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Kathleen Burrows and the Language of Teachers

The path to Kathleen Burrows’ dream job has spanned thousands of miles, from Oregon to Germany, to Albania and beyond, crossing oceans and cultures. At each step along the way, the Oregon State Honors College alumna has worked to provide students and teachers alike with the language skills needed to achieve success in school and in the workforce. Now — with a wealth of experience under her belt and a background rich in language learning — Kathleen has reached a new, long-desired professional milestone: selection by the U.S. Department of State for the English Language Specialist Program.

The position, which began in September 2021, has brought Kathleen’s passion for language from her home base in Oregon to Nicaragua, where she is currently conducting weekly virtual workshops with in-service teachers through mid-December. While participating in the program has been her goal since learning of its existence, according to Kathleen, her sense of being called to empower others through language learning goes back to her time as an undergraduate at Oregon State’s Honors College.

Raised in Oregon, Kathleen earned her honors bachelor’s degree in German from OSU’s College of Liberal Arts in 2007, during which time she wrote her thesis on the vocabulary use of exchange students in comparison to those who hadn’t studied abroad. After graduating from OSU, Kathleen earned her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages at Portland State University, and since then, she has held positions with a number of organizations, including the International Baccalaureate and Rosetta Stone. Throughout, her focus has been on curriculum design, materials development and teaching English as an additional language at home and abroad.

Her honors experience — and thesis project in particular — left an enduring impact on her. By the time she enrolled in her master’s program, she had no doubt that she could meet the high standards of an academically demanding institution. “I felt like I had been through this before when I got to grad school,” she says. “It made everything seem more approachable.” The process of partnering with a mentor, conducting original research and interpreting her findings, she says, prepared her for the many educational and professional endeavors that followed.

“As soon as I knew it existed, I knew I wanted to do this.”

Her work has provided her opportunities to travel across Asia and Europe over the course of the last decade, scratching the itch to teach and travel she’s had since participating in an OSU-affiliated study abroad experience in Germany as an undergraduate. “During the trip, I thought, I want to be the person teaching exchange students, because it is life-changing.” Her goal at the time was to help students improve their English so they could go on to attend university, and her experience in Germany quickly became the foundation on which she built her skills as an educator. “Sometimes I feel like I learned German for empathy,” she says. “It informs me. Now I know exactly what it’s like to learn a language.” After graduating from Portland State, Kathleen went on to teach at the very university in Germany she attended as an honors student. “I was in exactly the same building I was in as a student. It felt like it all came full circle.”

Today, Kathleen is part of a select group of English Language Specialists with the U.S. Department of States’ Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The program, which began in 1991, supports specialists who provide training to teachers around the world, and there have been only 800 specialists in its 30-year history. Kathleen’s position has connected her with the Centro Cultural Nicaragüense Norteamericano, or CCNN, to help them find ways to effectively utilize technology, 21st century skills and communicative language teaching — particularly in the age of COVID. “The pandemic affected everyone from all over the world. I am working to improve their practice so they can meet the needs of their students during these times,” she says. “Some teachers there are brand new, and some are experienced. We all honestly learn from each other — it’s fantastic.”

Reflecting on her time as an undergraduate, Kathleen credits much of her success to her Honors College experience, which encouraged her to look at the future with a wider lens. “One class I took was on translation, but it wasn’t just about the words — it was about the bigger processes of translation and what it means to translate,” she says. To this day, Burrows still applies concepts learned in her honors courses when teaching language skills, and she looks back at her time in the HC with a deep sense of gratitude, sharing that “you will use everything you learn” at OSU.

After Kathleen’s position with the virtual program ends in December, she will continue her work at the International Baccalaureate, with no plans to let her ever-evolving career reach a plateau. Looking ahead, she hopes to continue sharing her love of language and passion for teaching with educators and students across the globe, both in person and virtually. “I love helping teachers; it’s so exciting to see them develop.”

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