‘Senorita Rita’ off to Colombia | PostIndependent.com

‘Senorita Rita’ off to Colombia

Suzie Romig
RFSD Public Information Officer

Bubbly Glenwood Springs Elementary School teacher Rita Merrigan is so excited about her teacher exchange plans for next year that she is feeling young again.

Merrigan received final approval last week for her participation in the Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The 10-year educator will be leaving for Bogota, Colombia, this summer to teach English to second and third graders at the Gimnasio El Cedro all-girls private school. A counterpart from Bogota will be coming to Glenwood Springs to fill her shoes as an English-language learner instructor.

“I think it’s kind of exciting to be going off and doing this kind of thing at my age because I’m not a spring chicken. It makes me kind of feel young,” said Merrigan, 45, who has taught at GSES for three years and taught two previous years at Basalt Elementary.

The prestigious Fulbright Program, which was established in 1946, has six different opportunities that involve some 4,500 individuals annually. Merrigan is one of only eight Colorado teachers selected to participate for 2004-05, and one of only five teachers nationwide doing an exchange to Colombia next year, said Marilyn Turner, coordinator at Colorado International Teachers’ Exchange League in Colorado Springs.

Merrigan wants to bring her second-language skills to a very fluent level to be able to keep up with Spanish-speaking parents in the Roaring Fork School District. She also believes in the statement by originator Sen. J. William Fulbright that notes the program “aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”

“I think by being an international teacher I will learn about people, culture, language acquisition and teaching method,” Merrigan said, “and when I come back I will bring a little part of the world and possibly make the world a smaller place.”

GSES Principal Sonya Hemmen said the school “can’t wait to get started” with the Fulbright exchange.

“I am thrilled for Rita that she is going to go out of the country to further improve on her already great ELL teaching skills,” Hemmen said. “Fulbright has a wonderful reputation for its professionalism and ability to choose fine teachers. We look forward to working with Norma Acero from Colombia and know that this experience will enrich the lives of our students, teachers and parents at GSES.”

Merrigan originally had applied for an exchange to the Spanish-speaking countries of Mexico, Argentina or Peru. When she was called early one morning and asked to consider joining other Fulbright exchange participants in Bogota, her first question, was, “Well, is it safe?”

Merrigan already has attended one regional Fulbright training where she learned about how to blend in and be safe in the potentially dangerous capital of Colombia, a city of some 6 million people. Advice included going shopping in pairs, visiting an ATM in threes and checking travel itineraries with the Fulbright office at the embassy in Bogota.

“You do have to use a certain amount of caution,” said Merrigan, who grew up in Los Angeles and has a master’s degree in English as a second language. “Here in Colorado I leave my house to work at school at night. I never think about anything being dangerous.”

She believes the teacher from Bogota may find it just as tough to transition to the relatively small town of Glenwood Springs with its high cost of living. Each teacher will be paid through their home school district and continue to pay their own home housing rent, but the Colombian teacher will receive a stipend from Fulbright to cover the higher grocery costs in the Roaring Fork Valley. The teachers will live in each other’s homes.

A week’s vacation with her aunt to the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru is in store for Merrigan in June. She leaves Aug. 3 for a three-day orientation, along with her Colombian counterpart, a Bogota native who teaches English. Merrigan will return to Colorado in June 2005 after spending a full school year in Colombia.

A former Spanish teacher, Merrigan said her students already know her as “Senorita Rita.” She plans to keep in touch with staff and students at home through e-mail and letters, noting, “This is an incredible opportunity.”

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