Niamh Fitzpatrick ’20

As my senior year at Hamilton quickly approached, I found myself still unsure about what I wanted my next steps to be. Up until that point, I had various summer internships and experiences in different fields, none of which turned out to be as exciting as I had hoped, but they at least helped me figure out what I didn’t want to do. In the classroom, I was focusing on economics and computer science, two fields that intrigued me since before my freshman year, but my activities outside the classroom went in other directions. It wasn’t until fall of my senior year that I realized what field I was drawn to my entire life: education. 

Prior to this realization, I would have said that I had very little teaching experience, and in a traditional sense that was true. I tutored other students here and there throughout middle and high school, but never considered education as a career path. But I disregarded the countless hours I had spent teaching outside of a school classroom setting. Throughout elementary and middle school, I assisted my dance teacher with the beginner classes, eventually working up to leading classes on my own by the time I graduated eighth grade. I continued teaching dance classes throughout high school, and without even realizing, I was developing the skills to plan lessons, the confidence in  classroom management, and the practice of adjusting my teaching style based on students' learning styles. 

During my junior and senior years at Hamilton I, along with a few others, conducted an independent study with Professor Britt-Hysell teaching an ESOL class at the nail salon in Clinton. The women in the class were Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who wanted to learn English phrases so they could better communicate with their customers. Each week we curated lessons specific to their daily lives in the nail salon and small talk they could use with their clients. Over time, I became more familiar with the sounds that did not exist in their native languages and were harder for them to pronounce. The challenge of figuring out different ways to practice these harder sounds motivated me to learn more about teaching English to learners from southeast Asia. 

I never expected that a side-project I joined because it sounded like fun and a different experience would lead me to change my career path. As a longshot, I decided to apply for an English teaching assistantship (ETA) position with Fulbright. I knew I wanted to continue my ESOL experience in southeast Asia, so after researching the program specifics in multiple countries where the program is offered—and much help from Ginny Dosch—I decided to apply to go to Indonesia. In March 2020, just days after being sent home for an “extended spring break,” I received news that I was accepted into the Fulbright Indonesia program. I was excited that this was actually happening, relieved that I had finally secured some post-graduate plans, and grateful to be in a situation that made this all possible—but also terrified to move halfway across the world, to a place where I don’t even speak the language. Fear aside, having a sense of job security in such an uncertain time was more than I could have asked for, and I thought, “Why not?” 

Alas, I was naive about what the coming months would entail concerning COVID-19. As the pandemic worsened worldwide, the Fulbright Indonesia program was canceled. This was devastating news to top off the abrupt end to my last semester of college. 

A few weeks before graduation, I got an email about possibly reassigning my ETA grant to another country. One week after our YouTube graduation ceremony I got my second Fulbright acceptance letter to the Taiwan ETA program! The grant would be shorter than normal, six months instead of 11, but six months is better than nothing at all, so I accepted. I wouldn’t start until January, which seemed far away at the time, but with the state of COVID in the U.S., I really had no idea what was going to happen before then. 

After five months of waiting and unconvinced that I was going to be able to go, I finally arrived in Taiwan in January 2021. I had extremely little grasp of the language, much less formal teaching experience than other people in my cohort, and a lot of doubts. But the reminder that I may never get the chance again to do something like this again was enough to push all of that aside and dive right into the uncertainty. 

The first few months in Taiwan were a whirlwind of both incredible and challenging experiences. I had a full workload teaching English class to students in first  through sixth grade, and while it was a lot of fun being around children all day, it was also exhausting at times. The language barrier was, and still is, my biggest obstacle, but I’ve learned to embrace the uncomfortable moments because it is in those awkward times where you learn and grow the most. Constantly having to lean into the discomfort, make mistakes, embarrass yourself, and then move on is hard, but messing up so often makes it so much easier to just keep trying. I will most likely never master, or even become proficient in Mandarin, but at least now I can order a coffee and not be met with a confused look from the barista (most of the time).

Teaching students who often have little idea what you are saying makes it hard to form and grow relationships by relying solely on in-class interactions. I had to put in the extra effort to try and connect with them outside the classroom, which meant actually following through on the running races I was challenged to after I told them that I liked to run, and being laughed at when they taught  me a new word in Chinese and I completely butchered the pronunciation. To get more involved in students’ extracurricular activities I had to ask my co-teachers to find out for me when and where events and games were taking place, since all the school communications were in Chinese. I felt like I was being a burden by constantly asking, but if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on my students’  traditional dance performances, table tennis tournaments, and roller skating shows. It definitely took some time to get used to having to speak up and ask a million questions about what was going on, but now it feels so much more natural to be my own advocate—which is a skill I will use long after my departure from Taiwan. 

When I originally planned on pursuing the Fulbright grant, I imagined that it would be for a year and then I would move on and begin my “real” career. Even after the grant period was shortened to six months, I was still set on moving back to the U.S. afterwards, because I felt pressure to transition to a clearer career path rather than extending my post-grad gap year stint into a two-year+ endeavor. I was trapped by the fear of being two years out of college and in an entry-level position, and by the feeling I was missing out on valuable high-growth time, leaving me miles behind my peers. 

After being in Taiwan for a few months and realizing that I was enjoying teaching much more than I imagined, I began to let go of those fears. Instead of trying to plan my next move, I decided that I should just appreciate this happiness, stability, and the safety of a basically COVID-free country, and apply to extend my grant period in Taiwan. Committing to a year away from home was scary, but I thought back to the original question that pushed me to do this in the first place: “Why not?” 

I started my year-long English Teaching Fellowship this August. As a teaching fellow I have more classes and more control over what I teach than I did as a teaching assistant. I am so grateful to be back in Taiwan with the opportunity to continue growing as a teacher and as a person. I often think about how scared I was to do this in the first place and how I would have missed out on so much by not being forced to try something, fail, and have no choice but to try again.

I realize now how silly it was for me to think that this experience was pressing pause on my career journey just because I don’t plan on pursuing education in the long run. The resilience, courage, and adaptability that I have gained from my time here, both inside and outside the classroom, has prepared me for success in any direction I decide to go. So, take the scenic route every once in a while. You’ll have better stories to tell when you get to where you’re going.

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