Staff Members of Humphrey Fellowship Office Show International Flavor
by Joe Savrock
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Each August, a dozen or more professionals from various nations arrive at Penn State’s College of Education for a year of professional development and study in the field of education. These international visitors, the Humphrey Fellows, are challenged to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings and new faces, in a setting where virtually nobody speaks their primary language.
But the Fellows can take comfort in knowing that the College’s Humphrey Program office is anchored by a trio of compassionate staff members—Syedur Rahman, Stephen Belcher, and Jane Reese—each of whom has a fitting background that relates well to the international flavor of the program.
Syedur, Stephen, and Jane are the administrative staff of Penn State’s branch of the prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. Their hospitality offers a warm, comforting glow for the visitors.
Syedur, Stephen, and Jane exhibit the utmost compassion for the Fellows, and their sincerity extends well beyond routine, 9-to-5 weekday constraints. Jane exemplifies the extracurricular activities that the three staffers perform. “I have assisted Fellows by standing by them for hospital tests, to hugging them when a family member has passed away, to planning a three-week professional affiliation in Hawaii with a very limited budget,” she says. “I am available to our Fellows 24 hours a day through e-mail, cell phone, and of course my home phone.”
Penn State’s Humphrey office is located on the second floor of Chambers Building, within the area of the College’s Advising Center. The office gives the Fellows a base for their research and study activities. The Fellows attend classes, panel discussions, and other functions, studying the American education system while lending a diversity that provides important global perspectives for the College’s academic programs.
Established by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, the Humphrey Program is a one-year non-degree initiative of combined academic and professional development opportunities. It brings accomplished mid-career professionals from designated countries from specific countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Europe, and Eurasia to selected universities in the United States for public service, advanced study, professional training, and work-related experiences.
Penn State has hosted Humphrey fellows almost each year since the program’s inception three decades ago. The College of Education became the administrative home of the University’s program in 2003.
A Genuine Office Staff
Syedur manages Penn State’s Humphrey program and spends much time advising and counseling the Fellows on educational, cultural, and social issues. He has been associated with the program since 1982. Born and raised in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Syedur brings a true international quality to the program. An associate professor of education theory and policy, Syedur’s scholarly expertise is in political science.
Syedur notes that the Humphrey Fellowship Program stands apart from most other fellowships because it is non-degree. “These scholars are interested in the development of the self rather than the pursuit of a degree,” he says. “They are participating in a professional development program that is built on relationships.”
Syedur stresses the service that the Fellows provide. “The most important aspect of the Humphrey program is that it’s related to public service,” he said. “The program was set up the way Hubert Humphrey lived his life: to help serve the people.”
Syedur has enjoyed a long tenure with Penn State. After some three decades, he plans to retire at the end of this academic year. He will be moving to Washington, D.C., where his wife, Tannaz, began work in 2005 as director of advancement for Washington International School.
Stephen likewise exudes an outward compassion for the Fellows. “I generally describe my job as being the van driver, noting that sometimes I get to help decide where the van goes,” he says. “I like the metaphor.”
Stephen arrived at Penn State in 1990 and has been part of the Humphrey Program for the past ten years, currently working as a research assistant. He describes himself as a “foreign service brat,” an upbringing that befits his activities in the Humphrey office.
“My father worked for U.S. embassies abroad in the educational-cultural area,” he says. “I grew up in Africa and Europe. So involvement with the world outside the United States has always been important to me.” Stephen also was a member of the Peace Corps and taught at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania (three years of sixteen spent in different parts of Africa).
Stephen adds that “Working with the Fellows is a chance to mediate constructively in their engagement with the U.S. and to improve their experience here.”
His primary responsibility is to work with the Fellows individually to identify their professional development needs and interests, and then seek to fulfill those needs. “Ongoing conversations with the Fellows are probably a large part of the job,” he says. “It helps that I’ve lived overseas a fair amount, and so can translate—so to speak—what the Fellows expect and understand and what they are finding in the U.S.”
A lot of Stephen’s work also involves the entire Humphrey group, “for instance, when we took almost all the Fellows to Harrisburg for a day to visit the offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.” Stephen is gratified by the fruits of his work. “My connection with the Fellows is very rewarding, and it’s the reason I’ve stayed with the job,” he says. “It’s a way to contribute to improvements overseas, because at the end of their year, the Fellows go home to be on the frontline.
“I’ve always been aware of how rich America is compared to much of the world,” he continues. “I would very much like to see the rest of the world begin to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded Americans.
Jane focuses much of her work on fulfilling the Fellows’ needs. Some of her program planning includes site visits to local schools and nonprofit agencies, as well as trips to the local market.
“Our program not only helps our fellows enhance their work back home through our professional development program but supports their personal needs,” says Jane. “Some fellows seek life-changing programs during their Humphrey year that vary from nutrition counseling to learning new computer skills.”
Despite her worldly connections, Jane leads a down-home, rural lifestyle. “Ron and I operate a 250-cow dairy with his parents on a seven-generation family farm,” she says. “I work as the main calf feeder before and after work every day, except when we’re traveling.”
Jane and Ron have three grown children and a seven-month grandson. “And we are expecting two more grandchildren this summer,” she exclaims. The first is due June 18, which, she says, “suits my Humphrey schedule well since the program ends June 13.” The second newcomer is due in early September, “just when the program is in full swing,” she notes.
Jane began working at Penn State since 1994 and has held various positions around the University. In 2003 she left the University while she and Ron hosted an international exchange student from Brazil.
After that, Jane returned to work in August 2004. “I realized I missed working with internationals, and I applied for a part-time position with the Humphrey Program,” she says. “Here I am working full time, and the job is a perfect fit for me.”