Southeast Missouri State University alumnus Jeff Arrigo has traveled the world to teach English, share his English-teaching skills and experience new cultures. Currently, he’s completing a 10-month assignment in Mongolia as an English Language Fellow (ELF) for the U.S. Department of State.
In his travels, Arrigo, a 2011 Southeast graduate with a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MATESOL), has taught in China, South Korea, Turkey and the United States at the University of Illinois, but it was the challenge of the fellowship program that attracted him to make a larger commitment.
“I was really ready to try a long-term living and working abroad situation,” said Arrigo, who was inspired by the experiences of two friends and colleagues who had served as ELFs. “They both really encouraged me to apply.”
Arrigo has lived and worked in Mongolia since August 2017, crisscrossing the country to spread American culture, teach English and share his educator skills with local teachers and professors.
He assists in the teaching of English at all levels; teaches university classes; develops and presents English-teaching methodology workshops; organizes and presents professional development courses; judges English speech and music competitions; guest lectures at universities; and provides cultural presentations and lectures about the United States.
Arrigo says his experience as an online MATESOL student at Southeast made it possible for him to teach full time in the Columbia Public Schools while simultaneously completing his graduate course work. Learning entirely online also has had many ongoing practical applications.
“These classes were my first experiences with online learning,” he said, but they boosted his ability to navigate and organize online processes.
“I use these skills pretty much every day,” he said.
He says his graduate course work also heightened his ability to create effective lesson plans that meet students’ needs and helped him develop a deeper understanding of the theories behind pedagogical approaches – “how to teach a wide variety of subjects, especially writing,” he said.
As the only ELF in the vast country, he’s faced the unique challenge of teaching in the world’s most sparsely populated country and traveling across great distances.
“I am called on to do many different things, and I cover any requests for the entire country,” he said. “I may teach kids for the U.S. Department of State’s sponsored two-year Access Scholarship one day, and present a teaching methodology workshop for university professors the next.”
Providing teaching training to Mongolian educators has taken him from Choibalsan in the far east to Khovd in the distant west – akin to a 19-hour drive from San Antonio, Texas, to Chicago, Illinois.
But he finds a sense of joy and adventure traveling hundreds of miles for a five-hour workshop, his guitar in tow.
“Whether it’s I-70 or the middle of the Gobi Desert, when you travel, you get the unexpected, and the best thing to do is improvise,” Arrigo said.
Experiencing the local cultural traditions and meeting new people is one of the best aspects of being an ELF, Arrigo said.
“I just think it’s really important, maybe now more than ever, to get to know other cultures and people from around the world,” he said. “There is so much more that makes us similar than dissimilar.”
During the Mongolian lunar new year, “Tsaggan Sar,” in February, he had his own traditional Mongolian clothes made so he could celebrate with local families and friends in their homes.
“First you greet and pay respect to the elders by holding their forearms and touching each side of their forehead with your forehead,” he said.
Each visit includes three rounds of toasts and plates of Mongolian dumplings.
“They’re small, but if you visit two or three families in one day, you become overly stuffed,” he said.
Throughout his time in Mongolian, Arrigo has found that spending evenings with a local family or weekend trips with friends are special moments.
“Mongolians are very quick to welcome you in, feed you and share what they have,” he said. “Eating, drinking, caring for the animals and sharing stories – it’s just amazing and heartwarming.”
As his time in Mongolia comes to an end, the experiences he’s had will last him a lifetime.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is presenting professional development (sessions) to university professors and public school teachers. I haven’t had much opportunity to work at this level in the past, but it has been a great opportunity for my own development as a professional.
“At times, I have been lonely, uncomfortable, frustrated and challenged,” he said. “But working with Mongolians, especially the local teachers, has been wonderful and rewarding. Sometimes the cultural differences can seem daunting, however, the amount that we are the same makes bridging those differences possible.”
Eventually, Arrigo hopes to accept another ELF position in another country or seek a teaching position outside the United States, and continue experiencing new cultures and help others develop their English-teaching skills.
*Top Photo Caption: Arrigo engaging Ulaanbaatar’s teachers in a pronunciation exercise.