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Dental Hygiene's Michele Darby Reflects on Fulbright Experience in Jordan

Another school year is well under way at Old Dominion University's Gene W. Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene.

Chair Michele Darby, professor and eminent scholar, is back working at her usual breakneck pace, supervising undergraduate and graduate students, teaching a course, overseeing research projects, writing a book, delivering professional presentations, and running a full department.

Earlier this year, the faculty member with close to 40 years of experience at ODU did something completely different, spending six months as a Fulbright Scholar at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) in the Middle Eastern country.

Darby said the experience was transformational. And she's eager to continue to forge links between Norfolk and Jordan, so that graduate students and other faculty members can benefit from similar experiences.

"It was the fastest six months of my life. It was an opportunity for me to be part of a culture and a university that was, before January, totally foreign to me," Darby said.

"You think you know a culture or a people from working with international students, but you don't know that culture until you live and work in that culture. Even then, I am sure I missed some of the nuances."

Darby said she developed a far deeper understanding of the Arab world and how Islam is practiced there in Jordan. She came away respecting how the people incorporate their religious beliefs into daily living. "I never realized that the Arab culture is known for its unbelievable hospitality. When you are there and you're invited to someone's home, they cannot do enough for you. They treat you better than family" she said.

Darby also grew to appreciate the "live in the moment" way of experiencing life. "Being in such a different culture required me to pay very close attention to what was going on.

"Just seeing how Jordanians value time with each other, enjoy coffee or tea together, or just share a conversation was an epiphany for me," Darby said.

"I learned from Jordanians that this approach to life is balanced and satisfying … I absorbed each day as new experiences continued to unfold."

Before she left for the Middle East, many friends and colleagues asked Darby if she was worried about being a Westerner, and a woman, in a society often portrayed as hostile to each. Her experience was the opposite.

Most of the people that I worked with - in fact 99 per cent of the people I worked with - were Muslim. But they allowed me to be who I was, and to be a Westerner in their culture without any criticisms," Darby said. "I never felt afraid."

Darby found it interesting that people in the Middle East, a very homogeneous society, were so interested in connecting with someone unlike themselves. "I found that in the faculty, and I really found that in the students."

Darby had a number of goals for her six months in Jordan, including:

• Collaborating with the faculty to develop their curriculum, making it more in line with accredited dental hygiene curricula;

• Working on acceptance of dental hygienists by Jordanian dentists;

• Working with Jordanian dental hygienists and faculty to establish a dental hygienists' association (a proposal has been submitted to the Ministry of Health in Jordan);

• Using association status to apply to the International Federation of Dental Hygienists, so that Jordan can become a member country ("That really opens up a significant window of opportunity for dental hygienists there," Darby said.); and

• Making teaching methodology there a little less lecture based, and more case study oriented, community based, and evidence- based.

A service learning project that took both faculty and students to one of the Palestinian refugee camps where over 1,500 girls were given dental examinations and referred for care was one of the many transformative experiences of the Fulbright.

Darby spoke last month at a dental hygiene conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, about her Fulbright experience. She's also continuing the connections she formed with JUST to enable other faculty members and motivated students to follow in her footsteps.

"I would like to mentor some of our best, globally-minded students to apply for student Fulbrights," Darby said. Also, JUST is the perfect sister school for our College of Health Sciences since all of our disciplines are offered there, Darby said.

"I think our students here at the university have had limited exposure to Middle Easterners. They frequently haven't traveled. But once they do travel, they get hooked and realize that extremes are often popularly portrayed in a culture. I think that our collaboration with JUST is a real opportunity, not only in dental hygiene, but in all the health sciences."

Now that she's back in the United States, Darby was reminded of the things about living here that she missed - most of all, her husband of 38 years, Dennis, a professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at ODU. "When I do another Fulbright, I'd like for him to be able to come with me," Darby said. Dennis was able to lecture on climate change in the JUST College of Arts and Sciences when he came to visit, and he too was very well received.

Other things Darby missed about living at home were simple things, like seafood, which is rare in the middle of the desert. Rain was scarce as well, naturally.

"Being in a desert, everything is so dry and so hot. Even though the desert is beautiful, I did miss a good thunder and lightning storm as well."

Now that she's been back, Darby said she really misses the people she met in Jordan, particularly her students. She said a couple of her best ones are applying for the master's program at ODU. And for Darby, that's one of the best parts of doing something like a Fulbright - the chance for global connections.

"When else would you get an opportunity like that?"

More information about Darby's experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan can be found on her blog at: http://darbyoralhealthjordan.blogspot.com.

This article was posted on: October 26, 2010

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