Sibley Elementary principal Roselyn Charles-Maher never planned to apply for the prestigious Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools Program award.
But as she walked with a good friend through that friend’s cancer journey, the friend’s husband encouraged Charles-Maher to consider it, telling her she’d be a perfect fit for the program which sends school administrators on a 10-day intensive international exchange and professional learning program.
“So, I applied for it, and I started writing the application essays while I was helping my friend through chemo,” Charles-Maher said. “In between helping my friend and my work, that’s when I wrote. But never did I think that I was going to get it. Never.”
So, when she got the word that she had indeed won the award, her friends were one of her first calls.
“I think what I said was ‘You are not going to believe this,’” she recalled. “And we started crying.”
Now, Charles-Maher is getting ready to make a trip to Germany in early November, joining her fellow Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools Program award winners for 10 days in Berlin and Frankfort, learning and listening and looking for ideas to bring back to Grand Rapids for the benefit of Sibley and GRPS.
“I’m still flabbergasted,” she said. “But I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
Charles-Maher said she also hopes her own experiences as a teacher and an administrator might be of benefit to her fellow Fulbrighters and perhaps educators in Germany as well.
“I can share my own lived practices in education,” she said. “Perhaps I can offer wins and successes to other administrators, while being a recipient of best practices from administrators from across the world. The goal of these connections and conversations will be to return to my school and district with pioneering and engaging ideas that would spark change and access at Grand Rapids Public Schools.”
Her own educational journey as a student will also be a component of her Fulbright trip to Germany, she added. She became a citizen of the United States when she was 14 years of age after having experienced a life prior to that marked by constant moves and a fragmented passage through numerous school systems. Indeed, even after becoming a citizen, her four years of high school took place in four different states: California, New York, Texas and Kansas.
Though difficult at the time, she said she now draws on those sometimes traumatic experiences daily in her work as Sibley’s principal.
“Students in the community in which I work and live do not necessarily have equitable entries to success,” she said. “I know what that’s like—I understand it deeply—and I know it needs to be changed. I also know the cycle can end, and it can end with you. That’s what I tell my students too. It’s not easy but it is possible.”
Charles-Maher believes that her global perspective is part of who she is. Born in Venezuela, she also lived in Colombia, Bolivia and Trinidad as a young girl before coming to the U.S. And she thinks a global outlook is becoming more and more important for GRPS administrators.
“In order to bring about change to the education system at GRPS, leaders have to seek global perspectives and adventures outside themselves,” she said. “Leaders have to be humble and brave enough to look elsewhere for answers to an educational system that needs much change. I will have this opportunity through the Fulbright Program.”
Charles-Maher is a 1997 graduate of Grand Valley with a bachelor’s degree in English, and she earned a master’s degree from Aquinas in 2009. She has been with GRPS since graduating from GVSU, including as Sibley’s principal since 2016, two years prior to that as an assistant principal and almost 20 years as a teacher at Ottawa Hills, Central and Union high schools.