Fulbright Features: Penn State alumna making Malaysia home

Penn State students 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 nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is the 10th story in a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total won’t be released until February, at least 13 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 11 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


After a long-awaited departure date, my journey in Malaysia is finally underway. Leading up to the start of my grant, I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety; eagerly looking forward to the adventure ahead yet nervous to experience the unknown. Throughout the two weeks I have been in Malaysia so far, the emotional roller coaster continues. I arrived in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Jan. 4, after a long series of flights, connecting with members of my cohort along the way.

My greatest nightmare came true at the airport when the luggage carousel was turned off, and I was still waiting for my second seriously over-packed suitcase. I initially panicked thinking of all of the necessities and comforts from the U.S. packed in my missing bag. While filing a missing bag claim, I tried to calm myself down by acknowledging that although this was a great inconvenience, I would survive without my missing belongings. I reminded myself that this will be a year of personal development and that the learning starts now, just minutes after I touched down in my new home.

As I headed toward the loaded bus of suitcases and Fulbrighters waiting for me, I was stopped by the airport attendants who had found my missing suitcase. I left the airport relieved and ready to take on the year and all it has in store for me … that is after I recovered from jet lag and my panic attack.

My two weeks of orientation in Kuala Lumpur flew by without any other issues, but the lesson learning continued. Our itinerary was exhausting, but there is an enormous amount of training that must occur to prepare all 100 of us English Teaching Assistants to thrive as teachers in the seven states that we have been assigned to across the country. Our long days consisted of lessons in Bahasa Malaysia (the national language), Teaching English as a Foreign Language training, politics, religion, identity, safety, the education system and etiquette in Malaysia as well as expectations of us as Fulbright grantees.

We met with representatives from the Ministry of Education, the U.S. Embassy, the State Department and even the U.S. Ambassador himself, who all welcomed us and expressed their excitement in the work that we will be doing this year as not only teachers, but ambassadors of our country. My feelings of homesickness were squelched by these conversations as I realized the purpose of my time here and the responsibility I have to represent the U.S. through this unique opportunity. This will be a year that changes lives, my own included, and I am ready for the challenge it will be.

Since the Fulbright program here is a joint agreement between the U.S. and Malaysian governments, the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange was established to be the liaison and help oversee our time here. It has not been easy to adjust to the culture and way of life of Malaysia while simultaneously representing my own culture, but MACEE has been an incredible resource and has really made my travel and cultural adjustment go as smoothly as possible.

I have been assigned to spend the next nine months in the small state of Perlis in the north western corner of Malaysia, sharing a border with Thailand. This is the first time that Fulbright ETAs will be working in this state, so I am looking forward to being an ambassador of the American culture in unchartered territory. There will be four other Fulbrighters teaching in Perlis with me, so we will have the potential to have an incredibly large and visible impact on not only the five schools we have been assigned but hopefully the other 10 schools throughout the state as well. We will be responsible to teach English classes, participate in after school extracurricular activities and organize a couple weekend-long English camps.

Despite a busy orientation schedule, we have had the chance to explore Kuala Lumpur and get to know the country. I have enjoyed the new sites, tastes and culture. My favorite tourist outings were visiting the beautiful Batu Caves, which hold a Hindu shrine overlooking all of the city, eating dinner with my new Fulbright friends high above the Petronas Tower's water and light show, and swimming under a waterfall in the middle of the jungle.

There also was a special interaction when I was riding in an elevator with a young Malaysian girl who was humming the latest Taylor Swift song. The Americans I was with couldn't resist joining in and sharing this sweet moment with the girl realizing that although we are so different, there are commonalities that can bring us all together.

I look forward to these moments that take my breath away, reminding me how beautiful the world is and making me a better person through the opportunity to immerse myself in this unique culture. I can't even imagine the experiences and challenges that this year has in store, but I am leaving orientation well prepared and confident that I am capable to succeed in my community and truly make Malaysia my home.

Penn State alumna Marcy Herr visits the Batu Caves, which hold a Hindu shrine overlooking Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during her Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship orientation in the country. Credit: Marcy HerrAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated January 28, 2015