When Ashlen Lemon, a linguistics major and TESOL minor, heard about the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Program in Cambodia, the timing felt providential. At the time, Lemon was in Cambodia studying culture and the Khmer language at the Center for Khmer Studies, and she had heard about the Fulbright program through her classmates there. The ETA program seemed like the ideal way for Lemon to come back to Cambodia.
The reality was a little more complicated. When Lemon returned to the US, she applied for and received the Fulbright grant. Her time in Cambodia was supposed to begin in the fall of 2020, but because of COVID-related travel restrictions, she could not go. At that point, Lemon had two options: wait and see whether travel opened up soon—which meant missing other opportunities for something that might never happen—or make other plans for the upcoming year and close the door on her Fulbright opportunity altogether.
Lemon decided to wait and hope, essentially putting her life on hold for the new few months. Her patience paid off when she was finally able to fly to Cambodia in January 2021 to begin her teaching assignment.
Her main placement was at the University of South-East Asia, where she had several assignments. She ran an English club twice a week and cotaught an applied linguistics class, for which she lectured three hours a week about introductory linguistics topics. “My university had not originally planned to assign me this class,” she says, “but when they found out that I have a degree in linguistics, they tailored my responsibilities to fit my experience.” She also held office hours at the university’s American Corner— an initiative through the US embassy in which students and members of the community can access a library of various English-language materials.
Along with her university assignment, Lemon volunteered with the Cambodia Community Dream Organization’s teacher training program and with a group called Kids Play International. “Outside of these main assignments,” Lemon says, “ETAs are also asked to act as cultural ambassadors. Many people [in Cambodia] do not know many Americans, and those they do know are just tourists.” The fun part of her experience as a cultural ambassador was that there was no set structure. Joining locals on outings or even chatting at the supermarket could count as cultural ambassador interactions.
In an interview while still in Cambodia, Lemon spoke about what aspects of the program she enjoyed most: “My favorite parts of my Fulbright experience are my students and experiencing the local culture” she said. “I love seeing my students try new things and push themselves. It is rewarding to see them grow and improve their English skills. They are also so sweet and respectful of each other and of me. I also love seeing Khmer culture in more depth. I have tried foods I have never heard of, seen historical structures I didn’t know existed, and heard so many different life experiences. I am constantly in awe of this country and the peo- ple here, and I am so happy to be participating in a small way.”
Lemon’s time in Cambodia came to an end in September 2021. She’s now back in the United States and is teaching English to speakers of other languages. Lemon says that her
I am constantly in awe of this country and the people here, and I am so happy to be participating in a small way.
experience with the Fulbright program was incredibly rewarding in terms of building bridges between cultures, changing perceptions of Americans for those Cambodians she met, and making connections with people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Reflecting on her time in the ETA program, Lemon says, “[It] was exactly what I had been looking for: a way to come back to Cambodia, a country I loved so much, and make a positive impact while also growing personally and professionally.”