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Olivia Jovevski teaches an online English class to students in Myanmar.

Going to work half a world away

Last year when Olivia Jovevski and Meghan Janiszewski began taking part in Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Teaching English as a New Language program, they had no idea working with students half a world away could change their futures.

Jovevski, a senior, and Janiszewski, a junior, are among 40 PFW students who have been part of an English Language Partners program led by TENL faculty Mary Encabo-Bischoff and her husband Shannon Bischoff. The students are in their third semester teaching online English to students in Myanmar with hopes of expanding the program into other countries.

“It is very intimidating at first, honestly, but it was so fun at the same time once you kind of got used to it,” Janiszewski said. “The students were so kind and understanding and patient, which was the best part.”

The program has helped more than 400 students from Myanmar, a country currently under a military coup that started Feb. 1, 2021.

“I’ve never brought it up on my own,” Jovevski said. “I don’t want to make the classroom environment uncomfortable or make any of my students upset. If they do bring it up, I just feel the best way to respond is to listen to what they are going through and try to be supportive. Our time is a free space where they can share their opinions and their struggles.”

Most Myanmar universities are closed, and internet and electricity access are sporadic, sometimes knocking students off the Zoom meetings in midstream. Several students have reported they look forward to the classes and regularly find ways to attend.

The Bischoffs were making regular trips to Southeast Asia in 2019 — including Chancellor Ron Elsenbaumer on one — setting up partnerships between PFW and two Myanmar universities. COVID hindered those plans, and the Bischoffs looked to continue the partnerships online. 

“It’s not just knowing the language, it’s knowing how to teach in a virtual space in a conflict area where you have all these political happenings around,” Encabo-Bischoff said. “You really have to be more mindful of the things you teach and not teach the students.”

Improving their English skills is critical to Myanmar students’ hopes to attend international schools. 

“I can find and expand my interests related to English with proper guidance from the tutors,” a Myanmar student wrote in a survey last semester.  “I have been participating in the program for two semesters and there is huge positive progress in my English skills, due to the friendly class atmosphere and caring tutors. In the past semesters … For me, this ELP Program is a precious chance to improve both my English and communication skills and find more opportunities to study in English speaking countries.”

Using their home computers, Jovevski and Janiszewski meet for an hour weekly with students who live 13½ hours ahead of Fort Wayne time while also attending the TENL certificate class, which meets weekly for 2½ hours. PFW students also develop lesson plans and PowerPoints. 

“Looking back and having this experience and a different perspective, I can see how it has really changed the way I approach my students,” Jovevski said. “Empathy is so important going into a career like this, and I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to have this experience.”

The experience has made Janiszewski reconsider her plans.

“Three years ago, I was strictly going to stay in Fort Wayne and teach kindergarten,” she said. “Now I want to teach English at an international school. I really like exploring these other countries and other cultures while getting to teach at the same time.”