Embarking on a teaching and learning adventure

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Emily Spieker lands Fulbright Program scholarship to teach in Malaysia
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Emily Spieker has a teacher’s heart, a scholar’s smarts, an athlete’s determination, and an adventurer’s spirit.

So, that prestigious Fulbright Program scholarship that she just landed...the one that will send her to Malaysia for 10 months to teach English? Well, that’s absolutely, positively, completely in her wheelhouse.

“Teaching abroad has been on my radar for a while,” says Spieker, 23, of Marlton, a senior elementary education and American Studies major at Rowan University. “And Malaysia has an incredibly unique identity, one that radiates different realms of diversity that I am anxious to earn and experience firsthand, both as an educator and as a learner.”

Spieker, who will graduate summa cum laude from Rowan on Friday, May 16, is the 17th Rowan student in the past 15 years to land a scholarship through the highly competitive Fulbright Program. In January, she’ll begin an English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Malaysia. She’s the third Rowan student in three years to land a Fulbright ETA to Malaysia. She follows Jolene Hernandez and Lauren Wederich, both of whom are still in Malaysia.

In fact, Hernandez’ and Wederich’s blogs chronicling their Fulbright experiences got Spieker excited about teaching in Malaysia.

Spieker doesn’t know yet whether she’ll teach elementary or secondary students. She doesn’t know if she’ll be in a rural or urban setting. And she doesn’t yet know Malay, the official language of Malaysia.

Fighting complacency

But those aren’t problems for Spieker, who regularly pushes herself to fight complacency and to seize opportunities. After graduating from Cherokee High School in 2009, Spieker, then a three-sport athlete, decided to go to college 3,000 miles away at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

The experience was eye opening and profound, says Spieker, who spent her freshman year in Washington before returning to South Jersey for financial reasons and enrolling at Rowan.

“I wanted an experience where I didn’t know anyone and I consider that year to be a pinnacle moment of my self-discovery,” says Spieker. “I expanded my cultural reach by exploring new areas, living in complete independence and diving into a community that felt foreign to my norms.

“Being a foreigner, to some extent, was crucial to my own self-discovery and it’s something I am pursuing again on a larger scale in Malaysia.”

An avid hiker and a self-described “nature nut,” Spieker is drawn to Malaysia for its environmental and cultural diversity.

“It has mountains, beaches, cities and rainforests. In that way, it has so much to offer. But my key objective for my Fulbright experience is to further enhance my understanding of diversity—and to share that knowledge with my future classrooms,” she says.

Leadership through athletics

Drawn to teaching in part because it offers the chance to impact students’ lives in positive ways, Spieker has, in some ways, been a teacher for years. The only girl in a family of four siblings, she spent her childhood competing in sports…and competing with her brothers. Physically and mentally strong, she played a bevy of sports—from soccer to softball to basketball to track and field—and was drawn to opportunities where she could lead and teach her teammates.

Track became her favorite sport. At Rowan, Spieker was a thrower on the women’s track team for three years. She holds the University record in the hammer throw.

“Competing in sports taught me a lot about myself. I learned my strengths and my weaknesses abruptly through sports. I sought leadership in almost every sports domain. I discovered my passion for working with teammates, which holds true in everything I do,” she says.

Spieker is looking to bring sports to her Fulbright experience by starting an after-school club for sports and outdoor activities for her students. She’s particularly interested in using sports to help build confidence among her female students.

“I have found sports and outdoor activities to be fundamental to my being and my sense of adventure. It’s a passion that I hope to bring to Malaysia,” says Spieker, who played soccer and basketball on a team comprised of Special Olympics athletes and University students through Rowan Unified Sports.

Freedom and empowerment

Her American Studies courses have led Spieker to think a lot about the concept of freedom and what it means to be free. She expects there will be discussions on that topic in her Malaysian classroom.

“I will be curious to take that discussion to Malaysia,” says Spieker. “I find the concept of freedom to be really interesting. There’s a lot of complexity to the term.”

Spieker will thrive in her Fulbright experience, says Rowan History Professor Emily Blanck, who taught Spieker in two American Studies classes.

“Emily throws everything into the work she does. She brings a real intensity to her work, which probably comes from being an athlete,” says Blanck. “In Malaysia, she’ll learn about women in a Muslim country and what that’s like for them. I think she’ll gain a greater understanding of how people will find happiness and empowerment, even in an environment that is constricting.”

Moreover, Blanck says, the experience will teach Spieker more about her home country.

“You understand the United States better when you go out of the United States,” Blanck says.

This summer, Spieker will head off to Hong Kong, where she’ll be involved with the Center for Talented Youth, a summer program through Hong Kong University and Johns Hopkins University. She’ll work with girls in fifth through 10th grades.

“I’ll have 30 girls and my job will be to plan their mandatory fun,” Spieker, a two-year resident assistant at Rowan, says with a chuckle.

All of her experiences in the United States and abroad come back to two things: teaching and learning, she says.

“My ultimate goal is to learn abundantly and to help others learn in return,” says Spieker, who took six or seven classes each semester at Rowan. “I believe that you learn best when you’re open to experiencing circumstances outside of everyday life.”

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