Omica Hudson, a dedicated history teacher at Centennial Middle School, applied for a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study abroad, but didn’t expect to get one, especially on her first try. But she did.
“I was stunned when I got selected,” the 37-year-old teacher said. The opportunity not only changed her personally, but has made her a better teacher, she said.
The summer 2017 Fulbright scholarship, organized through Portland State University, was focused on the Middle East. The original plan was to go to Egypt, but the program decided that was too dangerous and it was cancelled.
Next up was Turkey, also nixed because of unrest. The program finally got the green light for Cyprus, a country Hudson knew almost nothing about. And, although Cyprus has been embroiled in conflict for decades, even centuries, Hudson characterized it as “a peaceful conflict.”
“I was extremely excited. It was like winning the lottery,” she said.
Cyprus is an island country in the Eastern Mediterranean south of Turkey and southeast of Greece and the 1.2 million divided residents speak Greek and Turkish. It has a charged political history, especially since its independence in 1963 with clashes between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. The Turkish population declared a separate state in the north of the country, but only Turkey recognizes it.
The island’s division is also religious. Most Greek Cypriots identify as Greek Orthodox and the minority Turkish Cypriots identify as Sunni Muslims. Houses of worship have flipped between Christian and Muslim over history. “There are saints buried under mosques,” she said.
“It’s very complicated. One of human history’s oldest problems,” she said of the tension in Cyprus.
Hudson and her 11 Fulbright colleagues from all over the U.S. stayed in the northern Turkish-influenced part of the county. They participated in a month-long seminar called “North Cyprus and Turkey In-Flux: The Ebb and Flow of History.”
“The northern side is very, very different than the southern,” she said.
The seminar goers immersed themselves in Turkish Cypriot culture and history. They focused on current events, social, economic and political issues facing ordinary citizens and governance while also exploring the historic civilizations of North Cyprus and Turkey. They had workshops with poets, politicians, political cartoonists and others, she said.
The group spent most of the time in the city of Famagusta at Eastern Mediterranean University. But the group also traveled to other cities and crossed the so-called “Buffer Zone” to visit parts of southern (Greek) Cyprus.
They took two hours of Turkish language every morning, seven days a week. “It is a really hard language,” she said, adding, “Most people there speak English, so it’s hard to practice your Turkish.”
Although the southern part of the country is a magnet for tourists, especially from Europe, few travel to the north. “I was the first American some people had ever met,” she said.
The experience reinforced Hudson’s idea that education should be centered on skills, rather than a hyper-focus on test scores. She said it is important for students to learn empathy, how to evaluate sources and information, how to be problem solvers and listen intently.
“They’ll be better contributors to society,” she said. “It reaffirmed that education needs to be a holistic approach.”
She also became determined to give students opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. Hudson said she grew up poor and disadvantaged, just like many of her current students.
She wasted no time.
She applied for and got a grant to take her students to the stunning exhibition “Pompeii” at OMSI in the fall. It was the first time many had been to the Portland museum. She also got a grant to take her students to two upcoming performances by the Oregon Ballet Theatre, also likely to be a first for many of her students.
She’s also working to arrange “digital pen pals” for her class.
“When I was given the opportunity to go to Cyprus, it changed me, not just as a professional, but as I person. I want to give them what ever opportunities I can.”
She said, “I want to share the idea that if we all just get out there and see more and do more we could all grow and connect much more.”