Lessons in Leadership – My Undergrad Research Experience

 

Lessons in leadership

Today I gave my very last presentation of my undergraduate career at Elon University SURF Day (Student Undergraduate Research Forum). Woo! After giving dozens of presentations in my classes throughout my time at Elon and a handful of presentations about my larger inquiry project, it’s bittersweet knowing that this part of my academic career is at its conclusion.

However, although my time at Elon is coming to an end, undertaking a large 2-year project has taught me many lessons about myself and leadership. My project has sparked my interest in subjects that I hope to continue pursuing for the rest of my career.

Undergraduate inquiry challenges, frustrates, and ultimately grows individuals to become lifelong learners. I know that I am a better teacher, leader, and person thanks to the Leadership Prize.

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My mentor, Dr. Jennifer Eidum, and I presenting at NCTE in Houston, Texas

An overview of my journey

Sophomore year, the Elon University Teaching Fellows introduced a new requirement for Teaching Fellows: an inquiry project. This requirement mandated that each Teaching Fellow complete a project during the Fall and/or Spring of their junior year. When this project was first introduced, I knew that I wanted my project to have an impact on my community. Therefore, I began searching for a mentor early during the fall of my sophomore year before I went abroad.

That semester, I had just completed Dr. Jennifer Eidum’s TESOL class (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I had always had an interest in working with diverse learners, teaching speakers of other languages, and had considered teaching abroad, but it was this class that truly sparked my interest.

For the TESOL class, I spent approximately 30 hours volunteering at the Greensboro Newcomers Center and tutoring recent immigrants from northern Africa at an after-school program. Through spending time at the Newcomers Center and other experiences in the Alamance Burlington School District, I began to see the need for systematic improvements and increased teacher training to adapt to the growing immigrant and English learning population in North Carolina.

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Working with ELLs abroad

Dr. Eidum and I quickly connected before I went abroad and were excited about collaborating on a project, but had a barrier to getting started as I was headed abroad to Oxford, England in the spring of my sophomore year. In Oxford, thanks to TESOL class and experience at the Newcomers center, I was asked by my placement site at a local high school to work specifically with their English language learners in each student’s general education classes.

A Comparative Education class in Oxford allowed me to conduct a small-scale research project through which I sent out an email survey to each teacher that I worked with asking them questions about working with English language learners at the school. This project provided a foundation and further cultivated my interest in figuring out ways to better support English language learners.

 

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Studying abroad in Oxford, England during the Spring of my sophomore year

 

Applying for the Leadership Prize

When I arrived back at Elon the fall of my junior year, Dr. Eidum and I discussed the various challenges and barriers that I would face as an undergraduate student trying to do research about English language learners. For example, it is very challenging to interview and work directly with students under the age of 18. Additionally, as a student, I do not have the expertise or the funding to tell teachers what to do or to make large scale change by increasing salaries or budgets.

We decided to apply for the Elon University Leadership Prize (a $10,000 grant that funds problem-solving research) as a way to address a large problem: the increasing amount of immigrants and English language learners moving to the state of North Carolina and to the Alamance Burlington area that is unsupported through funding, teacher training, and teacher pay. Our task as researchers was to find a way in which to support our community using our funding and time not as experts, but as organizers and supporters.

 

Three key lessons in leadership

 

  1. Gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge versus gaining knowledge for change

When I first started my research project, I thought that the research was all about reading books, sending out surveys, and conducting interviews. While these are all important parts of the research process, my leadership prize process focused on taking the results of my study and analyzing the implications in order to do something in order to address the problem.

The knowledge that I gained from reading about English language learners and the school system not only informs how I move in my classroom and the decisions I make but has inspired me to work with my community to make a broader impact. I am so excited to share that there is a space booked for next year for what will be the second Elon English Language Teaching Symposium with plans for the event to become either annual or biannual.

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2) Ask for help early and often

About halfway through my project when I began planning the symposium and working on project implementation, my anxiety was the worst that it has ever been in college. I was having trouble sleeping and I felt like I was never truly resting. I took a lot of big steps during that semester, which all involved asking for help in some way.

Firstly, I started attending therapy sessions at Elon’s counseling center and learned important outlets and coping strategies for dealing with anxiety. Secondly, I asked my parents to split the cost of a yoga membership, which changed the way I felt about myself and exercise. Thirdly, I started asking for help around campus. I learned to reach out to professors, other students, and even the Dean of Education to solicit advice for my project.

While I had heard before that the research project isn’t linear, this was the semester that I gained an insight into what that meant. Together, with the help of many others, I was able to move forward, both in my project and in my mental health.

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3) It’s not about you

Midway through my project when I was feeling the pressure, I was worried about what other people would think about me if my project failed. Ultimately, I can now recognize that the project’s whole purpose was to bring together people and to share stories and I shouldn’t have been so focused on myself. If you haven’t seen Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” go watch it right now.

The most rewarding outcome from my research was hearing that one of my Elon peers was invited to share her Symposium presentation at a professional development training at a local middle school. She spoke to over 30 educators and shared her presentation titled, “The Immigrant Experience: Supporting Students in Their Educational Journey.” I am proud of the work I have done over the last 2 years not only because of the data I have collected and the presentations I have given but also because of the stories that have been shared and the conversations that have been had as a result of the work.

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This project was made possible by the generous support of the Leadership Prize, Elon Teaching Fellows, Department of English, and Global Neighborhood, with grants from Elon’s Fund for Excellence, and the Intellectual Climate committee. Thank you! 

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If you have any questions about my project, please feel free to email me or reach out on the contact section of this blog! Read more about my project and Leadership Prize grant here and more about the Symposium (pre-event) here and (post-event) here.

 

 

 

 

Reflections Research teaching

A Stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet – La Cascada Del Amor

As my senior year comes to a close and graduation draws nearer and nearer, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the things that I have done over the past 4 years at Elon. While at Elon, I’ve accomplished things and gone places that my high school self would have never imagined. I’ve (almost) successfully completed student teaching, I’ve studied abroad not once but twice, I was awarded a research grant that allowed me to create and co-host the first ever Elon English Language Teaching Symposium, and I’ve met friends and professors who have encouraged me and mentored me through every step of the way. Thus, I’ve decided that I want to start writing again, particularly about things that I have experienced in the past 4 years, in order to process and to share.

A family member recently asked me if I will be scared to leave for a whole year in August when my Fulbright grant in the Czech Republic begins. I thought about it for a second. While I know that there will be moments of homesickness, of loneliness, or uncertainty, I would not say that I am afraid. The thing that I fear the most is missing out on opportunities because the fear of discomfort stopped me from taking a chance.

When I think about the moments that have stretched me, that have pushed me, and that have changed me, I realize that they all involve moments of discomfort or moments of challenge. Living in Ecuador during the summer of 2018 constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone. Each moment, big or small, held a sense of adventure and was so different from my previous experiences abroad. From learning to communicate in Spanish, to teaching at a summer camp, to constantly adjusting to the culture of always being late, I am proud to say that my time in Ecuador made me more flexible, more adaptable, and more considerate of others.

By the end of the trip, I could see the change in myself. I was more confident and had a newfound ability to take things in stride. I had gotten over food poisoning (twice!), taught students ages 5-15 and grappled with the language barrier, spent 8 weeks with no data plan, walked a mile just to print out my teaching materials for the week, and had trained myself to throw all toilet paper into the trash can. I felt like I could do anything. Which is why, on the End of Service trip, I decided to say yes to spending a day with strangers (sorry, Mom!).

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One of our final destinations as a WorldTeach volunteer cohort was the city of Mindo, Ecuador. Mindo is located to the north west of Quito in the Andes mountains and has a population of around 3,000 people. It is also a cloud forest, one of the rarest types of climates in the world, in which the rainfall is heavy and condenses and floats near the trees because of currents and the mountains. In other words, the city of Mindo is a small jungle paradise with amazing biodiversity around the corner at every turn.

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On our first full day in Mindo, the other volunteers and I took the plunge into the cold Mindo river for a tubing expedition. When I hear tubing, I think of lazy rivers and pulling a cooler float alongside. We were in for a shock when we found out that we’d have a guide with us on our tubing adventure. Think white water rafting, but in connected tubes. We bumped our way down the rocky river, getting splashed with freezing cold water and laughing at the unexpected fear of being catapulted down the river backwards.

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When we got out, the drivers of the tubing company took some photos of our group, and through asking them to share the photos, we ended up becoming friends and meeting for drinks that night. We salsa danced, learned more about the town of Mindo, and I got a chance to practice my beginner Spanish. They invited us out the next day to show us around town and on a whim, we said yes. I should preface this story by explaining that Mindo is extremely safe, and was definitely the safest place that I visited in Ecuador. It is a small community where everyone knows each other and people walk around the streets chatting and visiting. Even at night, we were able to walk around comfortably (which we did not do in Quito or in other towns like Riobamba where I lived).

Our new friends picked us up in their white pickup truck, and we soon learned that they used the truck for a taxi service around Mindo, especially around tourist seasons. I found it humorous that the truck had no “taxi” label at all. The driver simply stuck a white piece of computer paper in the windshield that read “taxi” when it was in service. (This should give you an idea of how small the town was). Luckily, my friend Emma spoke better Spanish than I do, so she helped to translate our conversations when necessary. Our new friends asked us if they could take us to one of their favorite local spots, a nearby waterfall called the Cascada Del Amor. We stopped on the way there at one of their favorite local cheese shops, and when we arrived at the waterfall, we were the only ones there. It was a short rocky hike to the waterfall’s opening – a crisp clear round blue pool with a medium sized waterfall as the backdrop. We stripped to our swimwear and dove straight in. I’ve loved the water since I was a little girl, and I wasted no time paddling to the waterfall side of the pool and climbing up the rocks to sit in the stream.

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There’s something so wonderful about discovering a new place when there are no tourists there. As I spoke with our new friends in choppy Spanish, I felt strangely at home as we swam and learned about each other’s lives.

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After our swim, our new friends explained that on the other side of the river, there was a resort where one of their friends worked as a server. They explained that if we wanted, we could go check it out and have a snack and dance some before heading back home. When we drove to the resort, I began to grow a bit alarmed. We were winding down dirt roads in the middle of the cloud forest. If I thought Mindo was a small town, this was even smaller. There were no signs of civilization in the area and we had been driving further away from the main road for about 10 minutes. Emma and I whispered to each other in English. Maybe we should just ask them to go home? Finally, we pulled up at a huge all-white building with a circular blue dome roof. I breathed a sigh of relief and we entered the main gate of the premises.

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The owner of the resort later explained to us that they only recently opened with the goal of attracting more tourists to this remote area of the country. The resort has a pool, a hot tub, a sauna, a dance floor, and many of the modern amenities that you would find in a hotel in the United States (which was not the case at the hostels we stayed at!). It was a memorable night spent swimming and dancing with other hotel guests and learning about the struggles to find work that many locals find in the area, especially during the seasons that are not tourist peaks. For example, our friend the taxi-driver has to leave his home and go to Quito for several months of each year to make money to send back to his family. Saying yes throughout my time in Ecuador allowed me to make new friends, see new places, and learn much more of the language and culture. After all, the other volunteers I traveled with also began as strangers!

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Break outside the norm

At home, we tend to get stuck in our groups and our experiences without taking a chance. Comfort can encourage us to stick to the same routine. However, I believe that adventure can be found in little ways like trying a new restaurant, visiting a place in your own city that you’ve always wanted to go, or making a new friend and letting them teach you something. While you should always follow your gut instinct and learn strategies to stay safe in any country or area you are in, it is also important to not let the fear of trying something new stop you from making a friend, taking a new job, or spending time doing something that you’re passionate about.

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