if I didn’t, and no matter how hard some of it was, I wouldn’t trade the last ten months for anything.

See a better world: one pair of eyeglasses at a time June 18, 2012

Posted by George Dong in China, Fulbright.
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George Dong

George Dong

After a two-hour flight and a seven-hour bumpy bus ride, I finally arrived at Yongbao Middle School in Lincang County, located in Yunnan Province, in southwest China. Yongbao is one of the poorest areas in China, with an average annual household income of only $630. This was my second time visiting the school. Nothing seemed to have changed: students were still carrying big smiles on their faces as bright as the sun on the blue sky. During my first trip to Yongbao, I found that less than 2% of the students with poor vision had glasses to correct their vision. These incidences of uncorrected poor vision hinder many students from academic achievement in spite of their capabilities because they can’t do simple tasks such as taking notes from the blackboard when they can’t see well. It was obvious to me that many students need glasses, yet almost none have them.

After working tirelessly on a grant, we received $3,000 to implement an eyeglass project in three schools of Lincang County thanks to Lucy Ball, executive director of Lone Pine Capital. Yongbao Middle School is the first stop of our three implementation sites. We hired a team of eye doctors from the nearest county to conduct a comprehensive school-wide eye examination in Yongbao. To my surprise, almost all of the students had never had their vision examined before. We broke down this process into several steps. First, one eye doctor used the traditional eye chart to test visual acuity.

If a child was found to have trouble reading from the chart, then we sent him or her to another doctor, who used a retinoscope to determine that particular child’s base prescription and offered a pair of experimental glasses (those with red frames) for students to try out. After students familiarized themselves with the experimental glasses, they then returned to the eye chart to retest visual acuity with newly acquired glasses to see whether their visual clarity had improved.

According to a report by the World Bank, about 10% of children in developing countries suffer from poor eyesight. However, we found that about 30% of our students have poor eyesight, almost all caused by refraction errors. Thankfully, all of the problems can be corrected with properly fitted eyeglasses. Soon, all the children we tested who needed glasses will receive a pair of eyeglasses for free. This is just the beginning. We also plan to unveil our educational component of the project distributing educational materials to the students to raise awareness about how to better protect their eyesight. After Yongbao, we will move our effort to two more schools–Luodang and Pingcun.

As my Fulbright experience in China comes to a close, there are several things I’ll take away from this experience. Many global challenges such as this one may seem insurmountable at times, but it is a solvable problem if we align our optimal resources and best efforts to tackle the problem together. My Fulbright experience greatly enhanced my understanding in the field of education required to prepare myself to become a future leader in tackling educational disparity in the world.

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