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Belfast Teacher Learning to Love the Caribbean and Its 'Brilliant' People

Dec. 29, 2008 — Many's the day when Fiona Smith walks into her classroom at Good Hope School, where she teaches second grade, and comes to a dead halt. It's just that beautiful outside the window.
"I walk in and it takes me a couple of minutes to collect myself and go, 'All right, get on with it!'" she said. "Every once in a while I just stop everything and tell the students, 'Everyone look outside the window for a minute.'"
Smith's voice has a lilt, but unlike her students, whose voices carry the music of the Caribbean, Smith's voice carries the unmistakable sound of her home on another green island — Ireland. A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Smith is working on St. Croix for the 2008-09 school year, part of a Fulbright award program in which she is exchanging classrooms, cars, homes and homelands with Charlene McGowan, the usual Good Hope second-grade teacher.
Smith didn't know for sure she'd be approved for the exchange until August, leaving her just three days to pack and go. She hit the ground running, without any time to even get any expectations about what life in the Caribbean might be like.
"Everything happened so quickly," she said. "It really was just a case of getting packed and going. It's almost as if I don't really believe I'm here at all yet."
The friendliness of the people of St. Croix — "brilliant, brilliant people," she called them — has been one of the best parts of the swap, she said: "It's been a really easy transition. Everyone has been so wonderful and helpful."
And she loves her students.
"Seventeen little people and they're fabulous," she said.
Science is a favorite activity. The students love experiments, and Smith has taken full advantage of the closeness to nature afforded by the island. And the students love the I Spy series of books, in which they have to hunt through heavily detailed pictures to find specific items. The kids love them so much that Smith had them bring in items from home and create their own I Spy books.
Right now the weather in Belfast is gray, cold and wet, a far cry from the climate on St. Croix. Smith looks forward to sharing it with her sister, who was scheduled to arrive for a visit Monday. Later in winter, her parents are due to arrive for a visit.
"I asked my dad how long they could stay, and he said not more than three months," she said. "I think he was kidding"
All the same, there are things she misses about Belfast. It is home, after all.
"What I miss most is my dog at home," she said. "We walk the hills two or three times a week. You bundle up for the cold and the rain and you're just used to it."
Rain here on the island doesn't take the place of the Irish rain, she added.
"Warm rain, it's just not right," she said, laughing.
McGowan had actually been approved for a Fulbright exchange for the 2007-08 school year, but the program's organizers had not been able to find a suitable person for her to exchange with, so her application was held over for a year. Meanwhile, Smith was hitting a wall. She worked with students ages 11 to 16 with emotional and behavioral problems, and it was beginning to get to her. About a year ago she told her principal she needed a break "so I could come back to my work refreshed." The principal told her to come in after Christmas and they'd talk.
When Smith arrived for the talk, the principal had found the Fulbright program and McGowan's application, and encouraged her to apply.
One whirlwind of paperwork and packing later, and Smith found herself en route to the Caribbean.
"I really had no expectations because everything happened so quickly," she said. "You dream of coming to a place like this."
The Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Program invites U.S. teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade, two-year colleges and university administrators and teachers who are interested in working abroad, to apply for a one-year exchange with a counterpart from another country. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Established by Congress in 1946, the program's purpose is to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the rest of the world.
Since its inception, the Fulbright Program has exchanged more than a quarter of a million people in more than 155 countries worldwide. An annual Congressional appropriation, along with significant contributions from participating foreign governments and the private sector in the U.S. and abroad, funds the program.
Anyone interested in more information on the Fulbright Exchange Program, including information on how to apply, can visit fulbrightexchanges.org.
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