Shermy Motlhabane knew her Fulbright teaching exchange at Indiana University of Pennsylvania would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but never dreamed that COVID-19 (coronavirus) would keep her from returning to her country—or how welcome she would feel in her Indiana, Pennsylvania, “home” during a global pandemic.

Motlhabane, a Fulbright recipient and teacher from Botswana, was one of 16 international educators selected to visit IUP as part of the 2020 US Department of State, Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program for International Teachers (Fulbright DAI). Teachers in this year’s program at IUP were from 11 countries, including Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Morocco, New Zealand, Philippines, Senegal, Taiwan, and Uganda.


In addition to coursework at IUP, the international educators were scheduled to work in a rural school (Indiana Area School District) and an urban school (Brashear High School in the Pittsburgh Public School district), as well as career and technical centers and the ARIN Intermediate Unit.

IUP College of Education and Communications Dean Lara Luetkehans and Associate Vice President of International Education and Global Engagement Michele Petrucci, co-authors of the grant, worked closely with the international visitors to complete the goals of the program and to make them feel at home, despite the challenging circumstances caused by the pandemic.

Of the 16 Fulbright scholars, many left to return to their home countries as stay-at-home orders began; but eight of the international educators, including Motlhabane, chose to stay in Indiana to complete their experience. Even as the upheaval took the place of face-to-face experiences, the learning didn’t stop for any participant.

“The experience moved to being virtual,” Petrucci said. “We continued to provide asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences, including a series of workshops hosted by IUP faculty and their Brashear partner teachers, whom they never had a chance to meet in person, but were able to collaborate with virtually.”

After being chosen as a Fulbright in 2019, Motlhabane quickly began communicating with Kayla Stewart, her host teacher at Indiana Area High School. Before she left Botswana, the two started sharing pieces of their life stories. They both had three children, both taught reading to high school students, and both loved to travel.

“I had heard if I was coming to IUP, I was in the best hands because this lady, Michele (Petrucci), had been to Botswana,” Motlhabane said. “When I arrived in DC, Michele was there and greeted me in my language! Also, I couldn’t wait to meet Kayla. I knew there was someone in Indiana that was so ready to work with me and help me learn.”

In 2016, when the first group of international educators came to IUP through the program, Stewart jumped at the chance to work with them.

“How could I not expose my students to the cultural aspects of being with these teachers?” Stewart asked. “I would be doing a disservice to my students to not bring this opportunity into my class. It gives us all, including me, access to culture that we don’t get easily.”

The first two months of Motlhabane’s experience went as planned. After getting over the shock of seeing snow for the first time, her days were spent acclimating to life in America. Every Monday was spent in seminar, a time when the Fulbright educators would come together for lunch and conversation, to reflect on the past week and talk about the week ahead.

“I will always cherish that time,” Motlhabane said. “The Monday seminar and lunch with Lara (Luetkehans) and Michele. It was a really special time.”

Once a week, Motlhabane would travel to Indiana Senior High School to focus on her inquiry project. The inquiry project is a required activity of the program: development of educational materials, workshops, or other resources designed to meet an educational need in their home country.

Her inquiry program focus was learning how to effectively teach reading to high school students who are struggling to learn English. Her goal is to use reading methodologies to make reading and understanding English easier for her at-risk students.

“I created a professional development handbook with more than 100 pages during my time here,” Mothlhabane said. “I can’t wait to share it with other teachers so we can help our students who find reading tedious and challenging.”

Although her native language is Setswana, she’s been teaching English for 21 years. Immersing herself in the language and learning reading strategies from Stewart has made the experience more than just a trip to America.

The visitors completed their coursework at IUP and in the Indiana Area School District, but the closing of Pennsylvania’s schools in March due to the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from working at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh.

“We had just had a lecture about our urban education experience,” Mothlhabane said. “We were so looking forward to going to Brashear. We thought the pandemic was a wave that would pass quickly. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Suddenly, some of our educators were leaving to go back home. I decided to stay. My friends and I discussed how we cried in our rooms. We felt so low.”

Almost 8,000 miles, six times zones, and the equator separate Motlhabane from her family. But, thanks to technology, they share pictures and talk by video multiple times a day.

“It’s already such a huge sacrifice for them to come and do this,” Stewart said. “They leave their family for five months and then this happened. She can’t see her husband and three children until probably at least June.”

“She joined in a Google Meet session with my students to share her experience,” Stewart said. “She’s positive and upbeat. She’s not complaining. The resilience she’s exhibited being away from her family. I don’t know if I could do it. It’s just amazing.” 

Luetkehans worked with her college’s Counseling Department to provide doctoral student counselors, under the supervision of a faculty member, to provide support to the visitors who were interested in talking with a counselor, recognizing the stress that the pandemic presented to the visiting educators.

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“It has been emotionally draining, but IUP assigned us counselors to talk to,” Motlhabane said. “It was so helpful to work through the feelings and talk about what was happening. I have gained such a feeling of strength and confidence. I can do things now and endure things that I had never thought I could before.”

“People here have my back,” Mothlhabane said. “This educational experience kept going despite the pandemic. The people here at IUP and in Indiana have become my family. They say that on the brochures that ‘IUP is a family.’ It’s true—it’s not just words on a page. I feel it daily. Someone will go completely out of their way to help you.

“If I’m lost or don’t understand how something works, someone always steps up to help me. It’s such a purpose-driven university. I feel the sense of family not only in my classes, but even walking around campus,” she said.

Motlhabane continues to wait patiently for her country to open its borders.

Government organizers of the program has offered to fly her to South Africa, which borders Botswana, to be closer to her family, although there is no guarantee when she could get home.

“If I fly to South Africa, I’d be by myself, staying alone. I’d rather be here in Indiana with my IUP and Indiana family.”

This is the fifth year IUP has hosted the program and received almost $1 million in grant funding for the initiative. Since spring 2016, IUP has hosted 84 international educators through this program and its forerunner, International Leaders in Education Program. Four students have returned to pursue graduate programs at IUP.

Fulbright DAI brings primary and secondary educators to the United States for five months to pursue individual or group projects, take courses for professional development, and observe and share their expertise with US colleagues. The program is funded by the US government in conjunction with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by IREX, a global development and education organization.