Alumnus makes a place for himself teaching, learning in Malaysia

Penn State alumnus Conor Higgins is currently in Malaysia on an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Award through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. He earned a degree in biology from the Eberly College of Science and a minor in psychology from the College of the Liberal Arts in 2015. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students and alumni are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This essay was written by a Penn State Fulbright winner who has embarked on his Fulbright trip.

Nine Penn Staters have earned Fulbright awards for the 2017-18 academic year. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website

About five months ago, I was still in the U.S., only able to imagine what my Fulbright experience in Malaysia would have in store for me. I pictured living in a lush, tropical place doing something similar to the assistant teaching job I held previously, with only the environment and people being different.

Now, as I approach the midway point of my grant period, I can safely say that many of the expectations that I had going into this position were off the mark. I’m excited and pleased to be able to say that, though, because it means that I have been facing countless new experiences, and had no way to predict what my time here would entail.

As an English Teaching Assistant (ETA), my time at school is largely spent co-teaching in a classroom setting. This can take the form of conducting one of my own lessons, helping run a fun activity, or supplementing what the co-teacher has planned by providing examples, pronunciation help, or offering input or ideas.

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

While this is fun and helpful to the students, some of the best times are had outside of the typical classroom setting. Each week I hold speaking workshops where students have the opportunity to use English in a less formal setting. My last project for the students was asking them to create a dikir barat song in English and perform it in front of each other. Dikir barat is a traditional Malay form of group singing where there is a lead singer, a few people playing instruments, and many other group members keeping rhythm with choreography and group chanting. It’s difficult to imagine, but amazing to see — and even more so to see your students create their own.

I also try to stay involved in whatever my students are doing — whether that be helping coach soccer, attending marching practices, or assisting the English choral speaking team’s rehearsals. (Yet another activity that I couldn’t have imagined before coming here; it’s like chorus, except it involves talking rather than singing.)

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Outside of my school activities, I also stay busy in the community. At first, this seemed like a difficult task. On top of the language barrier — I speak very little Bahasa Malaysia, the national language — there are the obvious cultural differences and customs that come with living abroad. Compared to my last teaching position in Spain, the customary differences here are much more obvious. As a very simple example, the dress is much more conservative, so my first few weeks were spent guessing what was appropriate to wear so I wouldn’t stick out too much. 

Nevertheless, I tried to get out of the house as much as possible and talk to as many people as I could. Now, five months into my grant, I feel that I have made a small place for myself in the community. I play futsal (similar to soccer) almost every day with the people in my kampung (village), I chat with the neighbors whenever I walk by, and I even attend the occasional dikir barat practices that are held late at night in my neighbor’s yard. I really enjoy doing as much as possible in my kampung and with my students, so whenever I catch wind of anything going on, I make an effort to join.

I’m extremely excited to see what the rest of the year will hold for me. On my short list of personal goals is to improve my Bahasa Malaysia skills, learn to cook some traditional food, and maybe even train a little in silat, traditional Malay martial arts. 

Above all, though, I’m looking forward to seeing my students continue to grow in their English confidence. As I see it, one of my main objectives in the classroom here is to help students feel more comfortable speaking English rather than perfecting the language. The only way to do this is to keep using it, so I’m eager to continue working with them and let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes. Isn’t that how we learn best?

Last Updated September 28, 2017