Saturday, October 5, 2013

Fulbright New Leaders Group Award for Refugee Teacher Training Intervention Research

January, 2013 

Dr. Colleen O'Neal, the co-leader of this AEIF Fulbright alumni refugee teacher training project, received an award for the promotion of mutual understanding between the US and Malaysia from the organization that runs the Fulbright program - Institute of International Education. The award was in support of the refugee teacher training intervention research pilot she did in collaboration with Dr. Wai Sheng Ng and Harvest Centre from 2010-2012.

Here's Dr. O'Neal's award for mutual understanding speech:

I feel really honored to get this award. But, as a social scientist, I was confused about how to define mutual understanding or how to judge when this project actually achieved mutual understanding. I had concerns that this refugee education research project might not promote mutual understanding between the US and Malaysia where the project is based. Malaysia is a country that is unsafe for the 90,000 Burmese refugees who have fled to Malaysia over the past 20 years where they are educating their refugee children, themselves, in classrooms hidden in kitchens, basement garage storage rooms, and small, overcrowded apartments in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My guess is the New Leaders Group also had their doubts about how this project would lead to mutual understanding. 

But, now, looking back, I think my doubts were wrong. I think I had made the superficial assumption that mutual understanding is like having your first boyfriend: You idolize him and only see the good, he can do no wrong. I think I, and this project, went from holding hands with Malaysia to a real marriage, for both good times and bad, in a deep mutual understanding involving brutal honesty. We were able to develop a program that could be used by the Malaysian government, when they are ready to open school doors to refugees, to help refugee students better prepare for and slowly transition into government schools over time. 

How did I use the New Leaders Group award? First, before I received the New Leaders award, I tested a pilot research program during my 2010 Fulbright Scholar Award to systematically help refugee teachers with their classroom management of refugee students’ behavior, attention and emotions so that students could better engage with their studies. Teachers who were Malaysian citizens trained refugee teachers. Second, in 2011, I used this New Leaders Group award to make the refugee teacher program more sustainable and local. I partnered with a Malaysian Fulbrighter, who’d gotten her doctorate in the US, and I partnered with a Malaysian NGO who implemented the program. Third, we then partnered with a large team of US and Malaysian Fulbrighters to recently win a Fulbright Alumni award which will expand the New Leaders Group program to study refugee teachers training other refugee teachers deep in the hidden refugee schools in Malaysia. 

How did this award change me? It was not only an awakening to how the global is personal – in how the Burmese government’s continued maltreatment of ethnic minorities (despite recent Burmese government promises) has a global impact and it has a personal impact on refugee kids in Malaysia – but it gave me a taste of real academic freedom where I could do international research and education that I loved.

I am also a mom. My amazing husband and children were such a supportive and necessary part of my ability to work abroad. My kids were the real passport for this research in Asia – getting us access to Burmese government schools, hidden refugee schools in Malaysia, and playing soccer with refugee students, as you saw in the slideshow. I learned that families living abroad can get entry for a project that no researcher, alone, could get entry for. I am also a daughter-in-law of inspirational, intrepid Asia travelers. I am a daughter too and it changed my life completely after my academic parents took our family to live abroad for a year when I was 8, giving me the courage to take my family to Asia for a year when my eldest child was 8. 

Now that President Obama has taken a strategic pivot towards Asia, I’ve come to realize that our honest, mutual understanding with Asian countries will only deepen our relationships and humane treatment of our most vulnerable even more.