Lessons for the Multicultural Classroom: A Story from Lithuania

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, International Education Week is an opportunity to explore and showcase the benefits of international education and exchange in the U.S. and abroad. World Learning is celebrating all week long with stories about how international education has made a difference for our program participants from 162 countries worldwide. Today, we’re highlighting the importance of inclusion in international education.

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“A real collaboration at a Roma Community Center in Panevėžys: The Roma and Lithuanian flags combined into one!”

From the mountains of Montana to the peaks of Patagonia, Fulbright Specialist Susan Barfield has devoted her career to celebrating diversity, promoting inclusion, and bolstering intercultural communication.

This fall, Barfield, professor emerita of education at Montana State University-Billings, brought her expertise to Lithuania, where she worked to improve educational opportunities for Roma people as part of a six-week project with the Fulbright Specialist Program, a U.S. Department of State-funded exchange administered by World Learning.

Lithuania’s University of Applied Sciences hosted Barfield in the capital, Vilnius, where she provided resources to educators and teachers-in-training in the university’s school of education that will increase their ability to include Roma culture in their classrooms.

The Roma community, a minority group of a little more than 2,000 people in Lithuania, faces numerous challenges in attainment of education. “Although the Roma are a small minority population in Lithuania, Roma educational issues are more challenging and in the forefront than other minority issues,” Barfield says. For example, the 2011 Lithuanian census found that only 16 percent of Roma in Lithuania completed secondary education, a decrease of six percent from the previous census.

Barfield is well suited to tackle this issue. She has spent more than two decades working with minority groups, including indigenous communities in her home state of Montana, the Mapuche people of Chile, and the Roma community in the Slovak Republic.

As a Fulbright Specialist in Lithuania, Barfield sought to continue that work to ensure that Roma students feel represented in public school classrooms, and encourage them to continue to pursue an education.

A cornerstone of her work in Lithuania was the development of a trilingual children’s book in English, Lithuanian, and Romani, the language of the Roma people that as of yet is primarily only spoken. She then trained the university’s faculty and students, including in-service teachers, on how to use the book, understanding that training future teachers of preprimary and primary education can help prevent early school dropouts.

The Fulbright Specialist program provided a platform for the project to take place. A program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Specialist Program is a unique opportunity for U.S. academics and established professionals to engage in two- to six-week consultancies at host institutions across the globe. Host institutions—including universities, nonprofits, and other organizations—develop projects in a wide variety of academic and professional fields that address knowledge and expertise gaps and promote long-lasting relationships between individuals and institutions in the U.S. and abroad. The Program supports more than 400 Specialists in over 100 countries every year.

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Susan Barfield (at right) at the home of a Roma activist.

While the ultimate results of Barfield’s work in Lithuania are yet to be assessed, she is hopeful the project will have a wide impact. “I’d like Roma students to see their culture represented in a positive light in their classrooms, and feel more accepted in the classroom community.”

Once she returns home, Barfield plans to bring her work on minority issues and inclusion in Lithuania back to her home state. One plan includes a faculty exchange between a Native American lecturer from Montana State University-Billings and a Lithuanian expert on Roma issues so that they can share ideas on what is working when it comes to including marginalized groups in everyday life and what concerns need to be addressed. “This experience has allowed me to see that many minorities in different countries often experience the same challenges, although each country has unique issues as well,” Barfield says.

She’s determined to continue to address those challenges.

Written by Ben Cohen, a program associate at World Learning.

The Fulbright Specialist Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and partner countries around the world and is administered by World Learning.

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