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Samara Akpovo

Dr. Samara Madrid Akpovo, Associate Professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies and Director of the Intercultural and Classroom Culture Research Lab. She is also the Coordinator of the Child and Family Studies International Children, Youth, and Families Certificate program.  Akpovo’s global impact comes from her cross-cultural and intercultural research and teaching collaborations with early childhood education colleagues in Nepal, Australia, and New Zealand.

Akpovo co-developed an international early childhood teacher education program entitled, Collaborative Online Learning Across Borders (COLAB), which is a virtual exchange module to foster intercultural competence and sensitivity among university students. This program allows university students, who might not have the time and resources for traditional study abroad experiences, an alternative way to interact and connect globally, through online interactions with peers in other countries. Throughout the four years of implementing COLAB, Akpovo’s work has been recognized and awarded on numerous occasions including a Global Catalyst Grant, Teaching and Learning Innovation Teaching Support Award, and most recently honored with the Frances Speight Clark Faculty Enrichment and Development Award in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Q: How did you get started in international work?
A: I’m a faculty member in the Department of Child and Family Studies (CFS) with an area of specialization in Early Childhood Education. The CFS Early Childhood Education emphasis prepares students to teach young children from birth to third grade. I became involved in the cross-cultural and international aspects of early childhood education as a faculty member at the University of Wyoming. We would take preservice teachers to Kathmandu, Nepal to help them understand teaching as a cultural activity and the child in cultural context. My interest in preparing teachers as global citizens came about as I was engaging with preservice teachers who were predominantly female White middle-class group of students from homogenous rural backgrounds. For example, many of the preservice teachers came from very small towns with a population of 500 people; many had not been exposed to people and ways of life that were different from what they knew. We decided a way to expose them to differences and other ways of teaching was to host an international field experience in Kathmandu, Nepal. Now, I’ve been doing research and service in Kathmandu, Nepal for over 12 years.

Q: What made you want to get involved in the intercultural aspect of your field?
A: I spent a significant amount of time in my childhood and early adulthood living in Hawaii and observing cross-cultural and intercultural interactions and differences. One of my first research projects while an undergrad at the University of Hawaii-Hilo was examining the cross-cultural aspects of anxiety and irrational beliefs. I’ve had an interest in wanting to understand how people who come from different backgrounds and experiences, learn to be interculturally competent and sensitive. My current research is focused on understanding how teachers develop intercultural competence and cultural humility. It’s not only global differences that matter, but also the global to local connections, and how that learning transfers to being more open and flexible within various learning communities..

Q: How has global collaboration made an impact on your professional activities?
A: I have been doing research in Nepal for over 12 years, and this began when I was mentoring a doctoral student from Nepal. I was invited to give a lecture at Kathmandu University in 2009. While I was there, I visited several early childhood education centers. I am still working with those people and centers and have established long-term and mutually beneficial relationships and projects together. Through my interest in global collaborations, I was able to develop Collaborative Online Learning Across Borders (COLAB) here at UTK in 2017. COLAB is a modified version of Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL), a telecollaboration teaching model that is also being used at UTK. Our students at UTK and the students in Australia and New Zealand work together on collaborative projects within their courses. This is a way for professors and students to interact with people across the globe without having to travel abroad. It is a new way of thinking about how to offer university students an international experience.

Q: There has been a lot of change with internationally engaged research, teaching andservice in this past year, how have you been adapting your professional work?
A: With COVID-19, COLAB was beneficial because it is a virtual exchange that allows students to connect internationally without being affected by travel restrictions. What was interesting, however, was that we found that students enjoyed COLAB more before COVID-19. One reason for this change is that everything has been done online/virtually and many people were ready for face-to-face interactions. This experience with COLAB during the COVID pandemic offered us new learning opportunities and challenged many of our assumptions about online learning. In addition, I was awarded a Global Catalyst Grant from the Center of Global Engagement. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, we could not visit each other’s campuses; we shifted many of the planned activities to an online format. I think COVID-19 has made us change for the better because it encouraged us to connect in different and more nuanced ways, and also appreciate the relational aspects of teaching and research.

Q: Have you worked with the Global Research Office, Programs Abroad, Office of Asian Engagement, the I-House, or ISSS? If so, in what capacity? And can you describe any outcomes or impacts of that work?
A: When I first arrived at UTK, I considered taking students to Nepal, so I met with the Programs Abroad Office. However, because of COVID-19, I am not pursuing that program further at this time. In the Department of Child and Family Studies, we have an International Children, Youth, and Families Certificate program, which is a 12-credit program for graduate students. As the Coordinator of the certificate program, my hope is to have some type of cross- cultural or international field component aligned with that program. Although the CFS course instructors have already been including cross-cultural collaborations in the research methodology course and many of our faculty are engaged in international research partnerships and projects that address the child in cultural context and global competency and citizenship. Lastly, the grant received from the Center for Global Engagement was instrumental in building and sustaining our COLAB teaching and research partnership over the past year.

Q: What are some of your current professional projects?
A: My research examines intercultural competence with preservice teachers. I do this research with Nepali colleagues as well as working with the University of Melbourne and University of Auckland through COLAB. Another thread of my research is with a colleague that conducts research in Kenya. We often collaborate on projects that bring together our findings from Nepal and Kenya for a cross-cultural comparison. That is, we consider how globalization and neocolonialism might affect current trends and issues for the international early childhood community. Even though Kenya and Nepal are located on different continents, they are both considered Majority-World countries. Most of our research has also compared US students’ experiences when exploring ways of teaching in each country. Together we have released several publications. One of the prominent findings is that early childhood teachers often do not feel their work is respected or valued as a profession because teaching young children is viewed as “women’s work.”

Q: Do you feel global engagement needs to be valued part of the university culture and why?
A: Yes, global engagement fosters critical thinking. My research on intercultural competence has shown that students gain awareness about their own cultural lives while also learning to challenge assumptions and stereotypes. I believe that learning that “our way” is not the only way or the right way is the most important aspect of global engagement. To implement this at the university, I developed a course titled, “CFS 330: Global Perspectives on Childhood and Learning” that meets the VolCore Global Citizenship-International (GCI) designation. This is a new course in the Department of Child and Family Studies that explores the importance of being
a global citizen and what global citizenship looks like for teachers, children, and families across multiple and diverse contexts. I try to embed global and social justice issues in all my teaching and research.

Q: What has been among your most rewarding international experience thus far?
A: My most rewarding international experience has been the COLAB project that I started at UTK with professors in Auckland, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia. It’s so rewarding because we have used the COLAB module with over 600 university students. It is rewarding to know that we’ve been able to have this many students analyze and reconsider what it means to be a global citizen and teacher. We are planning to expand COLAB to include a university in Sweden and Indonesia, allowing our CFS students to explore children, teaching, and learning in a variety of different cultures.

Q: Once travelling is back to normal, where would you like to go?
A: I have plans to go back to Nepal during the summer of 2022 to conduct follow-up research with Nepali early childhood teachers. We will examine how educators understand and establish parent and family partnerships in early childhood classrooms in Nepal and Kenya.