Brent Amburgey is a second year PhD student in the Languages, Cultures and Literacies program in the Faculty of Education at SFU. After a solo trip to Japan sparked an interest in language, culture, and education, Brent decided to pursue an MA in Applied Linguistics. He spent five years teaching overseas in Japan and Hungary and then returned to the Pacific Northwest to begin his studies at SFU.
Student Spotlight: Meet Brent Amburgey
Tell us about yourself.
I was born not too far south from Vancouver, across the US border in Portland, Oregon. I spent all of my childhood and early adulthood in the Northwest United States. During this time, I think I had at least some curiosity about the larger world and some conception of the lack of diversity in my life and social circles. However, it wasn’t until my first good job post-university, and the financial flexibility that came along, that I discovered a strong (but previously latent) urge to travel internationally and experience different cultures and languages.
You spent five years teaching overseas. What impact has this had on your perspective or approach to language learning and international education?
I took my first solo trip abroad to Japan when I was 24. I honestly can’t remember why I chose Japan, other than a vague perception that it would be someplace very foreign to my current lived experiences. Among the various incredible experiences on that trip were: trying to use some basic Japanese to navigate Tokyo, stumbling into being featured on a Japanese TV show, and pushing my comfort zone in terms of foods and customs. It is no exaggeration to say that it was this trip that led to my pursuit of an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and then to teaching abroad in both Japan and Hungary. Throughout all of my experiences, my fascination with language, culture, and education continued to grow.
What motivated you to pursue a PhD in Languages, Cultures and Literacies at SFU?
After five years abroad, I knew a PhD was the best way to ensure stable, long term employment in higher education. I did extensive research about various programs, and found that some of the most appealing, progressive programs were in Canada. Furthermore, Canada is an intriguing place to see issues of multi/pluri-lingualism firsthand in the classroom. I applied to a total of five programs, but SFU’s Languages, Cultures and Literacies program was my top choice. SFU distinguished itself from the beginning with how approachable everyone I talked to was. From staff to professors, every inquiry about the program felt like talking with a real human, which contrasted with responses from some other institutions that felt like a repetition of pre-determined talking points. Having the opportunity to work with CELLTR from the very start of my program was an incredible bonus.
Could you tell us about some of these projects with CELLTR?
I was very lucky to become involved with CELLTR from the very beginning of my PhD program at SFU. While I have appreciated all the projects I’ve worked on, the BUS 217W program has been especially meaningful. This partnership with the Beedie School of Business is an excellent example of the positive work that can be done when an administration recognizes the needs of its students and takes an active and progressive approach to addressing those needs.
What are your specific research interests and what are you hoping to explore further?
I have many interests, but right now I spend most of my time reading and thinking about Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and how we can better encourage the valuing of all linguistic resources. I think this is especially crucial in a setting like North American higher education institutions, where English is often the dominant language, but the reality of the classroom is so incredibly diverse.
Given our current political, social, and cultural climate, why is it important to study intercultural communication and intercultural sensitivity?
While not the only factor, the political climate in the United States did play a role in my decision to study in Canada. As an officially bilingual nation, I think there is a greater depth to the dialogue about issues of language and culture than in the US. Societal progress can sometimes feel cyclical, and right now it feels as though we are in a period of pushback against some of the progress that was made in the past years (as illustrated by the radical change in American politics). In such times, I think it’s important to keep pushing forward, despite resistance.
What are some of the challenges in your program/ field?
It can be a struggle to build legitimacy for the work we are doing. For example, institutions are happy to accept increased tuition fees from international students, but sometimes make the mistake of believing that their responsibility to those students ends after providing minimal walk-in support services. Another mistake is believing that students won’t need support if they have met admissions standards on a test like the TOEFL or IELTS. In reality, if our classrooms are changing (and they are!) we need to adapt as well. This means re-examining how we teach and support students.
What are your future plans?
I plan to continue working with students in the higher education setting. And I’m excited to see where in the world that brings me to next!