By Sloane M. Perron, Manager of Marketing Communications
Nancy Fournier, an English professor at Anna Maria College, has had many interactions with students throughout her decades in education, but nothing could have prepared her for the lifelong impact that teaching Ukranian refugees in Poland would have on her.
Fournier’s adventure from Paxton, Massachusetts to Torun, Poland began when a friend and fellow instructor suggested that Fournier join a team of volunteers who teach high school students from Poland and Ukraine at X Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. prof. Stefana Banacha, a school with an English language summer program.
For nearly a month, Fournier lived in Poland and was assigned to a classroom of 12 teenagers with different life backgrounds. At first, the students were very apprehensive to practice English in front of a native speaker, but Fournier focused on creative outlets such as journaling and movies with closed captioning to make the students feel more at ease.
There were clear language barriers on both sides between the students and Fournier but during the summer camp she was happy to see her students open-up and become more comfortable with not just the English language, but their identities and sense of confidence.
“I had volunteered to help coach in the school play. So, I had a group that I worked with to get their lines memorized, which was hard for them because now they were embarrassed to speak,” Fournier explained, “I said to them, ‘Listen, if you gave me a play in Polish, I would not just have trouble speaking it, I wouldn’t even be able to read it. I told them, ‘In many ways, you’re smarter than me. Because you can do both.’ So, then they kind of loosened up.”
Fournier has a long list of beautiful student interactions that she will always carry with her from a student inviting Fournier to her family’s home for a homemade dinner to a Ukranian student singing the Polish, American, and Ukranian anthems so beautifully that the auditorium audience was left in tears.
During the start of class, Fournier had explained that one of her courses at Anna Maria College was Holocaust Literature and Studies. As the weeks progressed, one male student who never spoke a word before, pulled Fournier aside after class and showed her a picture on his phone of an identification card. Fournier was a bit confused and asked the student to explain. After not speaking at all, the boy proceeded to tell Fournier in broken English that his grandfather and grandmother were both Holocaust survivors and explained that the identification card was the fake ID that his grandfather had used to escape. The student had taken a picture of his grandfather’s ID after hearing about Fournier’s Holocaust class and wanted to share his family’s story of survival with her. It became a strong bonding moment between student and teacher.
For the Ukranian refugees, regular school anxieties and teenage insecurities were overcome by worries about their families who were still in the country as their fathers were mandated to stay and defend the country from the Russian invasion and often their mothers stayed behind to help the men or work. However, even with these stressors, the Ukranian students were still eager to engage in the summer camp.
“You could see signs of trauma on them. Yet, I found that they welcomed us because we were just there to help, and they loved having the opportunity to learn. They were very participatory in class,” Fournier said.
Fournier keeps in touch with many of her students and especially worries about her students who went back to Ukraine and face the daily threat of bombings. Even though students were dealing with crises back home, Fournier was touched by the openness and gratitude that they shared with others during their time at summer camp.
Fournier believes in the power of understanding different perspectives which she ties into her classes at Anna Maria College. Every day she challenges her Anna Maria students to put themselves in the shoes of others and be aware of the universal connections that bring us all together. She instils an appreciation for other cultures by bringing her global experiences into her classrooms.
After going to Poland with the intention of teaching English to high schoolers, Fournier learned that the most impactful moments she experienced were when people’s actions demonstrated their kindness even when their words were stopped by language barriers.
“I learned that kindness transcends language and that even when the parties may not understand each other’s words, you can still experience kindness,” she said.