UND’s Shafers headed to Rwanda on separate prestigious scholarly fellowships


David L. Dodds

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UND’s Shafers headed to Rwanda on separate prestigious scholarly fellowships

Richard Shafer figures he’s taught in more than 100 university settings over his decades-long education career.

Sometimes, at least seven or eight ? he loses count ? he was serving as a Fulbright scholar in some of the more remote corners of the world. The Philippines, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mozambique, South Africa, pick a “stan” and he’s probably been there as a teacher or as a Peace Corp volunteer in his younger days.

A professor of journalism in the UND Communication Program, Shafer has seen it all when it comes to student cultures, too. He’s been places where he had to remove the light bulbs when he left the classroom lest they not be there the next day; in other places, students just stopped showing up as a routine when the rainy seasons started, and then there were places where students were used to paying teachers for grades, and if they had to work too hard, they’d simply find another, more lenient instructor.

“You don’t really expect anything; you just show up and adapt,” Shafer said. “We’ve been in some places where things just don’t work. It all goes back to the Peace Corp, where I started; you learn as you go along.”

Today, Shafer is preparing for yet another adventure as a Fulbright Scholar. And one thing he knows for sure: he won’t be going it alone. He’ll be joined by his wife, Jill, an assistant professor in UND Department of Teaching & Learning, where she heads up the graduate English Language Learner Education Program. Jill is the recipient of her own Fulbright, her first.

They’re headed to Rwanda to teach at the University of Rwanda in the capital city of Kigali, and to conduct research throughout the country. They are slated to report for their new duties on Oct. 1, and are expected to spend the next 7-9 months in Africa.

Jill said that they learned at a recent Fulbright training session in Washington, D.C. that a husband-and-wife team on separate scholarly fellowships to the same area is fairly rare.

But there was no way that the Shafers ? whose youngest son is college bound ? were going to do it alone. Jill jokingly calls it “empty nest” therapy.

Despite it being her first Fulbright experience, Jill isn’t exactly a newbie when it comes to education missions around the world.

She and the Shafer children often would accompany Richard on his past endeavors. Sometimes she would locate her own work once settling into a country. She’s worked for Doctors Without Borders and taught English in Uzbekistan and provided lectures on adult education in the Philippines, just for starters.

Last year, she traveled to Ethiopia as part of the “Ethiopia Reads” initiative with Anne Walker, a colleague in the Teaching & Learning department, part of the College of Education & Human Development.

Her Fulbright appointment will have her assisting in a massive language transition for a mostly agrarian country that existed for generations under French-speaking Belgian rule. The transition has Rwanda switching its language of education from French to English.

“It’s basically a national shift that is taking place over night,” Jill said.

The reasons for the change are many fold, but it primarily has to do with Rwanda trying to separate from its sometimes brutal colonial past.

Jill, who is an expert in English teaching and learning, will train some of the 1,000 or so native African teachers who will eventually serve as mentors for Rwanda’s language conversion.

She also hopes to spend time working outside the capital city.

“The capital city of Kigali is so unreflective of the rest of the country,” Jill said. “If you just stay at the university, you’re missing a lot about what is really going on and what these trainers will be dealing with and what the conditions are like in these rural schools.”

As for Richard, for his latest Fulbright appointment he will continue to do what he has done in the past: teach journalism and research the state of press in yet another new setting.

Richard describes the press in Rwanda as “very controlled.” He looks forward to interviewing local journalists in the rural provinces that surround Kigali to get a more accurate sense of what it’s like to be a media professional in that kind of environment.

“I might have to be a little cautious about the way I go about things, but, interviewing journalists is interesting; they are the easiest people in the world to interview because they are all just waiting for someone to finally ask them a question,” Shafer says.

The Shafers started the rigorous Fulbright application process nearly two years ago. They carefully selected possible destinations that would work for both. Their options were in Rwanda, Bulgaria, and Lithuania.

Rwanda, a tiny yet picturesque African nation that doesn’t appear on some modern world maps, fit the Shafers academic and research pursuits and also spoke to their collective sense of adventure.

“There is always work to be done in these countries; there’s always something to do,” Jill said. “But it will be nice to go over there with a particular purpose already laid out.”

“Rwanda just seemed to have it all for us,” Richard added.

Richard and Jill said they are grateful to their academic departments, their deans ? Dr. Debbie Storrs and Dr. Robert Hill, and the UND leadership for supporting their Fulbright fellowships.

“UND has always been generous and supportive,” Richard said. “The University is pretty encouraging when it comes to flying the UND flag around the world ? it’s built into our academic culture.”

David DoddsUniversity & Public Affairs writer

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