Teaching Liberal Arts as an Agent for Change

By Alycia Wilson

It is not uncommon for Phi Beta Kappa alumni to pursue careers that make a great impact in their communities or beyond. Some even find themselves using their scholarly experience and ideals in ways that can have an impact on a whole other country. Paige Melin (ΦBK, University of Buffalo) is one such alumni.

As one of the recipients of a 2019-20 Fulbright award, Melin will be traveling to the African country of Senegal this coming school year to engage students in an extracurricular workshop in writing and performing poetry.   

Melin’s vision transcends beyond aiding students in their practice of English language skills through writing and performing poetry at the home institution where she will be working. She aims to create an anthology of student work featuring poetry by the young writers she has taught in both Buffalo and Senegal.

“Because I see poetry as such a vital method of connecting with others, I believe a transnational anthology like this would open conversations about youth experiences and life across both countries, showcasing convergences and divergences between the two, and enter into a larger conversation about fostering mutual international empathy and understanding,” Melin said.

Melin’s undergraduate study of both English and French will be valuable in the francophone country of Senegal. She also pursued a Master of Arts in English with dual concentrations in gender and literature, and poetry and poetics from the University of Maine at Orono. She notes that she was able to bring French into her graduate work in several ways, such as spending a summer semester studying Québécois culture at McGill University on a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship, which she believes exposed her to the vibrant world of francophone Québécois literature.

“With both of my majors, it was more important for me to pursue things I loved and to believe that they would eventually lead me to a career I was passionate about, rather than to have a career in mind and merely work towards that,” Melin said.

Studying disciplines within the liberal arts has allowed Melin to look critically at the world around her, identify areas in need of change, and work for that change using her own strengths and skills. 

“In our world today, I see many instances where there seems to be a lack of empathy or understanding, and I try to amend that in whatever small way I can through my writing and teaching practices,” Melin said. “This desire to influence change was one of the primary reasons I applied to the Fulbright program, which has at its core the goal of fostering greater understanding through international exchange.”

Phi Beta Kappa comes to mind when she reflects on the large, challenging project she is about to undertake teaching in Senegal through the Fulbright program. Membership in the Society reminds Melin that she is not alone in wanting to make a difference in the world around her utilizing skills she cultivated as a liberal arts major.

Currently, Melin is the education coordinator for Explore Buffalo, a job she feels has shaped her for this next step of being an English teaching assistant with the Fulbright program. 

“I’ve gained invaluable leadership experience through my work developing programming that will fit the needs of the community we serve, and I’ve learned impactful lessons about community-building and accountability. “Melin observed. “Along with the critical thinking and creativity skills I learned in my liberal arts education, these real-world skills I’ve developed with Explore Buffalo will be essential for the challenge of teaching and working in a foreign country.” 

She is also a teaching artist for the Queen City Home School Collective and Young Audiences of Western New York, where she teaches poetry to K-12 students. She believes that both of these experiences have equipped her with skills that will be invaluable in teaching abroad given the incredibly diverse student population in Western New York. 

“As a result, I have been able to teach youth from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Teaching with these organizations proves to me the real-world impact poetry and writing can have on breaking down barriers and forming connections with others. Poetry encourages us to go to a space where we are more vulnerable, where we let the masks we wear all the time slip just a little. I believe utilizing poetry as a pedagogical tool can enforce language skills, inspire critical and creative thinking, and encourage meaningful conversations in the classroom,” Melin explained.

After Melin concludes her time in Senegal, she hopes eventually to pursue a career as a translator and professor teaching writers not traditionally represented in the Western canon. This aspiration came to her after translating a novel by the Chinese-Canadian author Ying Chen for her M.A. thesis.

Alycia Wilson is a senior at the University of New Hampshire majoring in journalism with a concentration in political science. She interned at Plugged in with Greta Van Susteren in the fall. The University of New Hampshire is home to the Beta of New Hampshire chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.