Snapshots of St. George's
St. George’s mission statement talks about lives “of constructive service to the world” in its bidding to the young men and women who move on from the Hilltop to pursue college and career. The message is hardly lost on Samuel “S.J.” Tilden ’09, who spent nine months in Ziguinchor, Senegal, in West Africa, where he taught English to high-school students as a participant in the acclaimed Fulbright Program from the fall of 2015 through July 2016.
The program was founded by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright in 1946 to provide merit-based funding for the international exchange of scholars and professionals from the U.S. and abroad. Competitive and highly selective, it offers eligible U.S. citizens scholarship support for study, research and educational collaboration in foreign countries.
S.J. was awarded his grant in the English Teaching Assistant (ETA) piece of the Fulbright Program, which places participants in classrooms overseas to help teach English and share information about U.S. culture. Selection by the Fulbright commission is a formidable achievement in and of itself; qualifying for a grant is further contingent upon screening by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and in S.J.’s case upon screening by the U.S. Embassy in Senegal as well.
Prior to Senegal, S.J. spent two years teaching eighth-grade English in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with Teach For America, a national nonprofit organization that promotes opportunity through education in underserved communities across the country. Before that, he attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as an undergraduate.
“After completing my two-year commitment in Baton Rouge with Teach for America, I decided I wanted to pursue another year of education, but in a different environment,” said S.J., who is now in his second semester at Tulane University Law School. “Since I graduated with degrees in international affairs and French, and at the time was gaining invaluable teaching experience, I felt that I would be a strong candidate for a Fulbright.”
S.J. said he was intrigued by Senegal’s cultural connection to Louisiana, which stems from the dark past of slavery, but which has resulted in Louisiana’s tradition of music, food and community. “Fulbright affords grantees the chance to further their professional goals within the context of a cultural exchange,” S.J. said. “The opportunity would therefore allow me to teach English in a local community setting while also acting as a cultural ambassador of sorts on behalf of the U.S. Embassy in Dakar.”
In the end, S.J. came away from his Fulbright experience with a deep appreciation of the Senegalese culture. “There are few places on earth that are able to peacefully marry tradition with modernity, modesty with self-expression, Islam with Christianity, local ethnicity with national pride, or white with black in such a positive and beautiful way as one finds in Senegal,” he reflected at the close of his tenure there. “It is a country intersected by the histories of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and America, able to exemplify the best of each culture while projecting an identity that is uniquely Senegalese.”
Cultural revelations aside, the human element he encountered in the classroom may have moved him the most. “Working with Senegalese students, you bear witness to the respect that they have for their families, languages and customs,” he said, “yet they routinely push themselves to learn and make it to school every day.”
S.J. found that even in a country with financial problems that often result in frequent teacher strikes or classrooms that include little more than a chalkboard and four concrete walls, Senegal’s students are always resilient. Lycée Djignabo, the high school where S.J. spent his time, teaches approximately 4,000 students in grades 10 through 12. Classroom size averages 60-75 students. “While certainly not the ideal size,” he said, “there is a common thirst and respect for knowledge that I have not experienced anywhere else.”