It’s been almost two months since I arrived in Malaysia on January 4 for the English Teaching Assistant Fulbright grant. Before I came to Malaysia I was spending time in Prague, Czech Republic working as an on-site coordinator for the ECES office at Charles University, I then went to Ireland for three weeks to take a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) class. After being in Europe for four months it was nice to return to New York for December to celebrate the holidays with my family and friends before moving to Malaysia for the next year.
These first two months in Malaysia have been quite the ride, going from Europe, back home, and then to South East Asia has been an interesting adjustment period, but I have already learned so much and fallen in love with this country, specifically my state of Sabah. The first month consisted or orientation, two and half weeks in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), and about a week in my state’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (KK). Orientation was intense, but incredibly beneficial. We had meetings with different members of the American embassy, the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE), TEFL teachers, and the highlight, afternoon tea at the Ambassador’s house. There are 100 ETAs in Malaysia and at the end of the KL orientation 15 of us left for the wonderful, arguably the best, state of Malaysia, Sabah!
Sabah is located on Malaysian, Borneo, not peninsular Malaysia, about a three hour flight from KL. We were greeted at the airport on January 20 by the MOE officials holding a huge banner with our photo on it and beaded Sabah necklaces to drape around our necks, we had arrived in our home state for the next year. The orientation in KK was lead by MOE officials so we got to spend the week getting to know our Malaysian bosses and meeting our mentors. My mentor, Doreen, is one of the sweetest women I have ever met. The role of the mentor is navigate the school both literally and socially for the ETA. Meeting our mentors was a long anticipated event that did no cease to meet its expectations. Doreen was able to tell me about SMK Mat Salleh, we created a schedule, and we shared pictures of our families, I was officially and ETA at SMK Mat Salleh.
After the handing over ceremony in KK me and my two Ranau roommates, Cori and Kate, packed our life in a van, with Doreen, and were brought to our new home in Ranau, Sabah to start school the following morning. Being dropped off at our house was such a surreal feeling. We had been living in and out of hotels for the past month with insane schedules of meetings and lectures and lots of learning with so many other ETAs that we had bonded so closely with. Once our mentors left our home we just started at each other and laughed at how crazy it was that we were living in rural Borneo with a magnificent view of Mt. Kinabalu. The three of us had gotten very close during orientation and we were so lucky to have been placed together and in that moment we fully understood how lucky we were. Of course we would have our mentors and our teacher friends and even our students to keep us company, but it was a really nice feeling knowing that we would be starting and finishing this year together. We are all placed at different schools in the Ranau district, but we will plan lessons together, hold English camps together, travel together, and live together in Malaysia for the next year and in that moment I could not have been more excited.
The first month at school has been wonderful. All of the administration, teachers, and students have been so welcoming and helpful. Everyone wants to help, and feed me, all of the time! My school was great and had my schedule ready the second day of school so I was able to start teaching in the classroom right away. I have also become part of English Language Society and the younger girl’s net ball team. I am currently working on a project called “Humans of Borneo.” Inspired by the “Humans of New York” blog I decided to have my students be the photographers and interviewers. Sabah is a very diverse state, and Borneo is an incredibly diverse island consisting of three different countries, Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak), Brunei, and Indonesia. My goal for this project is for me and my students to learn more about how diverse our school, our state, and the whole island of Borneo is. This project has been launched at SMK Mat Salleh and I have already been receiving posts from my students. A few ETAs in Sarawak have also joined the project, as well as some other ETAs in my state of Sabah. Once the page becomes a bit more established my plan is the spread the word to ETAs in Indonesian, Borneo and international schools in Brunei. I am very excited about the prospects of this project and I can already see the excitement in my students!
Although I have been in Malaysia for two months already the time is flying and continues to fly. Last weekend was Chinese New Year so we had almost a week off and a group of Sabahans (we call ourselves the Sabah$$es) decided to get scuba certified! I was a little apprehensive, my entire family is certified so I have tried it and always thought it wasn’t for me, how wrong I was. Getting certified was one of the best decisions I have ever made. This past weekend has opened up so many more adventures for me, and living in Sabah, one of the number one dive destinations in the world, I knew it was a must! In about two weeks we have a spring break, so another week off, and a group of us has planned a trip to Indonesia! I cannot wait to explore the depths of Bali.
All in all Malaysia so far has been an incredible experience in every way possible. The Fulbright program is amazing, my roommates are the best, Ranau is a wonderful town in a beautiful state, and my school is full of such beautiful people inside and out. If these first two months are an indication of how the rest of the year will be I anticipate a year full of adventure and change, one of my best years yet!