Leave it to SpongeBob SquarePants to bridge the seemingly vast cultural gap between an Arkansas Tech University graduate student and an 8-year old Indonesian boy.
Such was the case for Emily Austin when she participated in the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program during summer 2018.
"I stayed with a family of four...mother, father, 8-year old son and 17-year old daughter," said Emily Austin. "I was instantly best friends with the 8-year old...we would watch SpongeBob together in Indonesian, so I couldn't really understand it, but he could. It was a fun mixture of trading culture and jokes."
The CLS program is an eight-week experience that immerses participants from the United States in the language and culture of a foreign country. Students receive a minimum of 20 hours of formal classroom language instruction per week. Implementation of the program is supported by the American Councils for International Education.
Austin learned about the CLS program from Sierra Noland, a friend who had previously completed the experience by spending eight weeks in India.
Prior familiarity with Indonesia made it the right fit for Austin's CLS trip.
"I loved the idea of that program and the idea of going somewhere far away for free," said Austin. "I studied abroad in Bali during my junior year, so I had been to Indonesia before and I kind of spoke Bahasa a tiny bit. I wanted to further that along as well as my interest in teaching English to speakers of other languages. I have to know another language to be able to relate to people that are learning a second language, so I wanted to fulfill that."
When she wasn't in the classroom or spending time with her host family, Austin was often participating in excursions planned by the American Councils for International Education.
One of her favorite such experiences was a visit to the Wonosari Tea Plantation on the slopes of Mount Arjuna.
"It was just beautiful," said Austin. "You could see volcanoes in the background with clouds on the tops of them. Lush, beautiful greenery was everywhere. When we were there, we also used our language skills to interview the people who were working in the tea plantations. We asked them about their life in the nearby village, and we had a chance to drink a lot of tea right from the source."
The other flavors of Indonesia also agreed with Austin's palate.
"It's a lot of fresh seafood, rice and noodles...things that I love," said Austin. "Very savory."
Austin spent the first 10 years of her life in Denver, Colo. Her connection to ATU started when she moved to Russellville upon her mother, Dr. Christine Austin, accepting a position on the faculty in the ATU Department of College Student Personnel.
"Moving from the big city was a little bit of a change, but I loved growing up here," said Austin. "Tech's always been in the background of my life and a supportive place that I loved to walk around."
Austin graduated from Russellville High School in 2014 and left familiar surroundings behind to attend college at Washington and Lee University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in May 2018.
Ironically, it was her interest in seeing the world that guided her back home to Russellville.
"I started looking at graduate programs that might lead me where I want to go, and Tech has an amazing TESOL (Teaching English to speakers of other languages) program," said Austin. "It's one of the best in the country, and what I'm really interested in is teaching populations that might not get enough support...ESL (English as a second language) students in particular."
Austin is on pace to graduate from ATU with her Master of Arts degree in TESOL in May 2019.
"Next year I will be teaching elementary school in Tulsa, Okla., and so I'm hoping to be a teacher who is inclusive of all types of people and all backgrounds," said Austin. "I think this degree is really going to help me. After teaching and learning about the education system, I would love to come back to Arkansas and go to the Clinton School for Public Service to study education policy. My big, long-term dream is foreign service."
Visit www.atu.edu/worldlanguages/ma_tesol.php to learn more about the ATU TESOL program.