Commencement - May 3 & 4

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Written by Sarah Shelley | Content Development Specialist

University of the Cumberlands PhD student James Riley (who usually goes by “Jay”) was selected to receive the 2024 Virtual English Language Educator Impact Award by the U.S. Department of State. He recently finished teaching English to students who overcame significant challenges.

“The students are studying in secret because either the students or their families have spoken out against the military coup in Myanmar,” Jay explained. “As a result, I can’t actually see my students. They use avatars, and they go by pseudonyms or ID numbers. Internet is often interrupted, as the military frequently cuts power to towns. One of my students secretly placed a router in his village to get signal. I often have students who can’t come to class because of armed conflict in their villages.”

“Despite all these challenges,” Jay continued, “they make zero excuses. I set exceptionally high expectations for them, but that is because they allow me to. If they can’t attend class because the military is attacking their village, I simply ask them to watch the recording and remind them that they’re still responsible for their work. I can be flexible with deadlines, but they have to do their best for me. They never ever disappoint me. They turn in the highest quality work because they know everything that is riding on their education. They are the hardest working and most inspiring young people I’ve ever worked with.”

Jay has worked in education for nearly two decades and has worked with students at all levels. He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Leadership at University of the Cumberlands and completing a dissertation relating to leadership style and social belonging among expatriate teachers. Prior to his experience teaching students in Myanmar, Jay did a different project with the U.S. State Department teaching students in Vietnam. After the project’s conclusion, the director at the embassy said she had done 11 projects in Vietnam and that Jay’s was one of the most successful because of the rapport between the teacher and the students.

Jay said, “Effective education involves creating a strong sense of community. This is especially true where adult education is concerned.”

He rejects the mentality in which some workers refuse to put in effort beyond the specific hours for which they’ll be paid. When it comes to “an incredible opportunity” like the unique international projects Jay has been part of, he believes it’s best to keep in mind that, as a teacher, your ultimate goal is not to make money – it’s to make a difference.

“Your work with the kids can’t stop when class ends,” he said. “They need assistance applying to universities, getting scholarships, and applying for jobs. Be more than just a teacher, be a resource and a mentor for these young people.”

Jay hopes to again participate in a project like the ones in Vietnam and Myanmar someday. For now, though, he is focusing on finishing his dissertation so that he can earn his PhD, giving him the chance to teach more courses at the university level.