Alumni of the Month  |  2018-07
July 17, 2018

U-N-I-T-I-N-G Nations Through Spelling & Scholarships

Jelena Grigorjeva has taken spelling bees to a new level in Lithuania, using the event to promote inclusion and mutual understanding between different cultures, and to increase student learning motivation and collaboration.

Jelena, a 2012 alumna of the Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program (TEA), is an active board member of the U.S.-Lithuania (US-LT) Alumni Association, taking part in activities that strengthen Lithuanian civil society and enrich the relationship between Lithuania and the United States.

The idea for the spelling bee project stemmed from Jelena’s training for English language educators in Budapest, Hungary. During the class, Jelena learned best practices on how to involve minorities into the English language learning process; she also heard from a colleague who talked enthusiastically about running a successful spelling bee project in their country. The spelling bee competition sounded like the perfect idea for Jelena’s school too!

To set up the competition in Lithuania, Jelena reached out to Vilnius region secondary schools with Russian, Polish, and Belarussian minority groups. This was the first of its competition, done entirely in English, in Lithuania – and what a success! The competition has doubled in growth over a year, from 22 schools participating in 2017 to 44 schools participating in 2018.

Jelena managed this growth by launching the project as a national spelling bee in 2018, collaborating extensively with alumni teachers and American Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in remote regions of Lithuania. She also brought broader awareness to the spelling bee through her article, "The Competition Unites Nations," which was published in a local Russian newspaper.

Finalists from the spelling bee also received the opportunity to visit the U.S. Embassy Vilnius to learn about U.S. exchange programs, the U.S.-Lithuania partnership, and programs that the Embassy implements.

Jelena continues to promote various programs and opportunities for young people to study in the United States, and she takes an active role in raising funds to provide students with the opportunity to study abroad. For example, in March 2018, Jelena encouraged and helped three of her minority students apply for a summer basketball camp in the United States. She also invited diplomats and American soldiers from the Embassy to speak with her students about the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and its role in the world. And Jelena connected her students to global travelers who are studying, working, or exploring abroad though the international project, “Reach the World.”

Moreover, Jelena has worked together with the President of LAKMA (Lithuanian Association of English Teachers), who is a Fulbright alumna, to prepare the daily curriculum for the U.S. Embassy-supported Baltic Tolerance Camps, which include participants from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. During the camp, she addressed the large audience of linguistically and ethnically mixed international students and advocated for civic engagement, volunteerism, and inclusiveness.

Jelena continuously works to improve her skills. In 2016, she attended a workshop for English language educators in Budapest, Hungary and learned how to better incorporate regional social issues (migrants, Roma people, and minorities) into a secondary school English language class.

Jelena used her new skills to support the "SOS Children's Village,” a non-governmental organization which protects the interests and rights of orphaned and abandoned children in the Vilnius region. In particular, she regularly spends time with JB, a girl whose mother died and whose father the girl has only met once in her life. Jelena takes JB to various after school trips, teaches her new languages, and provides a supportive hand in need.

“My exchange experience is so meaningful, because it inspired me to develop professionally, share [my] new skills with others, and improve education worldwide,” Jelena said.

Each month, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Office of Alumni Affairs recognizes one outstanding alumnus or alumna. The International Exchange Alumni community looks forward to seeing what Jelena will do next, and we all congratulate her on being named the July 2018 Exchange Alumni Member of the Month!