The field of international education integrates theories of education with the study of real school systems around the world to understand and improve the ways that societies transmit knowledge and skills, and thus to support development. In my case, a master’s degree in International Education is inculcating me with the analytical skills and leadership abilities that I will need as a literacy specialist in Cameroon, where many children are not learning to read effectively because they receive instruction in a second language. I plan to conduct research and empower Cameroonian educators so that the children they teach can enjoy the economic, social, and spiritual benefits of literacy.
The first book I read by myself was about a monkey who went to space. The significance of what I had done as I leafed through the hand-sketched pictures of the brave little chimp was not clear at the time. After the monkey book, I continued to read, and books took me to places I had never been. It has taken me two decades to understand how special it was to have a childhood filled to the brim with books. Having parents who could read, attending school in the language that I heard and spoke at home, and learning from well- trained teachers are all advantages that millions of children around the world lack.
After reading hundreds of thousands of pages, I realized that I loved languages. A career teaching Spanish to English speakers and English to speakers of other languages was an outgrowth of this passion. While training for this career, I heard about SIL International, which empowers minority languages to address cultural, political, economic and spiritual challenges. I loved the idea of helping communities read key books in their own language, so after college I joined. My first assignment was teaching Spanish at an international school in Cameroon. I loved teaching the diverse group of students there, but was troubled by reading ability of the Cameroonian children I met outside of the school. Many of them could not read confidently out loud until they were eleven or twelve, and their exposure to print was limited to chalkboard writing and workbooks. However, there was a bright spot of hope: a visit to a school where students were learning in their own language, rather than in English or French. I was impressed by the eager responses of the children who learned to read first in Kom, their own language, while also learning English, the dominant language of their region.
I would later learn that test scores of students in the Kom school were significantly higher in reading, mathematics, and English than their peers at other schools, who were expected to learn in English from their first day. The impact of this finding demonstrates two causes that drive my life. First, we must test what we think we know about education to find out what actually works for students. Many people assume that children should start learning in English because it is an international language, or because English is better developed than many African languages. Research shows otherwise, and if research can inform what we know about the language we use in classrooms, there must be many other questions left to answer in the field of education. Secondly, since there is now a wealth of evidence that students learn best in their own language, there is a need for practitioners who can respectfully convince communities of this, train teachers to teach in multiple languages, and empower African educators to develop textbooks for this endeavor.
After seeing how learning in their own languages benefits children, I began training with SIL to prepare for research and practice within the field. My supervisors at SIL were supportive, as we are known for providing quality research and excellent educational consulting services for minority language communities. My first training phase was to spend three semesters in Dallas at a school that SIL established to train future language development workers. While there, I learned about research methods and best practices in literacy. Although this training was excellent, after finishing the coursework, I realized that I also needed a bird’s eye view of education in different countries, and found it in the International Education master’s program at the George Washington University. The professors there had done significant research in developing countries, and the school was located in Washington, D.C., a city with strong communities in educational research and practice. I started classes there in the fall of 2014, and have learned about education in developing countries, as well improving myself as a scholar by attending conferences about topics like literacy for crisis situations. My academic adviser encouraged me to submit a presentation proposal to an international conference this spring, and I was accepted to present a comparison of different approaches to textbook design in African languages.
I have three semesters left at the George Washington University, and I plan to make the most of them to prepare myself as an excellent literacy specialist in Cameroon. Through improving my skills as a practitioner and scholar, the master’s degree in International Education is preparing me to research creative solutions and empower African educators so that children can learn in the African languages they speak at home. Their first books probably will not be about brave little chimpanzees, but I know that reading will open new worlds to them.