HUNGARY Susanne Liaw wanted to travel, give herself new challenges and build on the work she’s done at Olympic High School.

A Fulbright scholarship will allow her to do all three.

Liaw is heading to Hungary for the 2015-16 school year on a special English teaching assistantship during which she will help historically underserved students as they prepare for and enter college.

“I never had the experience of living in a foreign country, and I wanted to put myself in a situation where I’m totally out of my comfort zone and every little thing is going to be hard,” she said.

Liaw will be working specifically with the Roma population, a minority group living in Europe and the Americas whose origins can be traced to the Indian subcontinent.

The Roma people have been stigmatized, she said, and there is a longstanding achievement gap between Roma students and their peers.

Many of the students Liaw will serve don’t have strong family support or academic role models, a dynamic with which she’s grown familiar during her time as an English teacher at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s continuation campus.

Liaw said she didn’t know much about the Roma population until reading the Fulbright program’s description.

“It sounded up my alley,” she said of the opportunity. “It’s directly related to what I do at Olympic because I work with at-risk youth.”

Liaw is eager to participate in the Fulbright program after being turned away twice before. The first time, she said, she was designated as an alternate. The second time, she didn’t make the final cut.

Liaw applied for a third time this past October, submitting a statement of purpose as well as a personal essay about why she’s a good fit for the scholarship. She was accepted this spring.

Born in San Bernardino, Liaw attended Pomona College in Claremont before earning a master’s in English at the University of Washington and a master’s in education at UCLA.

“For me, school’s always been a comfortable environment,” she said. “It’s easy to forget what school can feel like for students when academics doesn’t come naturally.”

Liaw will receive an allotment for housing as well as a monthly stipend as she lives and works in Debrecen, the second-largest city in Hungary. She’ll spend time at a Roma residential college as well as at the University of Debrecen, where she plans to teach American studies.

Because she’ll be teaching English as well, Liaw believes the skills she’ll develop abroad will make her a better language arts teacher when she returns to the United States.

Liaw said she’s hoping to return to SMMUSD after her academic year in Hungary but that nothing has been finalized yet.

She added that she’s inspired by her experience at Olympic, where students face academic, financial and social challenges on a daily basis.

“It’s going to motivate me when I’m there,” she said. “I’m going be in a position where I’m going to feel like an outsider and disadvantaged. I’m going to remember the students. Because if they can do that, I can do this.”

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