Things move quickly in the United States. We tend to be caffeine-addicted, productivity-oriented, plow-through-every-obstacle workers that race through each task at lightning speed. Last year, Gracen Koepele (MSU Class of 2020) found themselves in an entirely different environment during their Fulbright trip to Matera in Basilicata, Italy.
Gracen has been interested in languages for years. They studied Latin in high school, which built the foundation of their Italian Studies in college. At MSU, they studied at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities with a focus on Childhood & Society. They minored in Italian and also studied Mandarin. When applying for Fulbright upon the suggestion of an esteemed mentor, they also considered working in China before deciding on Italy. They enriched their language learning experience on campus by joining the Italian Club, as well as opting into an integrative learning option led by an Italian graduate student, whom they are still in contact with today. During their studies, they developed patience with themselves, and began to realize that “mistakes are not an indicator of [their] lack. They are an indicator of [their] ability to grow.”
During the summer of 2018 during their undergrad, they studied abroad in Florence, Tuscany where they fulfilled some of their Italian Minor requirements. In 2019, they earned their TEFL-TP certificate abroad. They moved cities in Veneto and Marche every two weeks, lived with host families, and earned stipends that funded their trip. Teaching alongside English instructors from around the world, they expanded their language-learning community on a global scale.
After graduating and applying for the Fulbright position, Gracen (like the rest of the world), learned more important lessons about time. Though they were originally supposed to travel in 2020, the pandemic kept them and the rest of the Fulbright scholars waiting on their turn. For a while it was touch-and-go, and many participants had no choice but to drop out due to uncertainty or financial constraints. Fortunately, Gracen maintained a job with a nonprofit in Ohio during this period, so that they were prepared to leave when they were finally able to last year. The non-profit was dedicated to supporting students in underserved schools who were in danger of falling behind. There, Gracen did their best to engage the students during one of the most hopeless times education has ever seen and empower the students to continue moving forward.
The world works in mysterious ways, and it seems as though these were important lessons to learn before taking the leap to teaching in Italy. They took with them everything they learned from the non-profit job to Fulbright. These skills became necessary preparation for the next step in their career.
Gracen taught English for two programs at the Italian high school. One was focused on politics and philosophy, while the other was centered around the arts. Although neither school was exactly underserved, the funds were unequally distributed between the programs. So, Gracen wanted to ensure that they gave both programs ample attention and dedication. They wanted to share what they learned while studying languages, that making mistakes is just a part of the process.
Although time generally moves slower around career matters, the Italian education system is rigorous. The system itself is also structured very differently from American classrooms. Instead of students moving to a new room after each class, the teachers are the ones who move between rooms. For years, Italian students sit in the same room with the same group of people, studying for hours with only one 15-minute break throughout the whole day, just to return home to study even more.
Despite the bewilderment of their Italian colleagues, Gracen brought an American perspective to the classroom. They took their time setting up the lessons, knowing the students needed that time to prepare, too. Italian students are used to lectures, so they were stunned by Gracen’s collective learning approach to teaching. But soon, the students were leading discussions on their own. On nice days, Gracen took the class outside to play vocabulary games, knowing that the students were restless from sitting inside all day. It was enriching for both Gracen and their students to learn about the pedagogy in other countries.
Outside of the classroom, Gracen continued to learn. Italy is just as caffeinated as the U.S., and coffee was important to everybody, including Gracen. They seized every cappuccino break they could. They also joined a hiking group, and the guide brought a portable espresso pot on the trips. At the midpoint of the hike, he made espresso for all the participants.
Not every lesson was a fun one, though. Italy is a patriarchal, heteronormative society, and that is a difficult environment for a gender non-conforming person to thrive in. It was often difficult, but eventually Gracen found a support system of teachers who made things easier. In fact, Gracen was even able to start a club for the LGBTQ+ students at the school. Several students came out to them, which was a humbling experience for Gracen, as many of those students never thought they would have the opportunity to come out to anyone. The club is still meeting today, and are working towards developing online meetings so Gracen can join from back in the U.S.
After returning to the States, Gracen began working for the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern. They work between the Office of Diversity & Inclusion to coordinate the safe space committee and the diversity/inclusion task force, and with the student affairs team at the Office of Medical Education, as well as collaborating with student organizations. They work on bias and inclusion initiatives, such as reworking the school’s LGBTQ+ Health module. Here, they are building upon everything they have learned so far and taking a deeper dive into the administrative side of education to create an “equitable and empathic” experience for all students.
Time is a relative experience for everyone. Some language learning journeys take longer than others. Sometimes obstacles delay our progress, or hinder opportunities we don’t want to wait for. But more often than not, there are more lessons to be found in time, and patience is key to finding success. Gracen will undoubtedly share these lessons of patience, agency, and individualism with anyone who is fortunate enough to learn from them.
By El Taverna
This story is part of CeLTA’s Languages Blog, whose mission is to tell stories that showcase the transforming power of language learning. These pieces give voice to the students’ own experiences and are not necessarily reflective of CeLTA’s, the College of Arts and Letters’, or MSU’s opinion.