Education students 'test the waters' in Marshall Islands

by Lizzie Wise | 5/21/02 5:00am

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the one-mile-long island of Majuro, the blazing sun beats down on the backs of children clad in Dartmouth T-shirts.

The T-shirts are gifts from the children's schoolteachers, who happen to be Dartmouth students residing in the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Chair of the education department Andrew Garrod initiated the "off-term mentored internship," for students to leave Dartmouth during their winter term to teach in Marshallese public schools.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to serve -- and to serve in a part of the world where America has had a very complicated relationship," Garrod said.

Although the Republic of the Marshall Islands receives the most financial aid per capita of any nation in the world from the United States, the islands were once the site for U.S. nuclear weapon testing after World War II.

David Anderson '04, an education minor, decided to apply for the program for next winter because, "I've always wanted to spread an enthusiasm for learning to the end of the Earth," he said.

About five years ago, former professor Sarah Ritten-Paulin traveled to the Marshall Islands because she wanted to adopt Marshallese children. While there, she met an American woman who asked that Dartmouth students teach at her Catholic school in Gugeegue. She was referred to Garrod, who assisted her private school for several years. He has since modified the program, directing Dartmouth students to Marshallese public schools. With this in mind, he contacted the Ministry of Education, which was immediately receptive, Garrod said.

"The Ministry of Education believes that their students cannot do well unless they improve their English skills," he said. "The education system has been somewhat haphazard, to put it mildly."

So for four years now -- with funding from the Hewlett Fund, the Dickey Center and the Bildner Foundation -- Garrod has sent six to seven sophomores and juniors to Majuro each Winter term, under the guidance of Garrod and a retired school teacher from Canada.

Garrod selected seven students out of 15 applicants for next Winter term.

"I'm looking for reliability, a sense of adventure, a respect for other cultures, an intellectual curiosity, emotional stability, fondness for children and a strong desire to work with them in a challenging environment," he said.

Steve Zyck '04 spent his Winter term in Majuro teaching government to 12th graders and English to ninth graders. The language barrier was not the only challenge Zyck found in teaching. His resources were also quite limited -- he had only 10 American government textbooks, which dated back to 1987, before the end of the Cold War.

"We tried to make the topics practical," Zyck said. "The American curriculum didn't have much relevance to their lives, so we tried to get them learning about Marshallese government."

While the students had been instructed to learn about the committee structure of the U.S. Senate, Zyck said that they didn't even know who elected the president of their own country.

Zyck was also able to organize an after-school program for seniors applying to community colleges in Hawaii. He helped approximately 20 students register for the TOEFL test and U.S. financial aid.

In his ninth-grade English class, Zyck's enthusiasm was matched by that of his students. Zyck said his "bright-eyed" students were "little balls of energy." On the first day he taught the class alone, "every kid was in there five minutes early," he said.

According to Garrod, "One of the biggest challenges is to motivate the kids and make them see a purpose in learning."

He also noted that there is a high rate of unemployment among Marshallese.

"When you look at their futures, they aren't futures of great promise," he said, because many of them do not receive education beyond elementary school.

Absenteeism is not only high among the children, but also among their teachers. The Ministry of Education imports English-speaking teachers, but they don't stay long, according to Garrod. Native teachers are not likely to have more than an associate's degree, the equivalent of a two-year program, he added.

Garrod, a Canadian citizen who was born in British India, hopes that this program will persuade students to seek a career in public school teaching, a career in which Garrod worked for 17 years prior to teaching at the university level.

He also hopes that the program affects Dartmouth students' notions of self and culture.

"The program enriches our Dartmouth students' lives because they're thrown out of their comfort zone into a third-world country which feels dramatically different," Garrod said.

"I'm a firm believer that people learn a great deal from immersing themselves in other cultures," added Garrod, who has edited several cross-culture books, including "Crossing Customs: International Students Write on U.S. College Life and Culture."

Garrod has even incorporated Dartmouth graduates into the Marshall Islands program. For the first time, four graduates -- Mike Evans '00, Cat Zusky '01, Eric Hogenson '01 and Chris Tully '01 -- are currently living on the tiny island of Ejit, teaching at Ejit Elementary School and the Marshall Islands High School. The experience has been so rewarding for Zusky and Hogenson that they've decided to spend a second year there, Garrod said.

And the program is about to expand once more.

Next year three more graduate students will teach on the tiny island of Kili. Tony Luckett '01, Kyle Swafford '02 and Meredith Bryan '02 will be the first Americans in many years to teach on the one-mile long island near Majuro. The populations of Ejit and Kili were once inhabitants of Bikini, until the United States chose it as the site for the first peacetime explosion of the atomic bomb.

Although Luckett sees life on the isolated, remote Kili to be "a little daunting," he said he is looking forward to using his leadership skills there.

"Your purpose in life is where your talents and people's needs meet," Luckett said.

Since he has been told that he should be a teacher, Luckett thinks he should put his "skills to use" in the Marshall Islands.

An engineering major who is known for his performance poetry and dance, Luckett plans to "put a twist on conventional teaching."

"Music is a good way to teach people," Luckett said. He intends to bring books, read-along tapes and a portable stereo with him to Kili to use in the classroom.

To be eligible for the program in Majuro, students must either express in an interest in the teacher education program, which gives students a New Hampshire certification to teach, or they must declare a minor in education.

They're "testing the waters" to see if they want to become teachers, Garrod said. He estimates that half of the participants come back to Dartmouth with the desire to become public school teachers.

For Matt Davis '03, teaching geography to 10th graders in Majuro this winter cemented his desire to become a public school teacher.

"I was pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher before the program," Davis said."I had a really good experience interacting with the kids," Davis said. At first the students wouldn't even look at him because they were so shy, but by the third day of classes they turned around.

All of the Dartmouth students who went to Majuro plan to incorporate education into their future careers.