Програма академiчних обмiнiв iменi Фулбрайта в Українi

The Fulbright program has been everything to me - a teacher in my life, a source of knowledge, an eye-opener, a role-model, a kind grandmother pampering me with nice things, and a harsh but fair father giving me life lessons, making me stronger and more m

Oleksandra Kostenko

Oleksandra Kostenko: The Fulbright program has been everything to me - a teacher in my life, a source of knowledge, an eye-opener, a role-model, a kind grandmother pampering me with nice things, and a harsh but fair father giving me life lessons, making m

I have never heard of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) until I got the notification from Fulbright that I had been admitted to the MATESL (Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language) Program of Linguistics Department there. Located in American Mid-West, in the middle of corn fields, it didn’t look appealing to me at the first glance. On my way from the airport to the college-town, I was looking at those corn-fields with a gloomy expression on my face. However, very quickly upon my arrival, I found out that the most kind and friendly people in America live in Mid-West, that living here is cheap, and there are fewer factors that can distract students from studying here than, for example, in American big cities or resort places. My University turned out to be one of the best public universities in the country, with a big campus offering a wide range of both academic and social activities for the students, with highly ranked program of my specialization in the country, with beautiful buildings, green lawns, cute statues and fountains, cozy coffee-shops, where people study like crazy, - all over the campus. The land of corn fields greeted me with a big corn festival taking place in late August offering a huge variety of food, and, of course, the sweetest and the tastiest corn with butter I’ve ever tried in my life.

My Terms of Appointment specified that I had a Teaching Assistant (TA) position apart from my studying at the UIUC. I should admit this was another thing I was skeptical about in the very beginning. I was thinking to myself that this TAship would take a lot of my time that I would rather devote to studying and doing my research. But already after a couple of months of teaching, I realized that this position was the God’s blessing and the most beneficial work experience in my whole life. TA orientation in the beginning of the academic year, subsequent weekly staff meetings with more experienced colleagues, professional development seminars, curriculum development projects, individual evaluations by head TAs and program coordinator – all that gave me much more than I could possibly get from all the university courses I was taking! As a result, by the end of the second semester of teaching, I got the Certificate from the UIUC Centre of Teaching Excellence, and increased my teaching evaluation grades from average to the highest.

As far as my academic accomplishments are concerned, I made a big progress in language skills, analytical writing skills, and deepened knowledge in my major. Most people are surprised when I tell them that after studying English for twenty years, after teaching it in the Ukrainian University for four years, and after getting a pretty high score in TOEFL and GRE, before coming to the USA, I found myself here in quite a few awkward situations of misunderstanding in communication with American native-speakers. Having never been immersed in American culture before, I could barely understand some of my native-speaking group-mates during discussions at the seminars, which was really hard to acknowledge. It took me a couple of months to get adjusted to people’s accents and manners of talk. Luckily, now, I not only have no problems understanding both native and non-native speakers, but also can easily distinguish between international people’s accents, and tell where they come from just by listening to their speech. Also, here I learnt how to express my ideas logically and clearly in writing to meet the expectations of American readers. Most major assignments in American academic programs involve critical analysis of scientific articles, so it is very important to be able to write grammatically and stylistically correct, meeting the requirements of unity and coherence, clarity and common logic accepted in the USA and in international scholarly community. I am happy that I mastered those skills, and I can share my knowledge with other foreign students that I teach. What is more, thanks to studying in the UIUC, I got to know most advanced methodologies of second language learning and teaching. In the UIUC, I had numerous opportunities to apply my knowledge of theory in practice teaching international students, writing lesson plans with the use of advanced computer and Internet technologies, developing language tests and test specifications within the scope of the courses that I was taking. The focus in American education is on practical applicability of things, unlike in Ukraine, where we tend to focus on theory more. So, I’m very glad that here I had so many chances to practice in my major.

I couldn’t be more grateful to the Fulbright program in terms of my personal growth too. I became more confident, broad- and open-minded, empathetic and able to see things from various perspectives. Besides, I discovered the new myself here. First, I, just like many other educated people all over the world, tended to doubt everything, including my abilities to achieve something high. Fulbright drastically changed me in this respect. Now, every time I doubt whether I can do something, I remember that I am a Fulbright student, and I know that I can move the mountains if I want to. Second, thanks to Fulbright, I got the possibility to communicate with so many different people from all over the world, that has completely changed my stereotypical believes about foreign cultures. Now I understand that people are more similar than different. We might have different culinary preferences or religious believes, but in the long run, no matter, who we are - Americans, Asians, Middle-Eastern, Indians, or Ukrainians, - we all strive for peace and well-being for ourselves and our close people. American culture, being itself composed of various world cultures, is the one that unites people who melt in the same “pot”. Fulbright experience made me realize that we all live in the global village; therefore, we should be more understanding and tolerant to each other. Now it doesn’t matter to me what the skin color of my friend is, what God he/she believes in, what food he/she favors, - what matters in our communication is our common interests and appealing personal qualities. Now I realize that everyone perceives the world through the prism of his/her native culture. Knowing and willing to accept other people’s cultures is the key to success. I wish every person in the world could experience the intense international communication I had as a Fulbright student at the International Gateway Orientation in Nebraska and Enrichment seminar on American election system in Philadelphia, where there were Fulbrighters from more than 50 countries of the world sitting in the same room, listening to each other with genuine respect, networking and establishing long-lasting work- and friendly connections. This experience taught me how to think globally, and as a result, now, metaphorically speaking, I don’t think that the apple is red just because I see it as red. I know that for somebody else the same apple might seem pink. There is a good expression saying that we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. So, Fulbright taught me to always think of the possibility of other perspectives in the back of my mind. As for discovering new myself, I found new habits and hobbies here. I started biking and found so much pleasure and convenience in it! Also, I started drinking iced coffee, wearing shorts, flat shoes, backpacks and no make-up! I think it can also be related to broad-mindedness to a certain extent that I developed in the USA.

The Fulbright program has been everything to me – a teacher in my life, a source of knowledge, an eye-opener, a role-model, a kind grandmother pampering me with nice things, and a harsh but fair father giving me life lessons, making me stronger and more mature. Here I had both the most stressful and nerve-racking moments (especially right upon my arrival to the USA when I had to go through adjustment stage), and the happiest times ever when (when I saw two oceans, and fell in love with Boston). Fulbright made me realize my potential and believe in myself, helped me find more friends from all over the world, broadened my mind and changed me from inside and outside. I am happy to go through these changes. I can say quite honestly that Fulbright is the best thing that ever happened in my life.


Oleksandra Kostenko
Dnipropetrovsk Oles Honchar National University
Linguistics | M.A. Program in Teaching English as a Second Language (MATESL), University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Champaign, IL