Global fluency

UND doctoral student, Fulbright researcher heading back to Africa for 2019 Critical Language Scholarship

Before coming to UND to pursue a Ph.D. in Educational Foundations & Research, Joel Runnels spent years advancing deaf education in Africa. He’ll travel to Tanzania this summer to enhance his fluency in Swahili. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Joel Runnels finds himself in a niche within a niche.

He calls his work “nichey.”

International efforts in Africa, as understood by everyday Americans, tackle issues like water, human rights, HIV/AIDS and malaria. They are all crucial areas of need, Runnels says.

Equal access to education, for the disabled, is something less visible to the media. Those who are deaf, blind or physically disabled can make up 20 percent of a population – such scale of inequity signifies a critical need, as well.

“These people are left on the sidelines,” Runnels, a doctoral student in Educational Foundations & Research, said. “As we know, life is not a spectator sport. You have to get into it and invited onto the playing field.”

This has led to Runnels’ presence in six African countries in recent years, on behalf of various organizations, examining education available to the deaf. His fluency in American Sign Language (ASL) and intermediate skills in Swahili landed him a 2019 Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) that will take him to Tanzania, in East Africa.

Running with it

Ending up in Africa was luck of the draw.

Runnels had just finished his bachelor’s degree in speech, language and hearing sciences when he applied to the Peace Corps.

“It’s kind of like the Army,” he said. “They send you where they want and you don’t have a say. It’s yes or no. It just so happened my fluency in ASL was the right fit for a deaf education program they were starting in Kenya.”

A couple of years in Kenya exposed him to the educational needs of African countries. Runnels also got a grasp on the Swahili language, the lingua franca of East Africa. It’s the third most-used language on the continent.

Runnels found that the level of need for deaf education provided endless roles to fill.

“If you have the skills and the heart for it, there isn’t a limit,” he said. “You start and you run with it.”

After his Peace Corps service, he earned a graduate degree in special education in the U.S. and expanded to other countries such as Uganda, Namibia, Botswana and Liberia through organizations like the United States Agency for International Development and a number of nonprofits running projects for the deaf. In Namibia, Runnels researched sign language with funding from the Embassy of Finland. Last year, he earned a Fulbright grant to collaborate research in Ghana.

Even with years of extensive work across the continent, Runnels hopes to come away from the CLS experience with an even greater cultural understanding of East African society. Here he poses with students at the Oscar Romero School for the Deaf in Tubmanburg, Liberia, where he served as the school’s general manager from 2016 to 2017. Image courtesy of Joel Runnels.

Crucial language

The CLS Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, will place him in a home-stay for around two months this summer. Given the amount of work he’s already done in Africa, his goals for the scholarship opportunity in Tanzania are multi-fold.

The primary directive of the scholarship is to expand the number of American students studying foreign languages critical to national security and economic prosperity, per the scholarship’s website. Runnels hopes to move his Swahili comprehension from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced.’

By moving in with a host family for the entirety of his stay, Runnels wants to return with significant cultural fluency – having more of an understanding and appreciation of how East Africans live, work, eat and interact. The intimate environment provides opportunities to learn cultural nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed in a two-month stay.

“Language is crucial as the world globalizes,” Runnels said. “It’s like money. If I have intermediary fluency in Swahili, and leave it there, it’s like leaving money on the table instead of trying to use it and do something with it.”

In the future, Runnels hopes to use his enhanced knowledge to work with Somali people in the upper Midwest. Around 40,000 Somalis live in the Twin Cities area, where Runnels grew up.

“A little-known fact is that Somalians often speak Swahili, because they came to the Twin Cities from refugee camps in Kenya and Tanzania,” Runnels said. “Oftentimes people were raised in such camps, so they’re more fluent in Swahili than anything else.

“To work with them, it’s helpful to have the linguistic and cultural grounding that CLS offers. You can’t learn that online.”


Now in Educational Foundations & Research, Runnels is writing a dissertation exploring the historical links between the U.S. and Africa through deaf education and sign language. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Historical links

The scholarship journey also plays a major role in the writing of his dissertation at UND. Runnels transferred this past fall to the University after realizing his program didn’t offer the flexibility that he finds in Educational Foundations & Research, in the College of Education & Human Development.

“The program allows me to bring in a lot of varying fields,” he said. “It was hard to find a place where I could place all of my background and experiences.”

Time spent in Tanzania will allow him to closer examine historical links between the U.S. and Africa through deaf education and sign language. Runnels says it’s lesser-known that the education and sign language system in much of Africa was imported by early American missionary educators.

“Often it’s nowhere in our academic literature,” Runnels said. “I want to tell that story. We laid some helpful roots in Africa to offer something to people who might otherwise have significantly less.”

North Dakota advantage

As one of the most selective scholarships in the country (about 10 percent of applicants receive scholarships each year), Runnels thinks his move to UND increased his CLS chances.

He characterizes the University as “out on the edge” geographically, because it’s as far from an ocean as possible. His hunch is the state department seeks to construct a regionally representative cohort, and his clear intentions and goals put him across the finish line.

“They’re looking for candidates who can write to their capacity to understand what rural life is like,” Fellowship Coordinator Yee Han Chu said. “In that way, being a North Dakota candidate is an advantage.”

Chu, from the Office of Academic Affairs, works with students to find scholarships or fellowships that match their ambitions. She worked with Runnels on his CLS application essay, though her typical focus is undergraduate students. Through Runnels’ experience with the Fulbright, and now CLS, they’ve been able to work together to bring these opportunities to students’ attention.

“Joel is a leader,” Chu said. “He has ideas for me. He has a vision and a capacity for service. How many people are going to have the temperament to learn a language that’s difficult in an accelerated language program? That’s gifted.”