Sandra Kowalczyk recently returned from Peru after spending four weeks participating in a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar Abroad administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to build relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries that are needed to solve global challenges.

Kowalczyk was the only Wisconsin teacher and one of only 16 educators in the country chosen by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the U.S. Department of State for the seminar.

The Peruvian Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar focused on exploring the indigenous heritage and its impact on education and current society. The seminar began with a two-day orientation at the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute of the University of Georgia in Athens. It included an interactive tour of the Latin American Ethnobotanical Garden that emphasizes the study of the relationship that exists between people and plants and promotes environmental education and the preservation of indigenous plant knowledge.

The Fulbrighters were also introduced to Quechua, one of the indigenous languages spoken in Peru. The group then flew to the Peruvian capital of Lima, before traveling throughout the country.

In Peru, Kowalczyk toured monumental sites, both in the urban areas and in nearby historical towns, visited schools at all levels, and interacted with specialists in education, history, art, architecture, economics, and public policy to acquire insights into Peru’s unique historical and cultural heritage and the challenges facing its culture today.

In addition to visiting the cities of Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, Puno, and the high jungle plateau city of Tarapoto, she interacted with the indigenous communities of Urubamba and Andahuaylillas; participated in workshops on Quechua language and culture, regional dances, and Peruvian cuisine; trekked and canoed through rainforests; and toured the historical city of Lampa and the ruins of Sillustani.

“As a reading specialist with a huge interest in literature set around the world, while in the city of Arequipa, the birthplace of 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa, I was excited to see books from his personal collection in his namesake library,” Kowalczyk said. “The prolific Peruvian novelist, playwright, and journalist brings the history and character of the Latin American people to life through his memorable literature.”

The seminar also included a full-day exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.

On the bow of a totora reed boat, Kowalczyk traversed the legendary Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet above sea level. She visited the reed homes of families living on the Uros Islands, a group of artificial floating islands made from pieces of reed sod lashed together and covered with thick layers of hollow reeds.

“I could feel the island dip and shift under my feet when I walked on it. It was almost like walking on a waterbed.” Kowalczyk said.

She also spent time exploring Taquile Island located on the Peruvian High Andean Plateau in Lake Titicaca. Its inhabitants are known for their fine handwoven textiles and clothing produced as an everyday activity by both men and women, regardless of their age, and worn by all community members.

She visited Pachacamac, the largest archaeological site on Peru’s central coast and the most important religious centers for four different civilizations of indigenous people of the central Andes for more than 1,000 years. Built centuries before the time of the Incas, construction began in the year 200 by the Lima culture, with the Wari expanding development of the site in 650, followed by Ischma in 1200 and the Incas in 1450. Between 1450-1532 the Incas adapted the preexisting temples and added additional temples, including the spectacular Incan Temple of the Sun, located at the top of a rocky promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Kowalczyk toured the Paracas National Reserve, consisting of the Paracas Peninsula, coastal areas and tropical desert and one of the richest and most uncommon ecosystems in the world, and boated to Ballesta Island archipelago, home to Humboldt penguins, sea lions, and many species of birds.

“It was an honor to be selected to participate in the incredible, extensive professional development opportunity provided by a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar,” Kowalczyk said. “I thrive on challenges and desire to constantly upgrade own knowledge. I also appreciate the international relationship building this program has fostered.”

The seminar concluded with a meeting with the Peru Fulbright Commission in Lima where participants presented curriculum projects and discussed follow-up activities.

In addition to her Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad in Peru, Kowalczyk was the recipient of three Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Awards, traveling to China (2014), Morocco (2007), and India (2003). She was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar, in Istanbul, Turkey (2015) and in Oaxaca, Mexico (2010).

As a Hilton Worldwide Teacher Trek Awardee (2014), she traveled throughout Peninsular and East Malaysia (Borneo) and Singapore to locales that serve as cultural and historical backdrops in books, particularly works penned by local authors. As part of her American Council for International Education U.S.-Eurasian Teaching Excellence Award (2005), she traveled throughout Uzbekistan where she implemented a culture bag exchange project with students at Prairie View and Patrick Marsh Middle Schools in Sun Prairie and students in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Kowalczyk’s was selected by National Council of Teachers of English as the winner of the 2015 Outstanding Middle Level Educator Award.

After receiving a Kohl Teacher Fellowship, she earned further distinction as the 2009 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year.

With the inclusion of international experiences and cultural artifacts in her teaching and her extracurricular Go Global Club, she aims to excite and engages students while promoting global literacy.

The United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) recognized Kowalczyk with the Bridge to Understanding Award for promoting international understandings through exploring the world through books. Best-selling author James Patterson’s Foundation acknowledged her passion for spreading an excitement of books in effective and original ways with a PageTurner Award.

Kowalczyk has been a literary educator for 25 years, serving for the last 16 years as the Reading Specialist at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

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