Grad student teaches, learns while she travels the world

Jenny Woods

Eileen Mackey awaits a master’s degree from the University as a ticket to take on the world — literally.
The 24-year-old English as a Second Language graduate student and teacher has traveled from the rain forests of Costa Rica to the mountains of Turkey. She plans to travel the world in her quest for cultural knowledge.
“I’m a wanderlust,” Mackey said, adding that she funds her travels by biking instead of driving and living frugally.
Mackey nourishes her interest in other cultures by teaching international University students — both undergraduates and graduates — in the ESL graduate program. The program emphasizes immersion and requires instructors to only speak English while they’re teaching.
“You have to learn to explain English using English,” Mackey said. “It takes a lot of energy, a lot of understanding, a lot of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Susan Gilette, associate director of the Minnesota English center, which has a partnership with ESL, said Mackey’s energy and enthusiasm for her teaching contribute to her creativity.
“She’s a risk-taker,” Gilette said. “She takes an idea and develops it and tries new things.”
Her friend Nicolet Berkey, who is also an ESL teacher, said Mackey uses humor to encourage communication with the students.
“She really reaches them as people,” Berkey said. “She’s good at drawing out people’s personalities.”
Mackey views her teaching as a mutual education and credits her students, from as far away as Brazil and Thailand, for contributing to her cultural understanding.
Her real-life experiences abroad served an educational purpose as well.
In December 1997, Mackey journeyed to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where she met a Dutch journalist on assignment. She followed the journalist to San Cristobal, Chiapas, to observe Europeans in solidarity camps working with the Zapatistas, a group struggling for human rights for the indigenous people of Chiapas.
Three days before Christmas, 45 people were killed in Acteal, a village 15 miles away from where she was.
Mackey and the journalist made the trek to the burial site, along with a barrage of armored vehicles. She said the coffins, arranged side by side across the top of a mountain, could have filled the entire first floor of a house.
“My whole outlook on the innocence of the world was shaken,” she said.
Soon after, however, Mackey said the Mexican government put a “freeze” on the presence of American journalists in Mexico and closed the government investigation of the massacre.
The experience in Chiapas was a matter of being in “both the wrong and the right place at the wrong and the right time” for Mackey.
“It was an education,” she said.
The ESL teacher displayed a dedication to steeping herself in culture during her time in Chiapas, which she applies to immersing her students in the English language and culture.
“It’s not just traveling around and seeing things and then picking up and going,” Mackey said. “It’s seeing something, seeing the people that are around it, understanding how the people are related to their community.”
Mackey will graduate with a master’s degree in June and will go to the Sultanate of Oman to teach English at Sultan Quaboos University.
“It’s been a long, strange trip,” she said. “And I’m sure it will continue to be a long, strange trip.”