Fulbright Features: Malaysian experience shapes career for Penn State alumna

By Marcy Herr
November 03, 2015

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend masters degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total isn’t yet released, at least 11 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 13 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.

 

It’s incredibly difficult to believe that my grant year is coming to a close. My experience in Malaysia has exceeded my expectations and has truly been the adventure of a lifetime. On a daily basis, I have been tested in this culture so different from my own, but by remaining patient and maintaining a positive attitude, these challenges have taught me so much. I have grown not only professionally, but also personally. I have learned about the Malaysian culture and how to strike a balance between the give and take of cultural exchange in this immersion experience.

I have been blessed by the support of my Fulbright cohort as well as the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. Throughout the year, I have taught English to 13- to 17-year-old students in a rural, predominately Muslim community in Perlis, Malaysia. I have been overwhelmed by the respect, curiosity and hard-working attitudes of my students. The most difficult aspect of my job is the necessity to be constantly “on” because my community is so interested in what I am doing or how I am feeling. My students bring me joy and energy on a daily basis and learning with them has been such a rewarding experience.

The relationships that I have built in Malaysia made me quickly feel at home, and I know that I will always have a Malaysian family here.

— Marcy Herr,
Penn State alumna
and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant

Part of my job responsibility is to host English programs outside of school hours, to provide my students with a less formal environment to feel comfortable to practice their English and, of course, to have fun in doing so. I hosted three world explorer-themed programs, a sports program and the first statewide English camp with a women’s empowerment theme. Additionally, every spare minute I have outside of school I try to spend with my students who really have become like younger siblings to me. Our favorite activities include bowling and swimming at the waterfall. The Fulbright cohort supports each other’s programs so I have had the chance to be a part of a number of impactful and memorable events across the country.

A less formal, yet very important, aspect of my job is to be a grassroots ambassador to anyone that I interact with. I take great pride in representing the United States. This position is very important to me because I know that I am likely the only American my community members have met, and the impression that I leave will be remembered.

The importance of these relationships was reinforced to me after a student admitted that initially she was confused as to why a “rich foreigner” would come to small town Malaysia and thought there was nothing she could possibly learn from me. It wasn’t until I finally was able to break down her barriers and make her comfortable to approach me that she realized the beauty of friendships with people so different from ourselves. She had to recognize our differences as learning opportunities before we were able to truly connect.

Due to its diverse culture, Malaysia has very regular school breaks to honor its many holidays. This has given me the opportunity to travel the region, specifically to Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. Living only a 20-minute drive from the Thai border has made it my favorite vacation destination this year.

Throughout the past year, Penn State alumna Marcy Herr has taught English to 13- to 17-year-old students in a rural, predominately Muslim community in Perlis, Malaysia, as part of her Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

Throughout the past year, Penn State alumna Marcy Herr has taught English to 13- to 17-year-old students in a rural, predominately Muslim community in Perlis, Malaysia, as part of her Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

IMAGE: Marcy Herr

I have not felt the homesickness that I anticipated, which I attribute to the kind and welcoming attitudes of my community. This has showed me the importance of relationships and surrounding yourself with supportive people. My sense of independence has developed this year, too, as I have lived across the world from my family. The relationships that I have built in Malaysia made me quickly feel at home, and I know that I will always have a Malaysian family here. In a recent school assembly, I sang a song titled “Satu Malaysia,” which means one Malaysia, with a group of students. Singing nearly brought tears to my eyes as I reflected on how much I have been embraced by this community and truly do feel like a part of the school family.

I am used to keeping every detail of my life scheduled and organized but have learned the importance of flexibility this year. This was definitely a challenge for me, but when you are working in a new culture and with teenagers, a laid-back attitude and the ability to adapt are crucial.

Working closely with Malaysian teachers requires that I am patient, open minded and willing to compromise. I have enjoyed working cross culturally and constantly remind myself that my co-workers are a valuable resource to me if I take the time to understand their ideas and opinions. The teachers in my school have the best interests of the students at heart and have a better understanding of the Malaysian and school cultures than I could ever have. They have been such great teachers to me, as I needed to quickly learn not only how to adapt to Malaysia but also how to teach.

I have seen the impact that the 100 Fulbright English teachers can have across the country in 10 short months and really appreciate all that this program does for everyone involved. When I left the U.S., my grandma wished me well but also said not to enjoy it too much because she was anxious to have me back home. I am looking forward to coming home to see my family, but I am even more excited to begin my new job as a Fulbright Malaysia assistant program coordinator in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next year working under the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange. I had no idea how valid my grandmother’s advice was at the time and have certainly fallen in love with the culture and people of Malaysia this year as I made it my home away from home. In my new position, I hope to be able to support the American teachers who will make up the Fulbright cohort next year. I know that this experience will be impactful for them, and I want to do all I can to ensure that they are able to make the most of their time in Malaysia.

My 10 months in a small Malaysian town have been such a stress-free, enjoyable and life-changing time. This isn’t the first time that I have gone abroad with big plans to change the world and returned to Pennsylvania with a humbled and thankful attitude for all that the world taught me. As I prepare to leave Perlis, Malaysia, I will be saying goodbye to people who have become more like family to me than simply co-workers or students. I feel like I have really grown up during my year in Malaysia, while at the same time have been reminded of the joy and importance that come from staying youthful and pushing work aside to go play outside. It will break my heart to say goodbye to my Malaysian family, but I know the memories we made together this year will stay with us forever. 

Last Updated May 12, 2016