When you learn a bit more about Meg Ziegler’s journey over the last few years, you can understand why she is so grateful.
After graduating from UVM, Meg was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant in Thailand for a year. She departed for her overseas adventure in September of 2015. Following a month-long orientation in Bangkok, she began teaching at Ban Pai Pittayakom school, located in a small town in northeastern Thailand.
“I was the only foreign teacher at my school, actually one of the only foreigners in the whole area,” Ziegler explains. “It took some time to get my students to warm up to me and feel confident enough to try speaking English with me, so I tried to teach topics they were interested in, making sure they knew it was okay to make mistakes.”
Meg discovered a number of surprising and fascinating things about teaching in a Thai school. “Thai school communities are like families. Teachers visit each and every student in their homes, and students are constantly helping teachers clean, carry books, whatever they need. The tradition of respect for teachers in Thailand was incredible to see - every year Thailand celebrates Wai Kru (Respect Teachers) Day, and watching the entire school bow their heads to the ground, some in tears, as they paid respect to me and all the other teachers was something I’ll never forget.”
She also appreciated the famous Thai hospitality, which was evident at the school and everywhere she went. “The teachers at my school were so welcoming and kind.”
There were some frustrating experiences too - like having 800 students once a week - making it a challenge to teach a language. “The lack of emphasis on critical thinking was hard to wrap my brain around because it is so engrained in us here…but for the most part it was an amazing experience,” says Ziegler. “Working in the Thai school system opened my eyes to things that we do very well here in the United States, and things we need to improve.”
Beyond Thailand, there were many exciting opportunities to travel extensively throughout Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Vietnam. She even got to play in two ultimate Frisbee tournaments (a sport she enjoyed while at UVM). Another unforgettable experience was Songkran, the Thai new year, which is celebrated with a huge, three-day, country-wide water fight.
“Since returning home, everyone I reunite with asks me how it was in Thailand. The experience was eye-opening, challenging, inspiring, frustrating, incredible, and so much more.”
Ziegler’s inspiration to pursue a career in education goes back many years. “I’ve always loved working with kids, and every time I visited my aunt, a high school teacher in Florida, I loved spending time in her classroom,” she recalls. Meg also worked and coached at camps throughout high school. “I developed a strong appreciation and admiration for the awesome responsibility teachers have, and the power they possess to change children’s lives.”
Choosing UVM was an easy decision. “I fell in love with Burlington instantly upon visiting,” she remembers. After spending a year undecided, she chose to major in Secondary Education, with an English Concentration and Special Education minor, and ultimately graduated from the College of Education and Social Services (CESS) and the Honors College.
“My favorite part of the Secondary Education program at UVM was the service learning and field experience opportunities,” Ziegler says. “Tutoring at various youth centers in and around Burlington introduced me to youth from refugee backgrounds that displayed incredible resilience and determination. Seeing them come to the centers every single day for homework help was inspiring.”
“The CESS professors are so passionate about education and about creating great educators. They care deeply about their students and inspire us to do the same. I will never forget Lia Cravedi’s hugs after student teaching observations, Jen Prue bringing me cupcakes for my birthday, or Alan Tinkler emailing me with words of encouragement during the first few months in Thailand. I feel strongly that personal connections between students, teachers, and families are of the utmost importance, and that is partly because I was lucky enough to have professors that went out of their way to form such connections with us – and still do now, even after graduation.”
Ziegler credits Dr. Katie Shepherd, Dr. George Salembier and their class, EDSP 005 (Issues Affecting Persons with Disabilities) for most of the wonderful things that have happened to her in the last few years. Together Shepherd and Salembier convinced Meg to declare a special education minor. “I’m so glad that I listened to them,” she says. “I find so many aspects of special education and disability studies fascinating, and I definitely feel it is important for educators to have a thorough understanding of how to meet the needs of all students as we move towards a more inclusive education system, and hopefully society.”
“Katie ended up inviting me onto her research team for the project that became my honors thesis,” Ziegler explains. The project dealt with promoting cultural understanding between educators and families from diverse backgrounds, which is the core principle of the Fulbright program. “I think that paper contributed a lot to me being selected for the grant. So again, it’s really all thanks to Katie and George,” she says.
“Meg contributed so much to our research project, and is a co-author on a manuscript that will soon be published in a highly regarded education journal,” Shepherd says.
Another lasting impression came from one of Ziegler’s student teaching experiences. The Alpha team at Shelburne Community School provides an innovative and student-centered educational experience for middle schoolers. “Students work with their teachers to develop their curriculum, which is based around ‘Big Questions’ they have about the world,” she explains. “Because the material they are studying came from their own interests, they are excited and engaged in what they are learning.” The experience inspired a passion for student-centered learning, another reason why she eventually wants to go into policy work and be part of the movement to transform our education system.
“When I reflect on Meg and her experiences at UVM, I think about the multiple ways she fully engaged with our college and the university,” says Shepherd. “She took advantage of multiple curricular opportunities in the Secondary Education Program, Special Education minor, and Honors College. She demonstrated her leadership in academics, inter-collegiate sports and campus life. Her accomplishments during and after her UVM experience are testimony to the multiple opportunities available in our college and across the university.”
Now Meg has some big plans for the next phase of her journey. She recently applied to graduate school and law school, and hopes to begin studying education policy. “I want to learn more about how I can enact change at a policy level,” she says.