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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. 

The central aim of my career has been to improve academic outcomes for students with learning disabilities (LD). That’s an enormous topic, and early on I decided to focus on improving students’ written language skills. So, I conducted a series of intervention studies to establish an evidence-based approach for teaching writing in regular (or, general) education elementary, middle, and high schools. General education means teaching all students to write, (i.e., how to generate ideas, plan, compose, and revise written language) including students with LD. I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to teach and conduct research in Viet 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 recognized as soon as in kindergarten, and other in first grade, that they have brain-based learning differences or have been exposed to societal challenges (or both) that cause learning challenges of one kind or another. That’s because in the US, we know how to help parents and teachers with LD, ADHD, and other problems like language delays or need social-emotional supports and students with LD plus kids with other “high incidence” disabilities go to schools in the United States, but in Viet Nam, the same kids often drop out of school before the third grade. 

2.  What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright scholar? 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 to enhance learning, universal design (UDL) in special education and general education elementary and secondary classrooms, and several research methodologies or research design courses. I have taught theoretical and design/writing coursework for doctoral students, single case research design methodology for graduate students, and evidence-based methods of instruction in special education for students with 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 the there are many, many websites with fantastic, ready-to-use teacher friendly materials (in English) from large numbers of federally funded projects, all related 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 straight forward, 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 and Viet Nam, and Japan, to see who was interested in my project. Plus, I did a lot of zoom meetings with what turned out to be my host university once they decided to commit, or with people who they recommended that I talk to. My host department chair has been very active internationally and it 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 solve the world's grand challenges. In what ways did your work contribute to finding solution(s) to the world's grand challenges? 

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 6 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, 5 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 universities and in other universities where I worked. I wrote four different research proposals, plus proposals to do workshops in the community to be told on one day that we had approval to do one project, only to find out the next week when we were about to get started, that approval was still pending. 

Students in Viet Nam bow when they meet you (they also bow for all professors, not just western professors). They also ride motorbikes to class or take busses to campus if they can’t afford a bike, so there are a ton of bikes in the parking lot and no cars. Another surprise was students bringing me food that was famous in their hometowns. The most memorable time was a young man who gave me some kind of what we would call a salsa, but only thin rice paper to sample it with. And watched me try it in front of him – there was no way I was going to get away from him until then. 

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 as my host institution, the Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy (HCMUE) to wrap up our research and to develop a new major in learning disabilities in 2 years. 

I have been asked to do virtual sessions on research for faculty at the Hanoi National University of Education (HNUE) and give talks for conferences run by the Hanoi National University (HNU)

I have plans to continue work with the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP), which receives funds from United States Agency for International Development, (USAID) to work with physicians, parents, and teaches in Da Nang and Hue in the central part of the country and with Vin University, in Ha Noi. 

I hope to run an intervention study with students with LD in Hanoi, or Hue.  

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. 

For general program information and to review application guidance, visit the Fulbright website. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Reach out to UMD’s Fulbright liaison Joe Scholten, and explore our resources. 

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