Fulbright awardee seeks to become 'agent of social change' in South Africa


Senior Chanelle Wilson has landed a prestigious Fulbright Program scholarship to South Africa.

Chanelle Wilson's visit to South Africa last summer changed her life.

In January, the Rowan University senior is heading back to that country with one real intention: "To change somebody else's."

That's how Wilson, 22, describes what she plans to accomplish during her 10-month teaching assistantship to South Africa through the prestigious Fulbright Program. An English and education major from Blackwood, Wilson is intent on making a difference--a profound difference--in the field of education, student-by-student, classroom-by-classroom, step-by-step.

Her plans include earning a master's degree in educational policy and advocacy and, later, a doctorate in urban education. Her goal--Wilson has a lot of goals--is to effect changes in educational policy, particularly in areas of educational inequities. In the future, too, she wants to open her own intermediate performing arts charter school.

But first, her sights are set on Johannesburg, where she'll teach English to university students through the Fulbright Program. She also plans to get involved in community arts programs for high school students.

"I want to go outside of the classroom and into high schools in South Africa," says Wilson, the 10th Rowan student in the past decade to land a Fulbright. She's also the fifth student from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the past five years--and the third straight education major--to win a Fulbright scholarship.

"It's the ones in high school who need to know they can get to college, too. Teaching is one of the only ways to have access to children...to help them believe in themselves.

"Literacy underpins everything, transcending race, religion, and age," she adds. "I understand that an education can open up a world of endless possibilities, and I want to have my students discover the same truth."

Last summer, Wilson used the World Study Scholarship, which she earned in her senior year at Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, to study in South Africa through a program with Arcadia University. She took classes at the University of Cape Town that focused on service learning and contemporary issues facing the country. She also taught English, both as a one-on-one tutor and as a co-teacher of large groups, in the township of Khayelitsha.

"I was there during winter break. The students walked-some two or three miles-to school. They wanted to learn. They knew they could do something with education," says Wilson.

"When I was leaving, I said to myself, ‘I have to get back here.' What I did in six weeks there, I felt, wasn't enough. I worked on my Statement of Purpose for the Fulbright on the plane home."

Always interested in educational inequities-her mom, Belinda, a single mother of six, has a doctorate in urban education and is a former Philadelphia city schoolteacher-Wilson says her time in South Africa opened her eyes even more to changes that need to be made in the field of education, both nationally and globally. She views herself as "an agent of social change."

"In America, the differences in education among people of different socioeconomic backgrounds are hidden. In South Africa, it's more blatant. It's way more than night and day. But in both countries, the differences are very real.

"I think I turned into a different person when I came back from South Africa. I got really interested in educational policy. After I left, my focus changed. I was more confident because I had a plan."

Even before she leaves for her Fulbright, Wilson will start her quest for her master's degree. She's enrolled to begin graduate work in educational policy and advocacy this summer in the urban education program at Temple University.

A fastidious planner--she began thinking about her doctoral dissertation topic as a freshman--Wilson mapped out her entire collegiate career in her first month at Rowan. That career as a campus leader has included numerous student activities, involvement in honor societies and mentoring programs, vast amounts of community service work, and academic excellence.

She achieved all of that-and her 3.7 grade point average-while working up to 30 hours a week at a local bank.

"I feel I got this Fulbright because of all of the things I've ever done," she says. "It's the best thing that has ever happened to me."

Wilson, who also completed the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration at Rowan, currently is finishing her student teaching at Delsea Regional High School.

As part of her Honors research, she's teaching a unit she developed with Professor Donna Jorgensen titled "Exploring Culture and Diversity Through Multi-cultural Children's Literature in a Secondary Classroom." She and Jorgensen, associate professor of teacher education in the College of Education, will present their work on the unit at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Orlando in November. Wilson is the work's lead author.

"It's a tough sell...teaching these kids about culture and multiculturalism," says Jorgensen, whom Wilson lists, along with English professor Cathy Parrish and Africana Studies professor Corann Okorodudu, as one of her strong Rowan mentors.

"She has done an amazing job with it. Chanelle is going to be a brilliant teacher. Her long goal-her dream-is to someday have Arne Duncan's job...and to do it better. She's committed to moving through the ranks and making her impact on education at every single level. It's been just amazing to watch her grow. She's so ready to take flight."

Before coming to Rowan, Wilson, who was homeschooled by her mom until high school, had a whole other career as a professional performer. As a member of The Wilson Sisters, she traveled the country singing gospel, pop, rhythm and blues songs. She appeared off-Broadway and even had a role--"just an extra orphan," she says--in the ABC television movie of "Annie."

Her schooling also included two years as a merit scholar at the Harlem School of the Arts Musical Theater. In 2002, she performed at New York City's Cotton Club.

"Being in the arts, going to Harlem, gave me confidence," she says.

Teaching and performing are not dissimilar, she maintains.

"Teaching is an art. It's performing," she says.

Her best day in the classroom thus far happened at Delsea when she began teaching Langston Hughes' "Theme For English B." She challenged her students to write their own poems, a task some of them found daunting.

Hughes' poem begins, "Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you--Then, it will be true."

Being true in the classroom--and in life--is Wilson's credo.

"I told them, ‘Block out your negative thoughts,'" she says.  "It became one of those perfect lessons. As I stood there, I thought, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life.'"