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Fulbright Award allows UWRF professor to give her family an international experience

Rhonda Petree, her husband Don Kirkpatrick and their two children, Lillian and Owen, prepare to travel to Estonia to live for a year after Petree received a Fulbright Award this spring. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Petree

UW-River Falls professor Rhonda Petree first lived abroad in Kazakhstan in her mid-20’s in 1999. She was a Peace Corps volunteer who taught English, with her only responsibilities being “her backpack and her bike.”

But now, 19 years later, she’s preparing to leave on a year-long teaching journey with her family to Narva, Estonia. Petree recently won the highly-selective Fulbright award, which allows professors to teach in another part of the world for an academic year.

Petree has been at UWRF since 2011 when she helped start the English Language Transition program, ELT. The program teaches academic language to students who haven’t yet met the university’s language proficiency requirement. This includes many international students, who are taught how to write academic papers for their American professors and develop their academic vocabulary skills.

“It’s very fulfilling and rewarding to start the program and integrate the students into campus life and help the students be part of the university while they’re developing their language skills,” Petree said. “We deliver high-level service and want any student to feel a part of the university. It’s rewarding to have our international students feel that way.”

Petree’s ELT program, of which she is the founding director, was the first time UWRF had an in-house English language teaching service. This is especially important due to the different writing styles in other parts of the world that students are required to know for their classes.

“We also teach students how to do group work in an American perspective,” Petree said. “This is the goal of helping students be successful while they’re here and when they take other university courses.”

Most of Petree’s students come from China, Japan and South Korea. While she does speak some German and Russian, it isn’t necessary to speak the same native language as her students.

“Our training is to teach language and culture skills to any learner, no matter if they speak the language of their students or not,” Petree said.

Petree applied for her Fulbright award last summer, which included a 29-page application and a variety of statements and recommendations. It wasn’t until the spring that she found out she had received the award for Estonia.  

“It was very exciting and fulfilling when I received it,” Petree said. “It’s a selective process, and it’s competitive, so I’m really proud of it and super excited to go to Europe for a year.”

Marshall Toman, the English Department chair and campus Fulbright Representative, was a part of the Fulbright program in 1997-1998 in the Czech Republic. Toman said he was very pleased Petree was accepted this year, as she is qualified for the position. However, his praise was even greater for the work she’s accomplished at UWRF.

“She's absolutely crucial to the ELT program, because she's been the founding director,” Toman said. “She’s an absolutely superb teacher and administrator, and so much work goes into founding a program like this.”

Toman has been the Fulbright rep on campus for about six years, and is aware of only about six or seven faculty members who have won the award since he went to the Czech Republic. He thinks there will be definite benefits to Petree’s time in Estonia.

“It’s about the opportunity to live in another language culture,” Toman said. “A break in routine is a benefit … and it can bring the family closer together by the experience of making new friends and solving problems together. There are many personal benefits as well as professional.”

While the ELT program is looking to restructure due to declining enrollment the last few years, Toman hopes Petree can return in a year to continue UWRF’s mission of “internationalizing” the campus.

“The whole (Fulbright) project is that the country you go to has someone that understands it in this country and is connected to an institution that can impact relations with that country,” Toman said.

Petree may perform similar roles as she does at UWRF, where she teaches English and the methodology behind how English language teachers should prepare their courses.

Petree will also be in a unique situation due to the location of Narva in Estonia. It’s a primarily Russian-speaking city in the extreme northwest corner of the country. She had to speak Russian in her time in Kazakhstan, and she said it may have given her an advantage in being more qualified for the position.

But beyond the exciting career opportunity, the biggest thing she stressed was the experience for her family. She has two sons, 12 and 9, who attend Hudson Middle School and Willow River Elementary School. This opportunity to shake up their lives is something Petree is looking forward to.

“I want them to see how people in other parts of the world live,” Petree said. “I want them to live with less stuff and to focus more on experiences.”

Her sons will go to a Russian school, so they’re currently preparing by learning the language and attending a two-week immersion camp before they leave for Estonia. Petree’s husband Don will also be joining the family for the year-long excursion, and is working to learn the language.

“None of them have traveled like I have,” Petree said. “While I’ve traveled, I’ve also lived places.

It’s important to me to live in different countries because you have to go through all of the motions of life, not just the touristy things. You have to buy eggs and milk in a different language, and it’s not all exciting.”

However, this aspect of living in a different culture is what sets the experience apart. Petree said she has benefited from those highs and lows and to be part of a community. She has received a lot of support from her family, and she hopes it can change them for the better.

“They don’t know what to expect,” Petree said. “I’m pleased they have this experience, and it can open up capacity to delve into cultures and be more curious and ask more questions.”

Petree and her family will fly to Estonia on July 31 for their year-long adventure.

Zach Dwyer

Zach Dwyer is a senior journalism student at UW-River Falls. He is an intern reporter for RiverTown Multimedia during the summer of 2018 covering features and sports. He was previously a news intern in the summer of 2017 for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. 

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