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Education professor sees government overthrow up close

Jeff Carpenter never thought he’d personally witness the overthrow of a government, but for the new assistant professor of education, a teacher exchange program to Kyrgyzstan in April was cut short for that very reason. The revolution had an unintended consequence back home, as Carpenter discovered, and it’s one he’ll share with his Elon University students in the years to come.

Assistant professor Jeff Carpenter

Carpenter, who joined the Elon faculty this fall, worked as an English teacher at Carrboro High School in Carrboro, N.C., for three years while completing his doctorate from the University of Virginia. Last fall, he applied for and was welcomed into the Teaching Excellence & Achievement Program sponsored by the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the program each year brings together scholars from various cultures. It accepted just 10 percent of American applicants for 2009-2010 and eventually led Carpenter to the mountainous Asian nation, a former Soviet republic with China to the southeast and Kazakhstan to the north.

While there, he met with parents' committees and NGOs, served as a guest speaker on U.S. education and culture, team-taught at host schools, and conducted workshops for the teaching community on teaching methods and curriculum design. At the same time, internal political strife reached a boiling point after dozens of government protesters died outside the presidential palace in the nation’s capital.

“I knew before I went that the president was fairly unpopular, but he had managed to get himself ‘re-elected’ with 90 percent of the vote,” Carpenter said. “It sounds like what happened, and it’s hard to know for sure, is that the president’s guard opened fire on protesters, and they also killed people who just happened to be watching.”

Violence never rocked the city where Carpenter lived. Indeed, the provincial governor relinquished his seat when crowds formed outside his home. It wasn’t until the U.S. Department of State told Carpenter he would leave earlier than planned that the American departed Kyrgyzstan.

Back in the United States, students at Carrboro High School watched with interest, and anxiety, as the revolution made international headlines. Such attention was out of the norm for students who may not have been able to point to Kyrgyzstan on a map prior to their teacher visiting the country.

“A lot of kids took a personal interest in what was happening,” Carpenter said. “It meant something to them because I was there. I like the fact that my students took more interest in news coming out of that part of the world.

Carpenter’s travels appealed as well to the Elon University administrators who hired him.

“Jeff’s world travels have been to places that are somewhat unusual. For most Elon students, the world is Western Europe, Africa, East Asia or Central America,” said David Cooper, dean of Elon’s School of Education. “Adding Dr. Carpenter’s experience in Central Asia along with its rich cultural, commercial, artistic and spiritual history to the mix will broaden everyone’s educational experience and help make possible Elon’s Commitment to ‘global engagement.’”

How will the experience be incorporated into his classes at Elon, which include courses on teaching diverse learners and classroom management? Simple, he said. Elon students will learn the importance of pursuing overseas experiences as professional educators if for no other reason than children live vicariously through their teachers.

That’s a point he believes is worth emphasizing for a long time. Student interest in Kyrgyzstan in Carrboro shows why.

“I like the fact that with this Kyrgyzstan experience I’ve seen how going abroad to learn about a culture influences what my students perceive,” he said. “What you model as a teacher is very important.”

Eric Townsend,
9/23/2010 10:54 AM