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Fulbright Scholar to study assessment, promote cultural diversity during visit
Dr. Marina Babenko, wearing a traditional Ukrainian hairpiece

Visting Fulbright Scholar Marina Babenko, wearing a traditional Ukrainian flower diadem

The VCU School of Education welcomes a special addition to Oliver Hall for the 2016-17 academic year, as Marina Babenko joins the faculty as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar. Babenko makes the more than 5,000-mile journey from her native Ukraine to come study the use of assessment in English language teaching and learning during her nine-month stay in Richmond.

Amazingly, this marks Babenko’s second such Fulbright award: she also studied at the University of Missouri with Irene Juzkiw back in 1996.

“I like to say I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for 20 years,” Babenko said. “I’m very proud to be part of this Fulbright program and to be here under the leadership of [host scholar] Dr. Jim McMillan. I think I will learn a lot, and be able to bring this atmosphere of support and understanding back to my home university and home country.”

A professional EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher and an assistant professor of English philology at the Kharkiv H. Skovoroda National Pedagogical University, Babenko’s focus during her grant is to compare how assessment is used to evaluate students learning English in the United States and Ukraine.

“On my Fulbright application, I put this quotation from Phil Race that I think is very important: ‘Students can survive bad lectures, but they may be damaged by bad assessment,’” Babenko said. “That is why I’m here to learn from the experience that American universities have in providing and conducting certain classroom assessments.”

To that end, Babenko will spend the next two semesters working with ESL students at the university, examining the nature of current classroom assessment and feedback in English language classes at the university level. In addition to living on campus with VCU Globe, she plans to observe ESL courses, prepare presentations and, generally, to interact with VCU faculty and students as much possible.

Babenko won’t be alone in her efforts, however; she’ll have the full support of McMillan and the rest of the School of Education faculty to help her make the most of her grant.

"I like to say I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for 20 years. I’m very proud to be part of this Fulbright program.” – Marina Babenko

“We’ll be offering her our own expertise in assessment, as well as our association with the ESL program here at VCU,” McMillan, the interim associate dean of academic affairs, said. “Our role is to provide her with the assistance she needs to meet her research goals and to learn about higher education in America.”

Interestingly enough, it was McMillan’s work in the field that attracted Babenko to VCU in the first place.

“I knew I wanted to study assessment, so I was looking for people who worked in that area,” she said. “I found several books and several articles by Professor McMillan, and he became my No. 1 choice. So I wrote him a message and he answered almost right away.

“I think I made the correct choice. People here are very, very helpful.”

First exposed to the English language at a young age by her grandmother, Babenko has always found a way to put her academic skills to use outside of the classroom. For example, she served as a lead teacher and developer for “Career English Online,” an online course in English with a business focus, designed to help people in Ukraine displaced from their homes find a job or start their own business.

“I think this project was very important — I’m very proud of it,” she said. “It was great for the temporarily-displaced people as well as for us as teachers.”

Similarly, Babenko’s goals for her time in the U.S. extend beyond academics as well: she very much sees herself as an ambassador for her country.

“When we ask people from America what they know about the Ukraine, they usually say negative things like Chernobyl or the recent conflict with Russia,” she said. “I want everyone to know about the people of Ukraine - that they are hard-working, kind and friendly. I don’t think they deserve to be part of this negative situation. I want people to see Ukraine and Ukrainians in a positive light.”

Likewise, McMillan agrees that the cultural experience works both ways.

“Hosting Marina is important for the School of Education because it allows us to learn about her country and strengthen our own sense of inclusion,” he said. “VCU is making a friend and establishing a relationship that could lead to additional partnerships and interactions in the future.”

Babenko’s stay with the VCU School of Education runs until May 2017.