A global perspective

UMD student teachers immersed in international life.

Molly Hughes in the classroom with students in Slovenia
Molly Hughes with students in the classroom at Danila Kumar International School in Slovenia.

Molly Hughes learned a lot about herself from teaching abroad in Slovenia last year. The Integrated Elementary & Special Education student admits to being pushed out of her comfort zone and also empowered by the experience.

“Taking the opportunity to teach abroad gave me the strength to become more flexible in various situations. With this flexibility came increased confidence in the classroom and everyday life,” Hughes says.

The UMD International Student Teaching (IST) program is distinctly different from a traditional study abroad experience in that participants don’t study at a university or reside in a residence hall. Instead, the students live in hostels and apartments and have teaching responsibilities. They’re immersed in the culture and have the rare chance to enjoy the daily life of a professional in an international setting.

Molly Hughes hiking in Slovenia with a lake and mountains in the background

According to Erin Pepelnjak, the program’s coordinator, it’s an invaluable lesson for students. It teaches them to step out of their comfort zones and to be open to new experiences. “It’s teaching—but so much more,” says Pepelnjak. “Students gain perspective and life skills that transfer and that they can carry into their careers.”

Hughes agrees, “Being able to experience the work environment in a different country has prepared me greatly for teaching students and working with people in general. I used to be overwhelmed by being in front of students, but now I have this newfound confidence that will guide me in my career.”

Cultivating International Connections

Instructor Erin Pepelnjak and Dean Jill Pinkney Pastrana near a river in Slovenia
IST Program Coordinator Erin Pepelnjak with Dean Jill Pinkney Pastrana at River Ljubljanica in Slovenia.

The IST program was founded in 2009. It had been on a hiatus since the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic and had lower participation in 2022. But Pepelnjak says the number of students interested in teaching abroad is growing again.

Pepelnjak and Jill Pinkney Pastrana, CEHSP Dean, joined Pepelnjak for a week-long trip to Slovenia and Croatia to connect with the college’s IST partners in November. “Communicating in person goes a long way in developing relationships,” says Pepelnjak. She also points out that more in-depth knowledge of the cities and schools will help her prepare students and be able to give them practical tips about traveling and adjusting to the culture.

During their trip, Pinkney Pastrana and Pepelnjak visited three education students who were teaching in Croatia. They also had discussions with administrators about how to best support the teacher placements as well as cooperating teachers. “We met and talked about the strengths of the program and the ways in which the partnership could be enhanced,” says Pepelnjak.

Students in the IST program gain exposure to many different cultures since they teach at international schools where kids from 20 different countries are represented. English is the shared language, but most are English-language learners.

"For so many of our students, this is a life-changing experience,” says Pepelnjak. “The experience and perspective gained are hard to recreate domestically.”

International Student Teaching Locations

Besides Ljubljana, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia, there are opportunities for student teaching in Puebla, Mexico and Seoul, South Korea. Scholarships are available to help defray costs. “We’ve worked hard to keep the experience affordable for students,” says Pepelnjak. 

More about the International Student Teaching program.

Feature image was taken in Bled, Slovenia by Molly Hughes.