By Majed Alsalem, Ph. D.
It has been a year since I graduated from the University of Kansas in May, 2015. I remember the last goodbye with my colleagues, cohort, and friends. I still have a feeling that I will be part of this “empire” forever. I can see how KU is the empire of special education and how I can position myself as an ambassador for KU in my country, particularly in the area of special education. It’s not about 4 years of studying to obtain a PhD degree, it’s a long-term commitment that only KU was able to instill in our minds in order to make this world a better place for individuals with disabilities. Last month, in April, 2016, the Saudi government announced Saudi Vision (2030), which is a new philosophy of empowering Saudi policy based on citizenship and participation from all individuals. It’s an economic revolution that will make changes in most of the country’s systems based on pragmatic and scientific foundations.
Reading the Vision through a special education lens, it creates a huge transformation in the special education field in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This change includes (but is not limited to) education, employment, and the rights of individuals with disabilities overall in the country. What does that mean? It’s the time to take action to reform the system through different frameworks that help make a real change. This is my role as an ambassador of the great empire of special education, to build and create the future of special education in Saudi Arabia based on the knowledge, experience, and successful work that I was involved in at KU. As an example, the work that I am doing right now concerns how to apply evidence-based practices in our educational system, enhancing professional development for teachers, and implementing universal design for learning (UDL).
Therefore, it’s very critical when implementing any framework, philosophy, or strategy to keep in mind the cultural and social factors of the Saudi community. Thus, my own vision of how to adopt best practices from around the world while maintaining the Saudi identity aligns with the Saudi Vision 2030. A new era in the country is about to start, and I hope to be part of this new history of the Kingdom.
This brings back memories of when we discussed the shifting paradigms in education and institutional practices in special education in every class, talk, and presentation. It was a great experience beginning when I arrived in Lawrence in 2011. As I went through the long journey, it shaped my way of thinking, the way that I deal with sensitive topics, and interact with experts—keeping in mind that what works and fits in one environment may not work and fit in others.
The recent movement in educational policy applies rigorous standards, continuous and constant evaluation and assessment, accountability, professional development, and it increases the roles of technology, school autonomy, and parent involvement. Based on this, the four major components that the system in Saudi Arabia is focused on are: (a) Curriculum, which is the basic element of gaining information, and the new trend is to have it be more applicable rather than theoretical knowledge learned without interacting with information. (b) Teachers — the focus now is to create a system for teaching licenses that teachers must renew every 3–5 years. (c) Instructional design — UDL has just emerged in the conversation in the Ministry of Education in relation to preparing curriculum and teachers based on the notion of UDL. (d) Students — where they become the focus of the Saudi Vision (2030) by preparing them to be digital citizens, to engage with society, politics, and government participation through technology.
It is a wonderful experience to integrate the best practices of Saudis and Americans into my work when I’m dealing with students with disabilities and preparing teachers and researchers in the field of special education. Again, I was the ambassador of Saudi Arabia at KU from 2011–2015, and now I’m the ambassador of KU in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the rest of my life.
Dr. Majed Alsalem is originally from Saudi Arabia. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at King Saud University. He earned his doctorate in 2015 from the University of Kansas in special education under the advisement of Dr. James Basham. Dr. Alsalem research interests in the area of instructional design, technology and innovation for supporting learner variability in modern learning environments, particularly with the implementation of universal design for learning (UDL), professional development for teachers, and evidence-based practices. Majed’s primary focus is on deaf education, deaf and hard of hearing literacy and assistive technology.
“The mission of the doctoral program in special education at KU is to prepare civically-committed scholars who, through rigorous and relevant research and transformational interventions, address significant educational and social problems in ways that advance education, social policy, research, care giving and public service to enhance the quality of life of persons of all ages with (dis)abilities and their families.”
The KU SPED doctoral program prepares special education teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and field researchers for the future. The editors of Hawk Hopes asked the 2015-2016 cohort members to reflect on their first year learning experience in the program. Cohort members provided five words that described their experience as well as a short reflection of something memorable about the first year. Good luck to the 2015-2016 Cohort as they approach their first year probationary review and enter their second year!
The most valuable lesson I have learned in the past eight months is about myself. For example, I keep telling people that this is the **th day/month since I arrived in the U.S. and entered this program. It’s been an effective self-protective strategy to lessen my anxiety of feeling illiterate in academia and also culturally naive in this new country. It allows me to excuse myself from feeling completely incompetent, since it is so hard and I need more time! I’m thankful to myself because I’m aware of and have embraced my weakness, and keep growing. More importantly, I’m thankful to those incredible individuals who have challenged me, listened to me, supported me, and inspired me! Your knowledge, wisdom, and commitment to the field enhanced my certainty about why I am here. Eight months (Okay, okay, I will stop counting) has been enough time for me to feel a sense of belonging. I am not sure whether it’s long enough for me to feel fully prepared, but surely I am on my way. A must-include shout out is: I AM and I WILL never stop being proud that I AM a KU SPEDer!
This first year has caused me to think about people with disabilities in a completely different way. People with disabilities have always been a huge part of my life, but I was always very busy being an advocate and an effective special educator. It wasn’t until my role changed that I realized what meaning people with disabilities bring to my life and how much they enrich it. I also now have a better understanding of what social justice means and why it’s so important. I’m thankful for all the learning experiences I’ve had this year and look forward to many more!
My favorite experience was “Cohortsgiving” at Elizabeth’s house for Thanksgiving. We each shared something we’re thankful for, and I had a smile on my face (and at times, tears in my eyes!) the entire time. I feel so lucky to be a part of such a diverse, intelligent, committed group of people, all striving to learn and grow. I’ve developed close relationships with many students and faculty in the program, but I feel a certain kinship with everyone because we share a common purpose.
The first year at the PhD program has been very inspiring. I’m definitely glad to be part of the KU Special Education PhD program. However, managing time has been a major struggle since I’m not only a PhD student but also a mom for a three-year-old boy. Both roles have demanded me greatly. Guilt for not spending time with him and guilt for not working on my schoolwork have conflicted with each other. This will continue to be a challenge throughout my PhD career; however, I’m looking forward to learning and accumulating knowledge and expertise to become an effective researcher and teacher educator in the future.
In October I had the chance to travel with several members of my Early Childhood Unified Specialization to the Division for Early Childhood’s (DEC) National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I have attended professional conferences before, but this time felt different—I got to experience my membership in so many new groups. I was part of my specialization community, from carpooling to the airport to benefiting from moral support when my poster was briefly lost by our airline. I was part of my cohort community—my colleagues knew I was presenting and thoughtfully cheered me on from afar. I also experienced the larger presence of the KU community—several people started conversations with me at my poster by mentioning my affiliation with KU. And of course it was a chance to be part of the DEC community and connect with scholars and peers in early childhood special education. This experience stands out to me as representative of all the different communities I get to participate in by being a doctoral student in special education at KU.
Elizabeth Ann Meitl
My first year has been one long lesson in learning that there is more space in my brain than I knew, more room for friends than I imagined, and more time in my life for reading than I could have guessed. Also, I learned how to make a poster.
Wear gratitude like a cloak. ~ Rumi
Grateful for endless opportunities to learn from and work with incredible people. Grateful for openness to make new connections and build partnerships. Grateful for honesty, challenge, and creativity. Grateful for laughter and friendship. Grateful for difference.