A Tale of Two Back to School Nights

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Excitement and enthusiasm were in the air as teachers in my new high school in a middle class neighborhood prepared their classrooms by decorating their bulletin boards, displaying student work, and straightening desks. Welcome messages abounded, Remind.com messages were sent, and we opened our doors to meet the parents.
I have done these events for 24 years, four times a year at my former school in South Central L.A. But this year’s Back to School Night left me reflecting, and perhaps shedding a tear.
First, my new parents were fantastic. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and supportive of the new ideas I bring to the school. I knew in them I would have allies to incorporate my findings from my Fulbright exchange in Finland earlier this year. Parent after parent nodded their heads and strongly affirmed that break time was important to students, teachers, and workers in general. They were excited to hear about the summer travel programs I had prepared.
As I looked at their warm and s…

The People who Make Fulbright Happen

Jyvaskyla Fulbright Teachers (missing Kerry and Linda)


As I conclude my Fulbright project, it goes without saying that I could not have done this alone. The help I’ve received along the way has been heartwarming and supportive. I am so proud to have been able to represent teachers and my community in Finland.

Jose Govea

This unceasing advocate for teachers is my area union rep. When he heard I was awarded my Fulbright grant, he went into action to make sure I received some type of compensation from the hard to navigate district I work in. We realized the deadline had passed for the correct leave of absence to make this happen, but he said, “I’m willing to do battle for a Fulbrighter.” Thanks to Jose, I was able to receive financial support from my district while away on leave.

The IIE

Angelica Serna

The International Institute for Education manages the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program which sent me to Finland. This first-class organization supported me each step of the way, from the orientation in August to departure in January. While in Finland, they fielded any and all questions and helped me feel comfortable while living in a foreign country. Thank you Angelica Serna for all of your assistance!

Fulbright Finland

Mirka introducing Finnish education experts at the orientation

IIE hands off the baton to Fulbright Finland in January and from the very first meeting, I knew I was dealing with deeply committed thinkers who embody everything the Fulbright program represents. From the visionary leadership of Terhi Molsa to the gentle and knowledgeable Mirka McIntyre who is the program director for the teachers, I received all of the guidance necessary to make my stay in Finland successful. The entire staff was a joy to get to know and work with.

Leasa Weimer

Leasa Weimer

To get acquainted with the local culture, we are assigned a Fulbright buddy, one that can take you grocery shopping or recommend a local workout place. Leasa hosted a group of teachers, students, and scholars our first month in Jyvaskyla and helped me get through the gloom and cold of January and February. Our get togethers helped me feel like I had connections and wasn’t doing this solo. Leasa inspired me to do the same for Fulbrighters in California, and I will be hosting incoming students in the fall!! I am so excited to pay it forward.

Anniina Tourunen and Tamas Szabo

Anniina Tourunen

Anniina was my Survival Finnish instructor at the University of Jyvaskyla. In the early months, when my calendar was not as filled with school visits, these language classes really helped me get acclimated to Finnish culture. It was so much fun to be surrounded by foreign exchange students from all over the world as we adjusted to life in Finland.
Tamas Szabo

Professor Szabo helped set the tone for my inquiry project with the Learning Environments class he taught at the University. His research background gave me an early understanding of trends in Finnish school construction and environments.

Hanna Poylio

The brilliant Hanna Poylio

Last, but certainly not least was the help I received from my faculty advisor Hanna. She is one of those special individuals who has the knack of navigating between cultures. How else has she been able to understand these frenetic Fulbright teachers who drop everything they have going in their lives to move halfway across the world? Hanna provided realistic expectations for the work I was trying to do, gave me multiple opportunities to attend social events (Antti Tuisku pop concert was unforgettable), and explained what I was seeing in Finnish schools.

I call Hanna a Finnish American because deep in her heart, she is one of us. Forthright, assertive, and opinionated. These are great qualities, but not all Finnish ones. But the beauty of that is that she helped me and many others get an inside view of a culture that can upon first glance seem hard to crack. Her husband Antti’s color commentary on all things Finnish was priceless as well. And who doesn’t need an adorable baby to warm their heart (Noaa).

There are countless others who helped along the way, from Juha-Matti the Executive Director of Niilo Maki Institute where I was based to Oli-Pekka from EduCluster, both who provided contacts and made us feel welcome in a new town. Professor Bob Foster at UCLA who so kindly met with me even before his trip to share his contacts with me in Finland.  The Fulbright teachers in Jyvaskyla who were my family away from home. The random Finns who dropped knowledge about their culture in saunas or bars. I could go on.

This teacher’s Fulbright did not happen alone, and I will forever be grateful to those who helped make it happen.



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