Alex Villec’s Fulbright ETA Experience

Already abroad in Rwanda at the time of application [for a Princeton in Africa Fellowship], I was drawn to better understand the social and political climate from a different region of the world and to immerse myself in the mechanics of language acquisition, teaching English on one side and learning Chinese on the other.

Over a year in Kenya and two in Rwanda, I had nurtured a growing interest in China’s role on the African continent. From Nairobi’s side-streets and Kigali’s casino to large-scale infrastructure projects anywhere from Burundi to Botswana, I could observe firsthand how China continues to shape Africa’s future through investment, economic development, and more recently through political and military influence as well. As I stepped back, I began to see Africa as a massive region where the overlap and divergence of American and Chinese interests can be uniquely understood. Zooming in, I imagined the school as an institution offering glimpses into how stories are told, how important social questions are understood, and how values are communicated. Against the backdrop of an affinity for language, this is why I applied to be an ETA. As for location, Taiwan was well-suited to my interests: one hundred miles from Mainland China and with its international legitimacy in legal limbo, Taiwan represents one unique vantage point from which to understand Beijing’s growing influence both regionally and beyond.

The Fulbright experience has been meaningful on multiple levels. First, it has provided an opportunity to directly appreciate my privilege as a native English-speaker; it is a privilege to occupy this position in large part by virtue of the circumstances in which I was raised. I am not a professional teacher, and while I may have grown in this area over the last year, I am consistently humbled by the chance first and foremost to share my cultural background in my native language in the classroom each day.

Second, this year has enabled me to grow personally in realms trained by the classroom environment in particular. Every day we have the opportunity – and just as often, the need – to hone qualities like patience, compassion, empathy, creativity, spontaneity, composure, and positivity across boundaries of age, culture, and ability. This year has also brought greater attention to the subtle art of cross-cultural communication. The relationship between Fulbright ETAs and our local co-teaching partners is professional in nature, and yet develops in a environment not accompanied by some of the normal fixtures of an office environment such as performance reviews and clearly defined management structures. As a result, the onus falls on ETAs and our co-teachers to establish norms of communication and effective collaboration. In this vein, creating systems in the midst of significant autonomy has been a valuable professional growth opportunity.

Come July, I will leave Taiwan even more committed to understanding how divergent interests, opinions, and visions for the future can be reconciled in ways that make the world a safer, more open-minded, and more prosperous place. Informed by countless interactions at the personal level as a Fulbright ETA, this year has in turn reaffirmed my drive to explore these differences at the policy level, and to this end, I will be pursuing graduate studies in international affairs upon my return.

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