A Mercer University professor is wrapping up a successful teaching assignment in Azerbaijan, and she’s using her experiences to develop a new Mercer On Mission program that will immerse students in this country and culture in the future.
Dr. Jacqueline Stephen, assistant professor of instructional design and director of the Office of Distance Learning for the College of Professional Advancement, arrived in capital city Baku in January as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar and will return to the United States in early June.
She has traveled to 35 countries and visited Azerbaijan for the first time in 2018 as a tourist.
“When I arrived here, it was all new to me. I had a good feeling about the place. I felt at home. I really liked the people. I really enjoyed my time here,” she said.
She returned to Azerbaijan in 2021 and wanted to find a way to get more involved. Local community members were eager to practice their English with her, and they were interested in her field of study — instructional design — which does not exist there. So, she applied for the Fulbright award and chose to work with Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University during the spring semester.
“Mercer was very supportive,” she said. “Mercer has made it possible for me to be there.”
Over the past five months, she has worked closely with Azerbaijan State Pedagogical’s Teaching and Learning Center. She has spent time reviewing curricula, observing classroom teaching, providing feedback to faculty and creating workshops based on needs. One workshop, for example, looked at rubrics and how to best measure student participation.
Each week, Dr. Stephen leads professional development seminars for faculty and students, covering topics such as study skills, critical thinking, instructional design and research. The country’s primary languages are Azerbaijani and Russian, so she delivers her lessons in English and a translator assists as needed. In addition, she volunteers in the classrooms of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants.
“As I wrap up my time, my goals are to hand over all of these materials that I’ve designed and developed to my host institution so that they can translate them into Russian and Azerbaijani and continue to utilize them as resources once I’m not here anymore,” Dr. Stephen said.
She also plans to share these resources with the Baku American Center, so educators at other institutions will also have access to them.
Through the center, Dr. Stephen has been able to connect with the community through speaking engagements. She has spoken about Georgia and Pennsylvania during a seminar about exploring America and delivered workshops on transitioning from college to career and promoting deep learning and reflection in the classroom.
She has also been invited by faculty to speak at other universities; delivered a keynote speech at a human resources summit; and attended an event with the U.S. Educated Azerbaijani Alumni Association.
“I’ve learned that a Fulbright can be whatever you want to make it,” Dr. Stephen said. “I could come here and just go to my university and come home, or I could use this as an opportunity to really get myself immersed in the culture in the community. I opted for the latter. I think that’s what you have to do with a Fulbright. Back in the U.S., I’m a homebody. But I promised myself that when I came out here I would be a “yes” person to social things. People invite me to do a session here or there, and I just say, ‘Yes, I will.’”
Dr. Stephen has kept very busy since arriving and recorded some of her experiences in a blog that she shares with her students and colleagues. She joined in the new year celebration of Novruz; was invited to Iftar dinners during Ramadan; and attended her colleague’s wedding, which she called a highlight of her time in Azerbaijan. She participated in traditional festivities hosted by both the bride and groom’s families in their respective villages.
She has gotten to know the community while talking with residents in her apartment building, walking to campus, exploring Baku, and visiting restaurants, businesses and coffee shops. She came to Azerbaijan as a coffee lover but will be leaving with a preference for tea, which is more prevalent and a big part of Azerbaijan culture.
Dr. Stephen said she was thrilled to start being recognized by people about a month and a half into her assignment. She went from being referred to as “the foreigner” to “the teacher” by people she passed on the street.
She will return to Azerbaijan with a group of Mercerians in June 2024 for the first Mercer On Mission trip to the country. The program, which was approved in April, will be a collaboration between Mercer, Azerbaijan University of Languages and Baku American Center.
“Within a couple of months of being here, something that really I had my heart set on was writing a proposal for a Mercer On Mission here,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that we can do here. There’s a lot of learning that our students could do here, and I would love for them to have these same experiences that I had.
The Mercer On Mission program will focus on strengthening the personal and professional leadership skills of young adults in Azerbaijan to prepare them for advanced studies and careers. Working closely with faculty leaders, Mercer students will develop, lead and evaluate two weeklong professional development programs
“I think it’s a great opportunity for students who want to engage, who want to learn something different, something new. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” Dr. Stephen said.