University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University        December 8, 2010

Profile: Bizunesh Wubie

The shy young girl stood on the school playground, a wishful visitor to a world she could not enter. She could only watch from the outside as classes were conducted inside for the lucky few, mostly boys. Regretfully on that day, Bizunesh Wubie was not among those few.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as in decades past, though the government of Emperor Haileselassie of Ethiopia was trying to expand education both for boys and girls, many families, particularly, in rural areas where an early marriage for a daughter was a badge of honor, were adamant or unwilling to send their daughters to schools. Wubie’s family were hard-working, land-owning farmers who clung to the traditional roles for women that had been customary in that country for centuries.

But while secular education, particularly for girls, was not a priority for her parents, Wubie says there was an informal education that took place in her home, emphasizing respect for God and elders, love toward family and extended family, obedience, concern for others, self-discipline, honesty, forgiveness and household tasks that her parents believed would prepare the children for life in the society.

Like other young ones in rural areas, the children in her family had no commercial books, or toys other than the ones they fashioned from items they found around them. But, she says, their lives were enriched not only as they listened raptly to the traditional stories lovingly handed down by their elders, but also through crafting their own play materials. Wubie says for a child, making his or her own play materials is not only enjoyable, but also can enhance creativity and thinking skills. That was one of the things that she enjoyed most as a child, as she recalls.
But as a young girl with her sharp intelligence, insatiable curiosity and, most of all, her fierce determination to learn, more than anything else she longed to go to school, a seemingly impossible dream for a young rural Ethiopian girl at that time. Those who knew her never underestimated her indomitable spirit and they were about to find out how determined she was. In fact, her lifelong quest for learning would eventually take her to parts of the world she had only dreamed about and gain her professional recognition in her field. It would also lead her to earn a multitude of certificates and degrees culminating in a Ph.D.

Actually, her educational odyssey started with a lucky accident. One day with nothing better to do, the nine-year-old accompanied her younger brother to school. Not allowed to go inside, she amused herself on the playground until a security guard she knew approached her, perhaps to shoo her away. Impulsively, she summoned all her courage and boldly asked him if he could help her register as a student. To her great surprise, he said "yes" and accompanied her inside. At that time, if a child was accompanied by an adult, there was no problem in getting registered as a student. Schools were welcoming, as it was the government's policy to expand education. With the guard’s help she was able to register and became a student.

Telling her parents was a whole other matter. “They were not pleased; they were not pleased at all.” she says shaking her head in remembrance. But, somewhat surprisingly and despite their disapproval, they did permit her to go and she gives them much credit, love and respect for that.

Now she had to face the reality of what lay ahead for her. Nearly 10 years old, she could neither read nor write, so she was placed in a first grade class. The most daunting challenge she faced was the complex Ethiopian alphabet known as "fidel". Fidel has 33 basic characters, each of which has seven forms, bringing it to a total of 231 characters. The good thing about the Ethiopian alphabet, Wubie says, is that once someone recognizes the sound and the shapes of the characters, there is no problem of spelling while writing because each character stands for a sound. She mastered it in two weeks. Once the gates of learning were finally opened she raced through subjects and grades at breakneck speed, completing 12 years of schooling in only eight years, the last three in a teacher training program that qualified her to teach upon graduation. And it was her educational experience that taught her a valuable life-long lesson which has carried over into her work.

“Parents are very important to the education and care of children, but even more important is the determination of the individual student," Wubie says. While she strongly believes in the importance of parents' involvement and admires American parents' involvement and constant support in the education of their children, she insists that it is the individual student who ultimately will make the difference as to whether she/he will succeed or not. In that case, she says, part of the parents' or family's role needs to be planting the seeds of determination, commitment and responsibility in the minds of young children.

Wubie taught for two years after completing her teacher training education and won a UNESCO scholarship for a year’s study in Demark. She spent eight months in Copenhagen being trained as an early childhood education teacher at Froebel College, and later spent one month in Ghana, visiting preschools and observing their practices. Upon her return to Ethiopia, she was teaching in the only government-owned early childhood setting, which was under the Ministry of Education, while at the same time pursuing her first education degree at Addis Ababa University. A few years later, one of the granddaughters of the then Emperor Haileselassie, Princess Mariamsina, visited her classroom and was impressed with the work that Wubie was doing with young children and recommended her for a Montessori scholarship for a year's study in London at the Montessori International Training Organization, where she herself had trained.

Upon her return to Ethiopia, Wubie became principal of a preschool and, at the same time, continued her studies at Addis Ababa University’s evening program, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Administration in 1978. Soon she was placed in the Ministry of Education, Curriculum Department, where she worked as curriculum developer and head of the kindergarten panel, conducting research works, writing numerous curriculum guides and children's books and undertaking various study tours including those in France. Approximately six years later, she was assigned as a senior expert in early childhood education at the National Children's Commission of Ethiopia.

“Having started life in a rural village, when I joined school for the first time I found the classroom very unfamiliar to me.” she said “The walls were decorated with pictures of people, animals and things which I had never seen before. In the first few months, I felt disconnected and alienated from my home environment.” What went wrong, she asked herself. The answer, she concluded, was that “the curriculum and the teaching/learning process of the school did not consider my rural home background and the local culture where I grew up.”

The direction of her life has always been guided by a series of unplanned circumstances, she believes. Immersed in her work,  Wubie rarely took time off. But, in 1990, she decided to give herself the luxury of a two-week leave. One day, taking a leisurely walk, she dropped by the office of a friend and while waiting for her, idly browsed the bookshelves. Spying a book on study abroad by UNESCO, she leafed through it and came to a page that gave specifics on a scholarship by the Canadian International Development Agency for five students from developing countries who would be brought to the University of Toronto to study for advanced degrees. Intrigued, she applied and after some months of paperwork she was accepted for this very competitive scholarship to study at the University of Toronto, where she earned a master’s degree in early childhood education. After teaching in a preschool in Toronto for four years, and still eager to stretch her academic wings, Wubie won another highly competitive scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Her doctorate was in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in early childhood and explored the early childhood education classroom experiences of children of Ethiopian origin in Toronto. It was a topic very close to her heart.

“Childhood experience is a treasure that always stays with us,” she believes. And even though she has traveled extensively , she always comes back to her childhood experiences. “Even today, I often see myself walking through the backyard and the surrounding areas of my rural home where I grew up. This certainly is one of the things that triggered me to explore the experiences of children of Ethiopian origin in their homes and their Toronto early childhood education settings”.

And then another of those fortuitous “unplanned circumstances” brought her to Marshall. Wubie’s daughter Hellen Yigzaw Bihonegn, a physician then living in Australia, accepted a residency position at a Huntington hospital and, longing to be closer to her, Helen’s husband Nega Debela, and granddaughter Abigail, Wubie made the move to the South Charleston area when a faculty position opened up at the Marshall University Graduate School of Education and Professional Development. Marshall came highly recommended since Debela is also a faculty member there and in fact has the office right next door to Wubie. But there are no mother-in-law jokes in this family, as the two share a fond regard and professional respect for each other. Wubie also has an adopted daughter, Egigayehu in Calgary, Canada, who is married and has two girls, Meklit and Mihiret.

Wubie loves teaching at GSEPD, she says. “The deans, the faculty and the staff are so respectful, cooperative and delightful to work with, and the students are responsible teachers themselves who are eager to learn and enhance their profession.” She likes online teaching and thinks that, among other things, teaching online is convenient both for the instructors and the students, as it enables them to communicate each other anytime and anywhere.

These days the diminutive Wubie can be found in her office every day, sometimes wearing the graceful flowing robes of her native country. Being warm and welcoming, she’s a beacon for the students who come to her for advice, counsel and sometimes encouragement both online and in person. It’s important for her to be available to her students. “They know they can always stop in and talk with me, and always reach me online,” she says.
And though there are more opportunities for women in Ethiopia now than before, there are still many challenges, she says, but she is hopeful for the future. She loves going back to visit her large extended family when she can. She was there for an extended visit in 2006 and is looking forward to an upcoming trip next summer that she’s managing to sandwich into her busy schedule.

“I have fond memories of my homeland, which drove my studies,” she says. “But there are still many obstacles to learning in Ethiopia. Schools are very far apart and pupils have to walk long distances and walking long distance in isolated rural areas can be dangerous for girls. Many parents are impoverished and unable to send their children to school. There are areas where early marriage is still being practiced. However, if one is interested, motivated and committed, she/he can do it.”

Wubie says that with authority. After all, she did.

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