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Fulbright Fellow Shares "Down Under"Perspective

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by Susan Hereford

Dennis Tonkin arrived in Portland Dec. 30,from across the world. The seasons had flip-flopped while in flight — summer became winter for the Melbourne, Australian preparing for his "great adventure" in America’s Pacific Northwest.

Tonkin, Fulbright fellowship winner and deputy head of school at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, was coming to teach at Portland Community College. The Australian traded places with PCC Computer Information Systems instructor Barb Van Amerongen, who has been a Fulbright fellow at Swinburne this past year. As fellowship recipients of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program, they are among the some 200 exchanges of teachers and administrators from 35 different countries that are awarded each year. The exchange is operated primarily at the college level.

Tonkin says he’s been on a pedagogic and geographic learning curve since he arrived in Oregon. Plus he’s brought a distinctly Australian perspective to students and staff at PCC. He expresses much support for the way we do things. On teaching: "I quite like the system here because staff can feel more empowered and have more ownership of their classes. At home, delivery is very structured and the assessment is set."

Much of the structure at home, he says, was put in place to comply with outcome-based controls enacted several years ago by the state of Victoria, where he teaches.

But Tonkin also acknowledges that the individual freedoms Americans so strongly prize are reflected in the way teaching and learning are approached in this country. "Here staff are given guidelines and areas to cover, but the way in which that is done is up to the teacher. In Australia, teaching is more structured and controlled. The word you hear a lot of is ‘quality controls.’"

Tonkin expresses support of Oregon’s commitment to a broad, liberal arts program, built into the state’s community college two-year technology degrees. "I think you have a wonderful system. I really admire the more liberal approach. It is more rounded instead of purely vocational. It allows opportunities to maneuver into different vocations.

"I went to a meeting where Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke and he stated that the state supports a liberal (arts) program because people will be changing careers many times. They will need that liberal approach to cope with changes."

Tonkin said budgetary reasons at home, which he refers to as "economic rationalizations," has given the college where he works a more streamlined, compact approach to training.

And in the technology programs at Swinburne — are there close relations with industry, as there are here?

"Very similar. At home, we also have industry advisory committees and industry is very involved with the set up and the delivery (of training programs)."

Part of Tonkin’s learning curve involved teaching on-line for the first time. The Computer Information Systems department uses a team teaching approach to several of the computer-delivered courses which Tonkin says made the transition easier. At Swinburne, Tonkin said distance learning has been confined to correspondence courses through the mail. However, for the first time this fall Swinburne and PCC students will be able to take an on-line CIS course team taught by faculty from both the Oregon and Australian schools.

Although he admires the American technology and the teaching freedoms, there is one aspect of society that does not compare so favorably: gun use. "I get the feeling that there’s a lot of guns in the community. I’m concerned about the use of weapons in minor disputes. I suspect that in the future you’ll have to do something about it."

In Australia, a violent private dispute in the state of Tasmania that resulted in a mass slaughter forced the issue for his country. The government recently garnered enough support to ban all hand guns and semi-automatic weapons. Tonkin is quick to add that despite his social concerns about guns in America, he and his family feel very safe in Portland and that Portland people are "quite friendly. Strangers will smile at you."

On women’s rights, Tonkin says that in spite of progress in the past decade, women in Australia do not have the career advancement opportunities they have in the U.S. "The news at night is symbolic," he explains. "Back at home, it’s always a male news reader. You won’t see a female" anchor or news reporter.

The other learning curve Tonkin has taken is recreational. He has probably investigated more of the Northwest than the natives. His travels have taken him and his wife and son down the Oregon coast from Astoria to the border, to Crater Lake, Bend, the Columbia River Gorge, which he says fills him with awe. They’ve also visited Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., the San Juan Islands, San Francisco, Seattle, taken ski tours of Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor that were highlights, and white-water rafted on the Deschutes out of tiny Maupin, Oregon.

"The geographical differences are amazing," he says. An outdoor enthusiast, Tonkin is passionate about the environment and its natural wonders, but also expresses grave concerns about the worldwide abuse of our planet’s natural resources.

Dennis Tonkin will be here through fall term. "It has been fantastic, so far. All my colleagues have been very supportive, given me their assistance."

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