Olenka Lenets wins Fullbright scholarship
Olenka Lenets Submitted photo

A Desert Vista graduate will get to experience South Korean classrooms first-hand as part of the prestigious Fulbright Scholars program.

Olenka Lenets found out she won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in April. She will leave for the year-long teaching position in early July.

Lenets studied psychology at the University of Arizona after graduating from Desert Vista High School in 2005. That’s where she got her first taste of being in front of a classroom, mentoring emotionally disabled children and co-teaching a class.

“It was really intimidating, but rejuvenating at the same time,” Lenets said.

Lenets then applied for Teach for America, which trains college graduates as teachers and puts them in classrooms for two-year commitments. Lenets spent that time as a resource teacher for fourth- through eighth-grade students at Glendale’s Bicentennial North Elementary School and simultaneously earned her master’s degree in special education from Arizona State University.

ASU professor Wendy Farr worked with Lenets as she earned her master’s degree. Lenets was extremely engaging and had an eye for detail, Farr said.

“These qualities (among others) make her both an amazing student/scholar and also a highly effective teacher,” Farr said in an e-mail. “I really enjoyed working with Olenka this year.”

In addition to teaching, Lenets fell in love with travel after undergraduate school. She’s originally from Ukraine, having emigrated in the early ’90s, when she was in early elementary school. She’s traveled to different spots in Europe five times since finishing undergraduate school in 2008.

“There’s really no better feeling than being on an airplane that’s about to take off somewhere,” Lenets said. “I love walking around different cities and experiencing different food, different cultures, different languages.”

She applied for the Fulbright program after hearing good things from a friend who won the award.

“You can teach abroad with a lot of different programs,” Lenets said. “But the Fulbright is about more than teaching abroad. It’s about immersing yourself in the culture.”

And Lenets certainly plans to immerse herself in the culture. One reason she chose South Korea as a destination is because she’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and wants to spend her free time studying the martial art where it was created.

But more importantly, she wants to have a different classroom experience.

“The respect you show your teachers (in South Korea) is a lot different from what we have here,” she said. “I wanted to see a completely different environment than we have here.”

Lenets will spend a little more than a year in South Korea as a Fulbright scholar, although she hopes to extend that another year to really learn the language and culture. She’ll be responsible for teaching English to kindergarten through eighth-graders.

While she’ll spend a lot of time covering the language, she’s also been asked to prepare lessons on American culture. So in addition to lessons on vocabulary and grammar, she’ll prepare class sessions on American holidays, presidents, dating rituals and celebrities.

“It will be really interesting to do lesson plans about Justin Bieber, but you know, that’s what’s happening now,” she said with a laugh.

Lenets plans to stay in touch with her old students in Glendale through the process. She started a writing program at Bicentennial North where she acted as her students’ pen pal, and now, her colleague Lianne Russo will help her continue that with an international pen pal program.

“I’m really excited to stay connected with my kids,” Lenets said.

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