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Fulbright-Hays fellowship in West Africa allows Smith to pursue her passion

“Daily sounds that I will miss when I return home: the vibrant voices of Senegalese children at play in the sand-filled roads; the waltz-like 1-2-3-1-2-3-1 rhythm of pounding of garlic, pepper and other spices in a wooden mortal and pestle for meal preparation; the pervasive and often distorted calls to prayer from loudspeakers within Muslim mosques five times a day; and the persistent bleating of sheep who inhabit every corner – even city home courtyards and rooftops.” – Reading education doctoral student Kimberly Smith on the sights and sounds of Senegal

Kimberly Smith has been providing teacher training in Senegal
Reading education doctoral candidate Kimberly Smith has been conducting research and providing teacher training in Senegal as a Fulbright-Hays fellow. Credit: Photos courtesy of Kimberly Smith

In considering what traits are most essential for conducting structured research in the most unstructured of settings, reading education doctoral student Kimberly Smith settled on “creativity and persistence.”

Given her experiences as a Fulbright-Hays fellow in the West African republic of Senegal, Smith’s list may grow to include “quick reflexes.” Since arriving there at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year, Smith has dodged cars, trucks, people and even sheep on an almost daily basis while riding a tiny and temperamental Vespa scooter to and from various schools on busy roads that lack helpful signage or basic traffic rules.

“I feel like I am living out of the classic video game Frogger,” joked Smith, a Brewton, Ala., native. “The goal – make it to the destination without getting smushed.”

She has remained un-smushed thanks to road-savvy instincts developed during trips to Iraq, Malawi, South Africa and Kenya in the last decade, and her well-traveled Vespa has mostly remained unbroken thanks to one resourceful local mechanic who siphons oil through his mouth and another who happened to be wearing an Auburn hat during one of Smith’s visits.

Smith has logged plenty of miles in and around the capital of Dakar since arriving in Senegal at the beginning of the fall semester. She became the first Auburn University student to land the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad Award externalweb offered by the U.S. Department of Education. The program provides funding for students to pursue research related to modern foreign languages and international studies in other countries for 6-12 months. Smith earned more than $27,000 in support of her work, which focuses on the evaluation of students’ oral vocabulary development in French and Wolof, the primary language for 40 percent of the country’s population, and the promotion of French literacy skills.

Proficiency in French holds the key to educational and economic success in Senegal, where a mere 7 percent of children who begin receiving formal education ever earn the equivalency of a high school diploma. According to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings externalweb, approximately 61 million primary school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa – one in two – will lack the ability to read, write or perform basic mathematical tasks when they reach adolescence.

“The realities are staggering,” Smith said. “For this part of the world, a good level of education means having choices regarding one’s future, which can lead to economic opportunities.

“Senegal is not unlike many countries around the world where young children speak one language at home, but arrive at school having to learn to read and to write in a formal language that is not their mother tongue. I believe strong literacy skills are essential in providing students with the base to learn in all subject areas.”

Senegalese students have caught the AU spirit
Since arriving in Senegal, Smith has helped to create more than a few "War Eagle" moments.

Smith said she hopes to develop instruments and practices that can help Senegalese educators better connect with children in “complex second language settings.” She said she considers it a privilege to participate in teacher training on a national level in Senegal.

As a Fulbright fellow, Smith’s work has received the full support of the College of Education, as well as Auburn University’s Graduate School au icon and Office of Outreach au icon. Smith said Department of Curriculum and Teaching faculty members Edna Brabham and Bruce Murray have played a pivotal role in equipping her to assist educators in their efforts to help second language learners. Her fellowship has enabled her to work closely with U.S. Embassy personnel and others who have helped her obtain “a larger view of educational work from a global development perspective.” In the midst of her data collection and work within different school settings, Smith has immersed herself in local culture and customs.

“Things here are just more time-intensive, which leads to most Senegalese being incredibly patient people,” she said.

During a given day, Smith will gather her daily supply of water in the morning since the piped-in supply often slows to a trickle by midday, keep candles and a fully-charged computer battery ready in preparation for inevitable power outages, wash laundry in a bucket and then iron them to kill insect larvae, eat from a communal bowl and drink hot tea from a shared cup while enjoying conversation with Senegalese friends, bargain with drivers over the appropriate price for rides to locations the Vespa can’t negotiate and, eventually, fall asleep under the cover of a mosquito net.

Kimberly Smith engaging in a classroom discussion
Smith possesses an abundance of teacher training experience and has been a frequent visitor to Africa.

The activity will be accompanied by a soundtrack of prayer calls from nearby mosques, the bleating of sheep that occupy so many neighborhoods and the laughter of children playing “rock soccer” during school recess. Smith has also found the Senegalese people to be hospitable and more than a little curious about her since they encounter so few Caucasians.

“I am currently working in neighborhoods where people with light skin are not often seen,” she said. “I therefore have had to get accustomed to little children frequently crying out “toubob” (the Wolof term for ‘white woman’) as I walk past. It did make me smile recently when I came up the road to one of the schools and heard the children call out with excitement, ‘our toubob is here!’

“The children have been a great joy. They are so vivacious and eager to learn.”

Smith matches that same level of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to serving the students she has met.

“I am fortunate to have been born in a place where one has the benefit of fiscal resources in addition to a wide-range of opportunities to learn and develop,” Smith said. “If I can be of the smallest bit of service by offering what has been entrusted to me by God’s grace in order to assist the next generation in having an opportunity for a future and hope, I am very content.”

Last Updated: Feb 08, 2013

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