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Recent Graduate Receives Fulbright Award to Teach English in Malaysia

 Monique
Monique Saastamoinen, '15 (2nd from right, with students)
Majors: English, concentration in Rhetoric and Global Culture

Article Written By: JC Wu, Class of 2017

The Fulbright Program is a fully funded scholarship that gives students the opportunity to travel abroad to a foreign country to study various disciplines, conduct research or teach English. Binghamton University graduate Monique Saastamoinen is a 2015 Fulbright recipient who is currently an English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia.

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Monique Saastamoinen is a recent graduate who always had her schedule outside of class packed with extracurricular involvement during her undergraduate years at Binghamton University. From assisting her professors in research to participating in community groups, her diverse list of experiences helped her stand out as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant applicant.

At Binghamton, Monique formed meaningful connections with professors who would later become her mentors. “Mentorship was the most important part of my development over my time at Binghamton.” She cited a few professors who made an impact on her and one of them was Professor of Social Work - Lisa Blitz, who encouraged her to pursue an internship with the Department of Social Work. Monique explained: “I first got in touch with her to chat about her book on critical pedagogy and global race issues. Later on she gave me the opportunity to assist her research.” Monique completed a summer research assistantship with the Department under the mentorship of Professor Blitz which allowed her to participate in a project that was especially memorable to her. In a joint effort, she and the Department social workers visited several schools where poverty and low test scores were common and designed a program to target these problems. The project consisted of several development programs to assist the teachers in meeting the needs of their students. Over the course of a summer, a positive change was observed and Monique was asked to co-write a paper on the program with Professor Blitz. “Her including me in these processes and inviting me to co-author with her were all life-change experiences for me!”

Assistant Professor of English, Aja Martinez, whose dedication to her own research in the Critical Race Theory, influenced Monique to produce quality work in everything she did, from her classes to writing for scholarship applications. “Professor Martinez is a research rockstar and a great person to shadow because she sets the bar very high and sometimes I wonder if I would have had such quality work and application if I didn’t watch her work.”

Paul Shovlin, Director of the Writing Center where Monique was a tutor for two years, was another influential person to her. Through a practicum that she took with him, she was exposed to ideas that challenged the way she viewed the English language. The connection they made with each other eventually turned into a collaborative research assistantship. Professor Shovlin and other professors helped Monique discover her passion of composition and the art of teaching through writing. Just like the mentors who have guided her, she aspires to be a professor one day.

“I love embracing new things, I am not afraid to do so.” From doing research to teaching ESL students to tutoring writing and being a resident assistant, Monique has done it all. She has also showed curiosity in other parts of the world. After a 4-week abroad experience in Ghana, Monique realized she “needed to see more of the world; one country was not enough.” When she came back to the US, she started looking into the Fulbright Program. After putting in a tremendous amount of effort in perfecting her application through the help of her mentors, she was selected to serve as an English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia. “Of all the options, I find Malaysia to be the most interesting place because it is a cultural melting pot.”

After graduating in the winter of 2015, Monique hopped on a flight in January and flew to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. “When I arrived, my first impression was awe; Kuala Lumpur is a combination of rainforest and metropolis like I’ve never seen before. There were tropical trees, flowering vines, and skyscrapers all blending and coexisting together.” Shortly after, she had to settle in and begin her mission as an English Teaching Assistant.

With her background in English composition, Monique’s goal is to make the language less intimidating to non-traditional speakers. She works with secondary students ages 12 to 15. Because of the large sizes of Malaysian classrooms, it can be challenging to engage with everyone equally, so she put the students in groups and engages them both inside and outside of the classroom. The students practice their English through conversations, educational games, and even outdoor activities like gardening. 

Through working with her students closely in groups, Monique is not only providing meaningful feedback to hone their English speaking skills but she is also personally bonding with them. “I remember during a narrative writing workshop when I had the students write what makes them excited. Several of their responses were about having lessons with me and quite a few even said I have made them feel smart and important. It was really validating to hear that!” She remembers another memorable moment with a shy student who always covered her mouth when she talked. However during one presentation, she spoke entirely without covering her mouth once. “I was so proud of her!”

Monique is very tolerant toward students who make mistakes because she believes her students can improve their English through learning from their mistakes. Her experiences at Binghamton gave her the opportunity to hone her skill as an aspiring educator. “I find that my two tutoring experiences in the Writing Center and ESL class back in Binghamton really informed my teaching practice because I learned how to encourage people to continue speaking and writing regardless of their grammatical mistakes as well as how to offer gentle advice about pronunciation without criticizing or deterring my partner. All of which I now apply to my students here.”

Being an ETA in Malaysia has been a great learning experience for Monique too. Not only is she getting a better understanding on the educational culture of Kuala Lumpur, she is also gaining mentorship skills which will help prepare for a career in teaching in the future. “Every new experience is a learning experience. As long as there is something to be learned, then it is never a loss.”    

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Last Updated: 11/22/17