The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, counter misunderstandings, and help people and nations work together toward common goals.
Since its establishment in 1946, the Fulbright Program has enabled more than 390,000 dedicated and accomplished students, scholars, artists, teachers, and professionals of all backgrounds to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas, and find solutions to shared international concerns. The Fulbright Program is funded through an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations, and foundations around the world also provide direct and indirect support to the Program, which operates in more than 160 countries worldwide.
Just weeks after the world shut down due to the COVID pandemic, I received a Fulbright Award notice. It took several starts, but I eventually made it to South Africa in 2022 to work with Dr. Kerstin Tönsing at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication(CAAC) , University of Pretoria. My experience was planned for 10 months, but because of the challenges with the pandemic, it only lasted 7 months. Even so, I made the most of the time and feel a sense of accomplishment and rejuvenation.
My project also morphed a bit due to the pandemic. Rather than collecting new data on stories told by South African children like we had planned, we ended up conducting a systematic review on AAC interventions to teach commenting, labeling, and telling about something (precursors to storytelling). We published a registered report titled Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Interventions that Promote Labeling, Commenting, and Telling: A Systematic Review Protocol and have presented the results at a conference for speech-language pathologists. The manuscript will be completed soon.
As a result of my international collaborations on oral storytelling, my work was featured in three other global publications recently.
In 2019, I received a USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences (CBCS) international travel award to establish partnerships in South Africa. While there, I visited seven schools. The greatest need that teachers and administrators reported was around autism. There are so many children in South Africa with autism and there are few professionals trained to work with them effectively. So, when I returned in 2022 for the Fulbright, I worked with Dr. Juan Bornman of the CAAC to develop a project to supply expertise around autism to professionals and parents across South Africa.
Juan and I established the ECHO Autism South Africa advisory committee, which provides guidance for the development and maintenance of ECHO programs related to autism in South Africa. Originating at the University of New Mexico, Project ECHO is a virtual professional learning model that leverages technology to amplify scarce resources and enhances expertise in underserved areas through peer-to-peer mentoring. It is based on adult learning principles and serves as a powerful implementation vehicle for transporting expertise across the globe. The All Teach, All Learn ECHO mantra is a perfect fit for South Africa!
The first Autism ECHO program in South Africa, called Understanding Autism from an Interdisciplinary Perspective, features an all-star interdisciplinary hub team, including a father, a developmental pediatrician, an educational psychologist, an occupational therapist, a speech-language pathologist, a behavior analyst, and an educational specialist in career transitioning. My role is to provide mentorship to the hub team, and to support capacity building for the application of the science of behavior and learning. The introductory program included just six biweekly sessions for 1.5 hours and covered the following topics:
Each hub team member contributed to the didactic segments and participants presented practice relevant cases for discussion and collaborative problem solving. Our team will be repeating the initial program as we work to develop more hub team specialists. The plan is to create more specialized programs for specific audiences such as pediatricians, families, and educators.
If you have never looked into the Fulbright Program, I urge you to do it. It is a terrific program with an admirable mission. My experience was transformative in the most incredibly way. Just look at these photos that seemed to capture an unexpected, but welcomed, change.