February 19, 2010
On my first day as an English Language Fellow (ELF) in Timor-Leste last September, the US embassy officer and I met my counterpart from UNTL (the national university) for the first time and discovered that there would be no classes there until January! Despite this unexpected turn of events, my post affords me a great deal of autonomy. I can thus focus on initiatives that I believe will have the most impact, such as collaborating with a local NGO to design a ten-month program to train Timorese prosecutors and investigators in legal English skills.
Having explored how access and power are tied to language through my coursework at MIIS, I chose to work in Timor-Leste because language issues are strongly linked to educational issues in the country. The country, independent for only ten years so far, is an impressively multi-lingual context, but many people have interrupted educational backgrounds: about 50% of adults have no formal education and only about 12% of people with a formal education finish secondary school.
Improving the education system, therefore, will be key to helping Timor-Leste's population secure education, training, and employment opportunities. To access many of these opportunities, foreign language skills are required, either English or Portuguese. Many donor agencies offer scholarships and educational programs for Timorese people, but many do not qualify for these programs because they lack language skills.
I have chosen to pursue a career in teaching to help disadvantaged or underserved peoples access these high-quality educational opportunities. On the first day of one of my university classes, I asked the students if there was anything they wanted to tell me before class began. One student timidly raised her hand and said “we want you to give us many readings and assignments, please,” and then the other students chimed in with sounds of unanimous agreement. Or, as another lecturer put it, “we Timorese are hungry for knowledge, please feed us!” What more could a teacher want?