Meet Sunny Vo: A UNC Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant
Whether teaching Vietnamese lessons in the classroom or playing the piano at Cobb Residence Hall, Sunny Vo is making the most of her time at UNC as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant ( FLTA).
“At UNC, I could be both an instructor and a student because I can audit classes during the year and I could be a resident student living here,” Vo said. “I think these three roles give me a wonderful opportunity to explore, learn and grow.”
Originally from Vietnam, Vo’s journey to UNC began with a passion for teaching linguistics. After earning her master’s degree in Chicago in 2018, she began teaching high school and college students in different parts of Vietnam.
After the COVID-19 lockdowns ended, Vo jumped at the chance to return to the United States to deepen Americans’ knowledge of its language and culture.
This opportunity came through the Fulbright FLTA program, sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State. The program brings together graduates of all levels from more than 50 countries to teach foreign language courses and immerse themselves in American culture.
“This time I’m not just the instructor, but also a student,” she said. “Living with them and learning through them, but also teaching and working with them.”
The ability to teach and learn is one of the objectives of the program. Professor Morgan Pitelka, chair of UNC’s Asian and Middle Eastern studies department, said the program helps build bridges.
“The FLTAs spend this year teaching at UNC and then they return to their home country,” Pitelka said, “and this experience informs their sense of friendship and partnership with the United States, but also especially with Carolina.”
Through a collaboration between the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Carolina Asia Center, Vo is teaching Vietnamese Intermediate I (VIET 203) this semester. Kevin Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center, said the presence of Fulbright FLTAs gives students more options for their language education.
“We are delighted to be able to bring in these Fulbright foreign language teaching assistants, as it allows us to offer more languages to students,” Fogg said. “Students seek a global education when they come to a place like Carolina, and being able to meet those demands from the student body is so important to us.”
For Vo, providing students with a holistic education means teaching them the intricacies of Vietnamese in an easy-to-learn way. Vo said that Vietnamese can be difficult for students because it is a tonal language, which is why Vo also focuses on teaching Vietnamese culture to students.
“I want to facilitate the Vietnamese class by integrating Vietnamese music, Vietnamese literature and Vietnamese history,” Vo said. “The first thing is language, but language in a real context.”
Outside the classroom, Vo continues to share her cultural background. Starting this year, Fulbright FLTAs have the option of living in on-campus residence halls. Vo lives in Cobb, where she often plays Vietnamese music on the hall piano and hosts monthly cultural events throughout the year. Its first event will take place in a few weeks and will feature the making of handmade Vietnamese lanterns.
“I think the monthly events help me introduce my Vietnamese culture and also some Vietnamese knowledge to locals, especially UNC students,” Vo said.
The University also provides funding for Fulbright FLTAs to attend conferences and other professional development opportunities nationwide.
Fogg said FLTAs’ opportunities to teach, learn and travel have impacts beyond those they leave here.
“We hope that once they return to their home countries, they will continue this mission as ambassadors: to speak about what they saw in America, their experiences here and promote a better understanding of the United States on the ground,” he said.
Vo’s biggest goals for the year are teaching Vietnamese language and culture, as well as representing his country. However, she said what excites her the most is connecting with people on campus.
“I’m super, super excited to have the time to make friends and connect with the locals here, and not just the locals, but also the students, the college, and the United States,” said declared Vo.
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