When I first began teaching at SMAN 7 in Kendari, South Sulawesi, my student Elsa was painfully shy. She rarely raised her hand. Every day, she sat next to her friend Risda, one of my best students. I saw Elsa wanting to raise her hand, but hesitating. But as the weeks passed, Elsa became more comfortable in English class. Now she works hard to make sure she understands the material and is an enthusiastic participant. Most importantly, she asks questions. This is a rarity among my many students.
Once I began advertising the AMINEF WORDS Competition, I encouraged Risda to participate. Risda hesitated and ultimately missed the initial information sessions and first week of WORDS preparation. I soon found out that Risda lives in Batugong, a village situated on a beautiful beach but at least 30 minutes away from school. Public transportation between the school and her village virtually ceases by the later afternoon. Realizing this, I offered to drive her home on my motorbike. I also pressed her friends to come to the meetings. I knew many of them were less confident in their English skills, but I encouraged them by reinforcing that as long as they put in the effort, they could do anything.
At my second WORDS meeting I was ecstatic to see both Risda and Elsa walk through the door. From there, we all worked together preparing speeches, songs, dances and stories. We met after school, in between classes and on Saturday nights in my little dorm room snacking on pizza and passing around dictionaries.
Elsa was especially nervous – she was not as confident in her English as the other participants. She initially came to meetings only because Risda joined and wasn’t confident that she had the same chances as everyone else. Elsa took longer than the other students to show me her speech and missed the next week’s meeting. I was afraid she had dropped out. I found her in class the next day and gave her a motivational pep talk. Elsa brought me her speech the next morning.
After that, Elsa took WORDs seriously – the effort she put forth was unparalleled. Elsa came to my classroom almost every day to talk about her speech, practice pronunciation, and plan her presentation. She immediately decided she would sing a traditional song from her tribe, as her speech focused on the importance of local culture and music as a medium to share her culture with the rest of the world. When I asked if I could hear her sing it, my jaw dropped. This girl could win American Idol– her voice is remarkable. Listening to her version of the song brought me to tears.
The days before the WORDS competition, I met with my students from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. – it was exhausting, but incredibly rewarding to witness the final result of all their hard work.
As the competition drew to a close the next day, I paced around the judge’s table as I waited to hear which one of my students would accompany me to Jakarta for the national competition. When the judges called Elsa’s name, I was so pleasantly surprised. Elsa is the epitome of why I applied to the Fulbright Program. She went from being a student who rarely participated in class to one of my most active students. But she still needed an extra push in order to realize her potential.
Winning our local WORDS competition has given Elsa that nudge she needed to truly believe in herself. When I called her name she looked up at me like a deer caught in headlights and burst into tears, planting her head down on the table. I went to hug her and couldn’t help but burst into tears along with her. She squeezed my hand tight and said, “Thank you, Miss B.” Once I could finally get her to lift her head off the table and wipe away her tears, I reminded her that she had nobody to thank but herself. Hard work, dedication and courage to get up on that stage led to her success. I have never felt such a strong sense of pride. As cheesy as it may sound, it was one of the happiest moments I have shared with someone in my lifetime.
The next day we shared the news with her classmates and my counterpart, Ibu Agustiani. This inevitably led to more tear-filled moments. As soon as Ibu Ani asked Elsa about going to Jakarta she burst into tears again, while simultaneously keeping a giant grin on her face. During that conversation, I learned Elsa would be the first person in her family to leave Southeast Sulawesi. Elsa’s mother sells vegetables at the traditional market and her father is a day laborer. She has dreamt of going to Jakarta since she was a little girl and told me she never actually thought it would come true. I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel towards Fulbright for giving this amazing girl the opportunity to make her own dreams come true. This is why I came to Indonesia.
About the author: Brooke Marcy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. Marcy graduated from Pitzer College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in peace and conflict studies, focusing on the sources of intra- and inter-state war. Before joining the Fulbright program, she worked as an intern at the U.S. Mission to NATO. Contact her at email@example.com.