From her first experience as an English Language Programs participant as a Fellow in Guatemala in 2006-2007, Alumni Ambassador Dr. Cristyn Elder found a perfect balance of professional development challenges, community engagement, and outdoor adventures. “The project encompassed all that my TESOL degree means to me,” Elder said. “The opportunity to teach in a new country and meet new people, the chance to learn more about another culture and landscape,” Elder said. “I was very grateful for all of this, and I wanted to keep it going!”
And, indeed, Elder has done just that. After her fellowship, she applied for the English Language Specialist program and has since been able to work on Specialist projects around the world. When the opportunity arose to apply to be an Alumni Ambassador, Elder saw it as yet another chance to expand her learning, community, and growth. “As an Alumni Ambassador, I get to work with other program alumni, and to see other parts of the U.S. and meet people who live and teach there.”
Leading a workshop with a local colleague in El Salvador
For all of her English Language Programs projects, Elder has thrived on working with pre-service and in-service teachers, helping them develop and hone their craft. The range of fascinating locations for her trainings has been a boon for inspiration, too. At her fellowship host institution, the Instituto Guatemalteco Americano, located in Quetzaltenango, 8,000 feet above sea level amongst a ring of volcanoes, Elder trained pre-service teachers on topics such as cooperative learning, classroom management, and grammar in context.
Her secondary duties as a Fellow took her deep into the western highlands to a state called Huehuetenango, where the majority of the population is Maya. Her project consisted of working with local teachers on creating materials and developing pedagogical approaches for teaching students for whom English was at least a third language, after their local indigenous language and Spanish. “Through the generosity of my host institution, I was pleased to be able to support teachers in this region where access to education is limited,” Elder said. “An added bonus was being able to stay with a local who volunteered to host me.”
Facilitating a teacher training workshop in Tajikistan
As a Specialist in Tajikistan in 2014, Elder worked with teachers on adapting Soviet-era English textbooks for their contemporary classrooms. The two-week training was held at a former Soviet sanatorium fed by nearby hot springs. As a Specialist in El Salvador in 2018, Elder developed a teacher training program in multiple phases. In phase one, she traveled to the country for two weeks to conduct a needs analysis, meeting with students, teachers, embassy personnel, public and private school administrators, the Ministry of Education, and local non-profits. Upon returning to the U.S., she began creating the curriculum in response to what she learned. Finally, later that same year, she returned to El Salvador for another two weeks to teach the curriculum to the local trainers. “What I love most about my English Language Programs Specialist projects is that no two projects ever look alike, and each one offers a diversity of experiences,” Elder said.
What I love most about my English Language Programs Specialist projects is that no two projects ever look alike, and each one offers a diversity of experiences.
For her Specialist project in Brazil in 2020, Elder had the opportunity to work with teachers and students in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasilia. In Rio, she conducted workshops for Access Program teachers working with at-risk youth. In São Paulo, she gave a workshop on integrating writing into sciences courses at a conference on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) at the University of São Paulo. “This workshop was my first time wearing a headset and being interpreted simultaneously into Portuguese!” Elder said.
In Brasilia, she facilitated workshops for a group of ten English Language Fellows who were about to start their projects in different parts of the country. “Because Brazil is so large, each time I flew into a different city I got to experience a whole new topography, and meet a whole new group of people to work with,” Elder said.
Most recently, as a Specialist in Turkiye in 2022, Elder worked on a three-phase Social Justice in English Language Teaching project that began in 2020, and culminated with the 2nd International Symposium on Social Justice in ELT. The specific emphasis of the project was to assist participants with integrating four themes into their curricula: the environment, gender equality, LGBTQ issues, and immigration and peace. The project took Elder to five different historical cities and universities in northeastern Turkiye, and at each stop along the way she noted “the same great motivation and hospitality” of her Turkish colleagues. Elder added, “Working with such dedicated teachers motivated me to continue my research on social justice, and to write my own scholarship on the subject.” Highlights of her tour locations included the famed ski resort city of Erzurum; Sivas, where Atatürk assembled revolutionaries in the call for Turkish independence; the beautiful mountain town Amasya, known for its ‘star’ apple; the city of Trabzon with its incredible view of the Black Sea; and Sinop, an idyllic seaside town.
Planting a gifted avocado tree with the aid of a local Panamanian farmer (left), and a quetzal sighting while hiking in Panama’s Volcano Baru National Park (right)
Outside of her passion for work and people, one of Elder’s priorities as a traveler is learning more about the flora and fauna of the places she visits. Snorkeling along the coast, hiking among coffee plantations, and exploring the jungle are some of her favorite activities from her projects in Central America. On one memorable journey in Panama, she finally encountered the elusive Quetzal that had evaded her in Guatemala, where it’s treasured as the national bird. Elder reports, “My husband and I were hiking when we came across a local man who knew the area well and he pointed our attention to the tree branch we had just passed under. Looking up we saw a pair of quetzals and their young. I’ll never forget that sight!”
Receiving the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award at UNM; and with her graduating PhD student
As an associate professor in the Rhetoric and Writing program in the Department of English at the University of New Mexico (UNM) for the past 11 years, Elder works with faculty across disciplines on integrating writing into their course curriculum and in supporting historically marginalized or excluded student populations in higher education. She’s also a union faculty leader and will serve next year as faculty senate president. Elder credits her Specialist projects with qualifying her to be affiliated faculty working with multilingual students in the linguistics Ph.D. program and with helping her design and teach a new graduate course on academic writing for multilingual writers. Elder also credits UNM with giving her the flexibility to continue engaging in Specialist projects when projects are offered.
As an Alumni Ambassador representing English Language Programs at conferences and events around the country, Elder has been happy to continue one of the most rewarding aspects of her program experiences: community-building. “Professionally, it’s an honor to have the opportunity to work with faculty and students in other countries,” Elder said. “I learn so much from them, not just about themselves and their country and culture, but also about the role that English and education have in their lives. And now to be able to share these experiences with teachers and students in different parts of the U.S., for me that’s what it’s all about.”
Dr. Cristyn Elder was an English Language Fellow in Guatemala, 2006-2007, and an English Language Specialist in Tajikistan, 2014; Panama 2015; El Salvador, 2018; Brazil, 2020; and Turkiye, 2021 & 2022. She began teaching EFL 30 years ago in Mexico, and training teachers as a Peace Corps Volunteer 25 years ago in Ukraine. She has an MA-TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University. Elder is currently an associate professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Stay tuned for our next featured Alumni Ambassador story with Natasha Agrawal.