From a Fulbright in Kazakhstan to Teach For America: Catching up with REECAS Alumnus Joshua Dufour ’15

UW-Madison REECAS MA alumnus Joshua Dufour ’15 shared the news with CREECA that he has accepted a new opportunity with Teach For America, his next professional move after completing a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Kazakhstan in 2020. Dufour sees these two formative experiences as fueling a long-term trajectory toward a career in foreign service with the U.S. State Department.

Dufour celebrates National Teacher’s Day with one of his Uzbek students. South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical University, Shymkent, Kazakhstan. 2018.

“Without REECAS and CESSI, I would not have been able to get as much out of my Fulbright experience as I did,” Dufour told CREECA. “And my Fulbright 1,000% influenced my decision to pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer.”

CREECA recently caught up with Dufour to hear about his journey thus far as an instructor, volunteer, and activist.

Specializing in Russian as an undergraduate, Dufour discovered an interest in Eurasia, as well as friends from the region. The pull to Central Asia was so strong that he pursued a master’s degree in area studies and invested in Kazakh language study as a FLAS and Title VIII Fellow with CESSI (Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute).

“The curriculum unified the language, history, and culture. I got to interact with people from Central Asia and learn about their experiences and perspectives. I loved the component where you learn languages because that aligned with my interests and life prospects.”

Studying Kazakh has enabled Dufour to build friendships, adapt to new settings, and learn new skills. His CESSI instructor invited him into her family’s home and taught him to play the dombra, a traditional stringed instrument from Kazakhstan. After graduating with regional expertise and multilingual skills, he decided to apply for a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship award.

“I really wanted to apply what I had learned in the REECAS MA program and CESSI in practice to better understand the culture and issues in Kazakhstan. I honestly didn’t think I’d get the Fulbright, but you won’t know unless you apply.”

Dufour and students celebrate Nauryz at South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical University. Several of his students participated in a cultural spectacle, showcasing traditional Kazakh costumes, dances, songs, and dishes. Shymkent, Kazakhstan. 2019.

Dufour arrived in Shymkent in 2018 as an English-language Instructor at South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical University, teaching undergraduate and graduate students as part of the U.S. State Department’s initiative to promote learning and cross-cultural exchanges.

However, his time in Kazakhstan might be better characterized by experiences beyond the classroom. He coordinated clubs in Anime, film, drama, and English-language conversation. He judged spelling bees, debates, teaching competitions, and public speaking contests.

“I never said no when anyone asked me to participate in a community event. I traveled to extraordinary places and immersed myself in thecommunity. I made sure locals led these events as community leaders, so they’d have a life after me.”

Access to quality education in rural areas is an important issue for Dufour. He sought additional projects that would train Kazakhstani teachers and certify new skills.

Dufour collaborates with local educators and students who coordinated conducted spelling bee competitions for elementary and middle school children. English Express Center, Sayram, Kazakhstan. 2020.

“I learned about these issues during my time with CREECA. Education is neglected in many rural areas of Kazakhstan, so I collaborated with organizations to create projects to improve the quality of teaching and learning in these areas.”

Having visited every oblast’ and nearly 100 villages in Kazakhstan, Dufour has no shortage of stories. While putting on a writing conference for educators in Aktau, Mangghystaū—a Martian-like terrain where cosmonauts train–he visited the Ustyurt Plateau and climbed a rock mesa to snap photos of the beautiful desert when a thunderstorm suddenly struck the statically charged region.

“The electricity in the air was so palpable that it raised our hair and crackled when we raised our hands. Strangest phenomenon ever! We made national news and went viral on social media. Physicists wanted to talk to us. My students said, ‘Look how famous you are!’”

Dufour hikes Sherkala mountain in the Ustyurt desert with fellow Fulbrighters. 2019.

Dufour’s Fulbright award was renewed for 2019-2020, which reflected his commitment to outreach and equitable education. However, he returned home to Maine as COVID-19 began to plague the globe. Despite the 11-hour time difference, he continued his work virtually, facilitating clubs and workshops and collaborating with an English-language service company to provide no-cost support to college-bound Kazakhstanis from rural areas.

“These students haven’t had much guidance during the process of applying to colleges. Some of their personal statements were extremely powerful; they have incredible stories and potential to do amazing things.”

Now, with a self-renewed commitment to educational equity, Dufour is gearing up to teach English to high schoolers from low-income and underserved backgrounds as a Teach for America corps member for the next two years in Rhode Island. This chapter may bring him closer to a career in foreign service, as many Teach for America alumni enter the professional domains of government or public policy after their service.

For those interested in Fulbright opportunities, there are many available. Current students (both undergraduate and graduate) and alumni are eligible to apply for the 2022-2023 Fulbright U.S. Student Program which opens on March 31, 2021. The 2021-2022 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad for graduate students is now accepting applications until April 1, 2021. Finally, the Fulbright Scholar Program competition for 2022-2023 has just opened and is accepting applications until September 15, 2021. UW-Madison students, alumni, and faculty and staff with questions about the various programs and application processes should contact Mark Lilleleht in the IRIS Awards Office.

Written by Ryan Goble