Alumni Profile: Abby Vining BA ’12
April 21, 2014
Abby Vining BA ’12
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Can you describe your Fulbright award, where you will be traveling, and what you’ll be doing while you’re there?
I will be living in Bergen, Norway, teaching at the University of Bergen and the Bergen Cathedral School. Although students in Norway learn English in the primary grades, they often need help with writing in English. To this end, I will be running a writer’s workshop at the university and teaching American studies at the school.
What drew you to studying a foreign language? What excites you about the idea of teaching English in the country you have been placed?
I spent the last two years teaching elementary music at KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy in Helena, Arkansas. The experience of teaching in a high-powered rural charter school has given me a depth of understanding of the American school system—charter schools in particular—that I do not think I would have gained through academic study. I am excited about teaching in Norway because I feel that participating in the Norwegian school system will enable me to construct the most accurate picture of their system and to better situate my experience in the Arkansas Delta within a global education spectrum.
I applied to teach in Norway because I have come to see that many of the problems faced by schools and students are not necessarily educational in nature. Students bring a myriad of traumas into their schools. In my experience, these traumas are often caused by poverty and stresses from an unstable home environment. When comparing international test scores, Norway does not score tremendously higher than the United States; they do, however, have a significantly smaller gap in achievement between students from low-income families and students from high-income families. I am curious as to whether the smaller achievement gap in Norway is due to better teaching, the political philosophy of social democracy, or both. In my time outside of the classroom, I will be working to answer this question and collect interviews with teachers, students, and parents about the role of the school in their community and the services they feel help their students achieve.
Have you participated in any study abroad trips during your time at Lewis & Clark? If so, what was that experience like?
During my time at Lewis & Clark, I participated in the East Africa trip. There were only 14 of us on the trip, and I came away from it with some of the closest friends I have ever had. Beyond the people I met and traveled with, the experience was a formative one because it deepened my understanding of where the United States ranked in terms of poverty, inequity, and its treatment of those most in need. Volunteer work abroad is so often valorized, but there is more than enough to be done at home. It seemed to me that if I were to volunteer, I would want to address these issues in my own country rather than perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism. This experience coupled with my studies in the history department prompted me to join Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta after graduation.
How do you think your Lewis & Clark education has contributed to you seeing yourself as a citizen in a global community?
In the Delta (“the Delta” is a blanket term applied to the towns along the banks of the Mississippi River in the Southern United States), the most valuable aspect of my Lewis & Clark education has been my time in the history department. The classes I took gave me a firm grounding in the history and cultural conflicts of the South, and the ways in which that history is still reflected in the modern cultural landscape. In the South, I am certainly among a privileged minority. More than 95 percent of our students are African American and on free and reduced lunch. I think my time studying at Lewis & Clark—experiences like study abroad and the history class I took as part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program with Assistant Professor of History Reiko Hillyer—gave me the tools I needed to build new cultural competencies as a transplant to this region.
What are your plans for the future, and how do you think your Fulbright experience will figure in those plans?
When I return from Norway, I will be attending Harvard Graduate School of Education. My time in Norway will certainly figure into my future as an educator because, along with my last two years teaching in the Mississippi Delta, it will inform the choices I make as a teacher and the reforms for which I will advocate within the school system and in local communities.
Any advice to share with other Lewis & Clark students applying for similar awards in the future?
Even if you have already graduated, applying for awards through Lewis & Clark is very helpful. The deadline is early. I would recommend getting started in the summer so that you are ready when school and/or work take off again in the fall. I would also recommend staying in touch with professors after you graduate. It makes asking for letters of recommendation more fun!
Is there anything else you’d like to say to future Lewis & Clark students?
I asked a first-grade student at my school what advice she would give a college student to help them be successful. She said, “Be nice. Be safe. Stay focused and be good on the bus.”