From teaching Vietnamese courses in the classroom to playing the piano in Cobb Residence Hall, Sunny Vo is making the most of her time at UNC as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA).
“At UNC, I could be both an instructor, and could be both a student because I get to audit courses during the year and could be a resident student living here,” Vo said. “I think those three roles give me a wonderful opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow.”
Originally from Vietnam, Vo’s journey to UNC started with a passion for teaching linguistics. After obtaining her master’s degree in Chicago in 2018, she began teaching high school and college students in different regions of Vietnam.
After COVID-19-related lockdowns ended, Vo jumped on her opportunity to return to the United States to expand Americans’ knowledge of her language and culture.
That opportunity came through the Fulbright FLTA program, sponsored by the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program brings graduates of all levels from over 50 countries to teach foreign language courses and immerse themselves in American culture.
“This time, I’m actually not only the instructor, but also like a student,” she said. “Living with them and learning through them, but also teaching and working with them.”
The ability to both teach and learn is one of the program’s goals. Professor Morgan Pitelka, the chair of the UNC Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, said the program helps build bridges.
“The FLTAs spend this year teaching at UNC, and then they go back to their home countries," Pitelka said, "and that experience informs their sense of friendship and partnership with the United States, but also in particular, with Carolina.”
Through a collaboration between the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Carolina Asia Center, Vo is teaching Intermediate Vietnamese I (VIET 203) this semester. Kevin Fogg, the associate director of the Carolina Asia Center, said the presence of Fulbright FLTAs gives students more options for their language education.
“We are so delighted to be able to bring in these Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants because it allows us to offer more languages to students,” Fogg said. “Students are seeking a global education when they come to a place like Carolina, and it’s so important for us to be able to meet those demands by the student body.”
For Vo, bringing students global education means teaching them the intricacies of Vietnamese in an easy-to-learn way. Vo said Vietnamese can be challenging for students because it's a tonal language, which is why Vo also focuses on teaching students about Vietnam’s culture.
“I want to make the Vietnamese classroom easier by integrating Vietnamese music, Vietnamese literature and Vietnamese history,” Vo said. “The first thing is the language, however the language in a real context.”
Outside of the classroom, Vo continues to share her cultural background. Starting this year, Fulbright FLTAs have the opportunity to live in on-campus residence halls. Vo is living in Cobb, where she often plays Vietnamese music on the hall’s piano and will host monthly cultural events throughout the year. Her first event will be in a few weeks and will feature making handmade Vietnamese lanterns.
“I think the monthly events help me to introduce my Vietnamese culture and also some knowledge about Vietnamese to locals, especially college students at UNC,” Vo said.
The University also provides funding for Fulbright FLTAs to attend conferences and other professional development opportunities throughout the country.
Fogg said the FLTAs’ opportunities to teach, learn and travel have impacts beyond those they leave here.
“We hope that once they get back to their home country, they continue that ambassadorial mission: speaking about what they saw in America, what their experiences here were like and promoting a greater understanding of the U.S.A. on the ground,” he said.
Vo’s biggest goals for the year are to teach Vietnamese language and culture, as well as to represent her home. However, she said the thing she is most excited for is connecting with people across campus.
“I’m super, super excited to have time to make friends and have communication with the locals here, and not only the locals, but also with the students, the college and the U.S.” Vo said.
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