By Beth Eberth
For St. Bonaventure alumna Becca Weitzel, a teaching position that combined her love of working with young students and a chance to explore the world earned an easy A in her grade book.
Weitzel, ’13, ’14, is completing her second year at a private bilingual elementary school in Kuwait, where her 21 Kuwaiti and Lebanese second-graders inspire and delight her.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping people and learning from them. No day is the same. The kids are adorable; they are so full of life. They make your life brighter,” Weitzel said.
Her goal of becoming a teacher has always been clear: “I think I’ve always known that
was what I wanted to do. My mom is a teacher,” she said. But it was a summer study abroad experience through the university in 2012 that gave Weitzel her first taste of life on another continent.
“I loved studying in Italy. It made me want to travel more,” she said. It was during Weitzel’s senior year at St. Bonaventure that she sought the advice of a family friend who was teaching in Beijing. Weitzel earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education/special education in 2013 — then stayed on at Bona’s to complete a master’s in literacy in 2014.
Dr. Nancy Casey, interim dean of St. Bonaventure’s School of Education, said teaching abroad is a growing area of interest for education students, whether it’s through a paid position or a volunteer program such as the Peace Corps.
“Our education majors are exploring and trying to get experience in unusual ways and new places,” Casey said. “Being open to new cultures is only going to help them in their lives and in their careers.”
Many international schools make it easy for new teachers like Weitzel to say yes to their job offers: Along with competitive salaries and benefits, it is common for the schools to provide airfare, orientation programs, mentoring, housing, and even transportation to work.
As American schools become more diverse, traveling abroad at the beginning of one’s career will help teachers meet the needs of a variety of diverse learners and help them to think on their feet, said Casey.
Weitzel is one of only a handful of Americans at the large school in Kuwait — there are eight second-grade classrooms — but all of the instructors “have the same mindset. We all love to teach, we all love to travel,” she said.
Working in the small Middle Eastern country the size of Rhode Island has allowed Weitzel to continue to travel. She has visited dozens of countries with fellow teachers from Australia, Canada, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. And native Kuwaitis are happy to help her explore their homeland by visits to the beach or desert camping.
“I have learned so much. I have been to almost 30 countries and have been able to save a ton of money. If you want to do it, the opportunity is out there,” said Weitzel, who will be moving on to a new position at an international baccalaureate school in Hanoi, Vietnam, in August.
“I’m really all for getting more graduates overseas. Learning what’s going on the world is invaluable,” added Weitzel, who grew up in the rural Finger Lakes region outside of Geneseo. “And I have full intentions of going back to the states at some point and bringing back what I learn.”
St. Bonaventure graduate student Katie Merrill, who is enrolled in the literacy program at the university’s Buffalo Center at Hilbert, has secured a job teaching in Spain for the next academic year. She won’t learn of her placement until sometime in April, and that doesn’t faze Merrill.
“I feel like if you’re going to leave home and go overseas to teach, you might as well not hold back and take all opportunities thrown at you. I was able to give my preference for where I want to live, so I gave Madrid. Obviously I am hopeful that I will get my top choice, but I think that wherever they put me will be based on fate,” said Merrill.
Being a substitute teacher for grades K-12 this past year has made her extremely flexible, so she’s confident that she will be successful in whichever grade level she’s placed.
Merrill, who grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville and graduated from Amherst Central High School, has always loved traveling.
“Every year my family takes a road trip. Whether it be to the Adirondack mountains four hours away, or a trip to Florida driven over the course of three days, I love waking up in a new place,” she said.
Merrill graduated in 2015 with a major in elementary and special education, and holds New York certification in childhood education, early childhood education and students with disabilities.
Paying It Forward
The career success Weitzel has found is grounded firmly in the Bonaventure bond she developed with faculty members as a student and as a young professional.
“I’m so close with my professors there. I still communicate back and forth with them. It’s not something most colleges can say. If not for them, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am,” said Weitzel.
Likewise, Weitzel was happy to share advice with St. Bonaventure senior Becca Goess when she was considering the overseas job market. Prepping for an international job fair in Boston was stressful and competitive. Goess had to pass an application process just to attend the January fair.
But at the end of the four-day fair, which Goess said at times felt more like speed dating than job interviews, she had four job offers. She accepted a post at Korea International School in Seoul.
In July, she heads to South Korea where she’ll work in an elementary school STEM lab. Paired with two science teachers along with engineering, math, art and technology instructors, Goess will focus on experiential learning, a new emphasis for the STEM lab.
“Part of my job is to take what’s being done in the classroom and introduce service-based learning,” she explained.
The Long Island native can’t wait to meet the school’s teachers and students from across the globe.
“St. Bonaventure has really prepared me for this job,” said Goess.
During her interviews at the job fair, Goess was able to easily point to myriad classroom experiences and examples of how she managed challenging situations. Embracing an apprenticeship model for teacher preparation, St. Bonaventure’s education majors spend about 1,000 hours in schools prior to completing their undergraduate degrees. For Goess, that experience came via a high school, middle school and four elementary school classrooms. And even now, as Goess completes her final semester, she is substitute teaching in Olean and Allegany to gain even more experience on her own.
“These are very competitive jobs, but I think that our graduates are very articulate about teaching,” said Casey, who has been helping prepare teaching candidates at St. Bonaventure for 20 years. “Our students have so much experience as undergraduates, their résumés do not look like recent college grads. Many of them have actual classroom experience at every grade level for which they will be certified. It does make them stand out,” she said.
For Goess, her first visit to St. Bonaventure from native Long Island was love at first sight — even amid the brutal blizzard that battered the campus that day.
As a freshman she joined ENACTUS, an internationally recognized nonprofit organization that promotes partnership between leaders in business and university students to make a difference in their local communities. St. Bonaventure’s ENACTUS group annually provides small-business consulting and business seminars in the Bahamas, among other programs. So it was just a few months into her college career that Goess found herself in front of a classroom of elementary students on Grand Bahama Island.
“Teaching in another culture with other educational beliefs is eye-opening,” she said. She eagerly joined fellow education students for the next three years on the annual trip to the Bahamas. Goess is also an assistant coach on the university hip hop team and has been paired with a community student the past three years through the Bona Buddies program.
Dreams of someday becoming a teacher began for Goess at a young age. She tormented her three siblings with hours of playing school. Now, she is just a couple months away from completing her bachelor’s degree in elementary, special education and early childhood education. She will also be New York state certified in childhood education, early childhood education and students with disabilities.
Likewise, Merrill has wanted to be a teacher since she started school.
“Ever since I was in kindergarten, I would come home and play school in my basement. I was voted most likely to be a teacher in eighth grade, and I think that my love of children has been a huge factor in my decision,” Merrill said.
As a senior in high school, Merrill tutored middle school students and helped them with homework.
“This further reinforced my gut feeling that this was something I was passionate about and wanted to make my career,” she said.
Merrill continues to find herself helping the student in the class who struggles the most.
“It’s kind of a gift as a student teacher to walk into a room and pick up where the classroom teacher is struggling. I always found myself helping the students with whom the teacher was the most frustrated,” said Merrill. “The teachers are usually open to suggestions for advice with how to deal with the problem situation. The moments where I was able to create a fresh start for a struggling student are the ones I have found as memorable.”
Education dean Casey says these young women will be ideal ambassadors for St. Bonaventure and for the United States during their time abroad.
“These students have long been interested in teaching abroad. They are anxious to see new cultures. They want to teach, but they also are open to the experience of living in a new place,” said Casey. “They will take what they have learned here at SBU and will make an impact in the lives of others, just as do all SBU grads. It’s just that these alums will be doing it abroad.”
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