Champaign-Urbana provides a summer-time home for SUSI 2014 participants

By Brittney Nadler

Abdoul Gassim Toure had never been to the United States before applying to take part in Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) 2014. The course boldly stated it would give educators from around the world the opportunity to experience the tantalizing American Dream.

“My friends and family thought it was a dream that came true,” Toure wrote via email.

Born in Faranah, Guinea, and raised in the West African country’s capital, Conakry, Toure had expectations for the course after hearing about it from the U.S. Embassy in Guinea. He wasn’t worried. Instead, the English as a foreign language (EFL)teacher wrote that he knew it would be “wonderful to participate in a social, cultural, educational and economic debate in an American society.”

Along with 19 other educators, Toure spent six weeks touring the country as well as discovering Champaign-Urbana through the Global Institute for Secondary Educators, one of three secondary educator programs in the country, according to Jeffrey Friedman, academic director of the program.

“For us, it’s a great way for exchange and outreach to the community,” Friedman said. “We focus on diversity and the idea and ideologies that unite our diverse country.”

Participants arrived from all over the globe, from New Zealand to Uruguay to Kazakhstan, and stayed in Presby Hall, located at 405 E. John St. in Champaign. Families in the community volunteered to be hosts and show them around town, Friedman said.

Getting accepted into the program was not as easy as applying and flying to the U.S. — hundreds of applications were received as the Department of State advertised the program in any country where a U.S. consulate is located.

“This is the most popular of all the Department of State institutional programs,” he said. “(For) a country like Nepal last year, you’d get well over 200 applicants for a single position. It’s highly competitive.”

The consulate of each country chooses finalists and ranks them, before the Department of State in Washington, D.C., decides which countries can take part. Friedman said they look for applicants who have a high level of English literacy and are “innovative teachers who will go back home and integrate what they learned into their lessons.”

For Toure, the trip appealed to his teaching interests in wanting to meet fellow professionals.

“I wanted to take part because I have had the pleasure of meeting a group of outstanding United States lecturers and teacher trainers,” Toure wrote. “I was so impressed by their friendliness, positive contributions and their descriptions of teaching in an American context.”

On an average day, Toure wrote he attended discussions, seminars and films, and went on tours to experience multiple aspects of American culture, such as social, economic, religious and political ideologies.

Friedman said days typically began with a seminar or workshop followed by a discussion in the afternoon. Participants took trips to Springfield, Ill., as well as Amish country, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

“My home life is far different from that of the U S.,” Toure wrote. “Life is very hard because of lack of social amenities … but we take life to be simple. In my home, we show much concern for one another, which is not the same in America.”

Toure also noticed that the U.S. has a large amount of car traffic, something he wrote is “not respected” in Guinea.

Noni Hartanto Ledford, chief information officer for University Administration, volunteered with her husband to be a host family for the program. Combined, the couple has visited more than 80 countries but no longer has the time to travel as much.

“We would like to bring the world to us,” Ledford said. “When I travel to other countries, I experience a lot of good hospitality from the local people. I want to give back to people who travel here so hopefully they will do the same thing in the future.”

Ledford hosted a barbeque at her home and also invited the participants to swim in her pool. The party was such a success that they told the educators they were welcome to come swim again anytime they wanted — an offer they took up on the Fourth of July.

“I had other people coming to the party as well, so they got to meet some other local community members,” she said. “A lot of our friends are also international, so it was an interesting evening for them to be able to celebrate the U.S. Independence Day with people from the community who are also from other countries.”

Penny and Len Lopez, retirees who lives in Urbana, also hosted the participants, who were commonly referred to as students, throughout the six weeks. Their first host family experience was nearly five decades ago, and now they host students whenever possible.

“When we first arrived here in town, we were taken under the wing of the Fallon family, and they helped us find groceries, housing and many other things,” Penny said. “I simply have recognized that when you welcome someone, their visit is more comfortable and memorable.”

Penny met the participants at their first picnic and kept in contact with about half a dozen, she said. During the Fourth of July parade, a woman, an English teacher from Iceland, joined Penny and helped a team of ten that was holding a large blue and white balloon.

“The participant from Iceland had never worn shorts before. She had never heard of thunder and lightning,” she said. “There were many firsts … The gentleman from the Ivory Coast had never been out of his village; he had never been on an airplane.”

When the students visited the Lopez home, they shared desserts like fruit, cake, brownies and ice cream pie, and discussed every day occurrences in their countries.

“It was an amazing program because of the exposure of many of those participating,” Penny said. “The camaraderie and teaming with participants from 19 other countries was instantaneous and incredible. It will always be a summer to remember.”

After the group’s first trip to Boston and Washington D.C., Penny said they spoke of the comfort they felt in Champaign-Urbana.  

For Toure, he wrote that he is confident he experienced the American Dream.

“The American Dream is a belief by Americans that freedom is a must that includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility that can only be achieved through hard work,” he wrote. “I have experienced the respect of rights, cultural diversity, freedom to practice his/her religion and the awareness to pursue happiness.”

Brittney can be reached at [email protected]com.