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July 7, 2018
Life At Witt

Making A Difference In Malaysia

Maria Symons Passes on her Light Internationally

Picture this: You’re carpooling with your housemate to work in the early morning. You look to your left to watch the sun rising lazily over the South China Sea; the light is just peeking over the top of Kapas Island, a little offshore. It’s a nice view, you couldn’t argue that. But it’s still not quite the same as the one you’ll have from the front of the classroom – it definitely won’t wake you up like the synchronized “good morning” you’ll get from your students.

That’s how I start my days as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in northeastern peninsular Malaysia. While these past weeks have been a tornado of orientations and bus rides and cultural faux pas and moving from one place to the next, I finally made it to the quiet fishing town of Marang for my first days of teaching.

Around this time last year, I was taking my last courses as an English major at Wittenberg, and doing my best (most of the time) to keep up with my thesis deadlines. I didn’t realize it then, but I was still collecting the tools I would need to take on the new adventure that would be presented to me months down the line. Beyond all the incredible opportunities I was given at Witt to travel, and feel the importance of being a part of the cultural exchange and a shared learning experience – especially during my semester abroad in Germany – I was also provided a space to set and realize my goals for the future right on campus.

During the time I worked at the Writing Center, I was inspired by my team of advisors and all they did to connect with students, creating a safe and innovative space for writers. Working with peers in sessions, especially those writers learning English as a second language, pushed me toward the most challenging, and what I predict will be the most fulfilling, position of my life so far: co-teaching at a rural Malay school with an especially low English proficiency and a conservative culture I still may not be adjusted to by the end of my grant term.

I’ve been missing the Writing Center at Witt so much lately, I’m hoping to bring a modified version to life in my secondary school here in Marang. I’ve been granted full use of the abandoned room on campus once designated as the English Language Center (an idea never seen to fruition), and hope that after some cleaning, decorating and good care, we might open its doors and start training some young peer advisors to work with other students on various writing projects and create a welcoming and supportive environment for English language learners.

It’s hard to know what will come of the rest of my year here; I’ve learned quickly that nothing ever happens exactly as you plan or expect in Malaysia. There are things I can’t prepare for, like surviving the insufferable heat while wearing a neck-to-toe “baju kurung” uniform, or accidentally eating parts of a chicken that I would ordinarily opt not to eat, or abiding by the cultural norms that to me as a westerner are hard to understand. But whatever challenges come, I’ve still got all that light that Witt passed on to me to put to use.

Maria Symons ’17
Major: English
Minor: Creative Writing
Hometown: Escondido, Calif.

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About Wittenberg

A nationally ranked university for the liberal arts and sciences affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Wittenberg University has repeatedly been ranked throughout the years by the Princeton Review for the quality of its teaching and faculty, including 11th in the nation for "Best Classroom Experience" and 15th in the category "Professors Get High Marks" in the 2011 edition of Princeton's annual Best Colleges guide. Most recently, Wittenberg earned the No. 4 spot in the category of "Most Accessible Professors." Wittenberg appeared in the Princeton Review's Guide to Green Colleges in 2013 and again in 2015. Additionally, Wittenberg currently has more Ohio Professors of the Year than any other four-year institution in the state, and has been recognized nationally for excellence in service and athletics.

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