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Fearless Fulbrights: Dr. Susan De La Paz

What can the world teach you about the art of teaching others? Dr. Susan De La Paz has spent her career working towards equitable outcomes for students with learning disabilities, and in 2022, she took her work to Vietnam on a Fulbright scholarship.

1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your project?

I’m a professor in the College of Education. I’ve worked in higher education since earning my doctorate in 1995, and I’ve had a wonderful career working at three universities, including Vanderbilt and Santa Clara University, before joining the special education faculty at UMD in 2007. 

My central aim has been to improve academic outcomes for students with learning disabilities (LD). Early on, I decided to focus on improving written language skills as a way for students with LD to access post secondary education. So, I conducted a series of intervention studies to establish an evidence-based approach for teaching writing in middle and high schools, in subjects where writing is used to learn content (e.g., social studies and science). My focus has been on teaching all students basic composing skills (i.e., how to generate ideas, plan, draft, and revise written language), and how to write historical and scientific arguments. I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to teach and conduct research in Việt Nam. The title of my project is, Improving Literacy Outcomes for Students with Learning Disabilities in Vietnam. Children with LD who live in the United States are increasingly identified as soon as in kindergarten or first grade that they have brain-based learning differences or have been exposed to extreme societal trauma (or both) that cause learning challenges. In the US, we know how to help parents and teachers with LD, ADHD, and other problems like language delays or social-emotional support needs; in fact, federal law requires that students with LD and those with other “high incidence” disabilities are able to attend school, but in Vietnam, vast numbers of students with LD are forced to drop out of school, often before the third grade. 

2.  What inspired you to apply for a Fulbright scholarship? What was your process in approaching the application?

My inspiration came from my growing desire to make a difference in the field of special education before my career ends and I wanted to go to a lower or middle income country. With respect to my teaching, my core courses at UMD are very specific subjects such as the use of technology (including AI) in special education and general education elementary and secondary classrooms, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and research methodologies and research design courses. These include theoretical and design/writing coursework for doctoral students, single case research design (SCRD) for graduate students, and evidence-based methods of assessment and  instruction for students with high incidence disabilities. 

These are all very specific but only part of what special education teachers need to learn in order to be prepared to teach students with LD. Fortunately, I knew that there are many, many websites with fantastic, ready-to-use teacher friendly materials (in English) from large numbers of federally funded projects, all related to all kinds of disabilities. These are professionally vetted, credible and effective and evidence-based strategies. The websites are really useful once translated into Vietnamese because they show detailed instructional modules, with clear videotaped segments of teachers who are showing others what to do and why. These were all at my disposal if I could figure out how to disseminate them.  

My literal process in approaching the application was straightforward, and involved accessing the Fulbright website to determine where I might go, looking at information about several countries’ education systems in Southeast Asia, doing library searches, and then maybe 20 emails to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan, to see who was interested in my goals. Plus, I did a lot of zoom meetings with what turned out to be my host university once they decided to commit, and with people from the US who they had worked with. My host department chair has been very active internationally and working collaboratively with faculty from other countries is  something their university is known for, so it all worked out. 

3. In 2022, the university released their new strategic plan, Fearlessly Forward. One of its core tenets is to take on the world's grand challenges. In what ways does your work contribute to supporting the common good?

UMD understands that the world faces societal issues including climate change, social injustice, global health, and education disparities that are global challenges. Before going, I saw clear connections to UMD’s vision and the Fulbright goal that I was focusing on or promoting best practices in education. After my Fulbright Scholarship in  Viet Nam, I now see clear intersections between health and education disparities that I had not previously understood. 

Children with Autism have long received attention in Viet Nam in separate schools, named “inclusive centers” meaning these students are included in the educational system in some way. They are public, they can be as well-resourced as a neighboring public elementary school, but they do not include children with any of these disabilities in regular or what we call general education schools. That’s because kids in Viet Nam learn in classrooms with 50 others from the time they are in second grade (I did not personally see any first or kindergarten rooms). So, kids who can’t sit in a large room with one teacher are told they can no longer go to school. 


And I personally sat next to second grade children who were in the back row of a room for 50 kids, who could not keep up with simple math activities. They sat copying another’s paper, some crying softly, others just doing the best they could while the better students raised their hands in response to questions and participated actively in learning activities. I have no idea how many of these struggling learners will be back next year either, or what they will do if they stop going to school. Perhaps some will become part of a large number of Vietnamese people who work in factories, work cleaning apartments, work in restaurants, drive motor-bike taxis, or are unemployed. 

This is hard to take because after being there for six months, I can confidently tell you that large numbers of teachers, parents, university researchers, and doctors (including pediatricians and psychiatrists) know that kids with LD exist and can say, “I think my child has a learning disability based on what I learned from you,” if someone explains the difference between ID and LD.  Because I gave about a dozen talks or workshops at public centers, five universities, including one medical university, with large numbers of parents, teachers, service providers and physicians.  

4. What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?

There were a lot of inconsistencies regarding how decisions were to get permission to conduct research at my host university and in other universities where I worked. I wrote four different research proposals, plus proposals to do workshops in the local school system to be told on one day that we had approval to do a project, only to find out the next week when we were about to get started, that approval was again pending. 

Students in Vietnam bow when they meet you (they also bow for all professors, not just western professors). They also ride motorcycles to class or take 1 or 2 buses to campus if they live far away, so there are a ton of bikes in the school’s parking lot (faculty routinely have motorcycles too, traffic is too heavy for people to drive cars). Another surprise was that students often brought me food that was famous in their hometowns. The most memorable time was a young man who gave me some kind of spicy salsa, but only thin rice paper to sample it with. And he watched me try it in front of him  – there was no way I was going to get away until then. Fortunately it was delicious!

5. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you formed while abroad?

I’m not done yet!

I’m working collaboratively with several faculty at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy (HCMUE) to provide coaching for data collection for an ongoing study on UDL in higher education, to disseminate finished research and hopefully to develop a new major in learning disabilities for undergraduate students. 

I have given talks for conferences run by the Hanoi National University (HNU) and am making plans to return to Vietnam to introduce Peer-Assisted Learning Strategy (PALS Reading, developed by Doug and Lynn Fuchs, who are Vanderbilt University researchers) in public elementary schools and teach practitioners about UDL with faculty at the Hanoi National University of Education (HNUE). 

I will continue work with leaders from the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP) in Hà Nội, which receives funds from United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to assist their work with physicians, parents, and teachers in Da Nang and Huế (on the central coast) and with medical school leaders from VinUniversity, who are planning to set up a disability services center for medical and nursing students with LD.  

6. For other Terps that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them?

Go for it. If you go, you will enrich your life in ways you cannot imagine. 


Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison  

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