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Ethnographers do not always have a choice in when and how research ends. Their complex identities are intricately tied to the places and people with whom they work, making it difficult to conclude a project and start anew.

“Katie! I finally got a job teaching English!” I read the WhatsApp message on my phone from “Reyna,” a Nicaraguan English teacher who was part of my engaged ethnographic case study on Global English discourse and language-teacher education in Nicaragua’s rural north. WhatsApp has been the main mode of communication for us and my other Nicaraguan colleagues since I began volunteering there as an English-language specialist in 2009. 

“Reyna, that’s wonderful! I am absolutely thrilled for you!” I replied, and she filled me in on her new position teaching English for a small private university in town. This opportunity was a long time coming for this resilient educator, who faced setbacks to her professional aspirations during and after my research. While I felt immense happiness and pride for Reyna, I also felt a tinge of sadness that I could only celebrate with her from afar, through a phone app. Recent geopolitical issues in Nicaragua, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, had made it impossible for me to continue my study and my mentorship with Reyna face-to-face.   

When a long-term project concludes due to circumstances outside of an ethnographer’s control, there is a tremendous sense of loss of a life to which one’s identity is so intimately tied. Not being able to continue an ethnographic project to one’s intended outcome is not often a topic discussed in texts on case study and ethnography. It is a reality that occurs more often than one may think, and advice on how to navigate those changes is needed. A current project of mine is to collect the voices of ethnographers who have had project-changing challenges in their fieldwork and who are interested in sharing their stories in a methodological text for ethnographers starting out in the field. Reflecting on the experiences of my contributors as well as on my own, I encourage ethnographers in the field to consider this advice for transitioning to a new project with grace and gratitude: do not panic, engage, and find parallels in your past and current projects in order to understand and appreciate a larger interconnected landscape. 

While English has become one of the most coveted skills for those who want to compete socioeconomically on a global scale, research demonstrates that learning English in itself, disconnected from career training that actually employs English, rarely helps learners socioeconomically. Despite this, English-language policies continue to proliferate, and teachers must teach a subject in which they often are not proficient. Ultimately, this can leave teachers in global areas of severe hardship feeling disempowered. I worked alongside teachers within an engaged ethnographic case study to reflect on their circumstances and take ownership of their pedagogy through observations of their teaching and teacher-training workshops, which included co-designing a curriculum. My methodology embraced the Freirean notion of conscientização, the ability to perceive unjust power structures and engage in praxis—reflection-action—in order to change them. My goal was to learn if an engaged pedagogy supported critical changes to teachers’ emerging teacher praxis.   

In particular, I have written about Reyna and my growing mentorship with her over many years. I continued to advise her from the United States after my fieldwork unexpectedly ended, the focus of the next section. Social hierarchies at the intersections of class, gender, and age kept Reyna from initially reaching her goal of teaching English. She persevered through many setbacks and finally achieved her goal six years after my fieldwork ended. While her male counterparts found paid teaching positions after completing their English degrees, Reyna was always asked to volunteer to teach English after completing hers, with the promise that it would build her resume to obtain a paid position, until she was eventually hired to teach English at a small private university in her town. I advised her through this difficult period from afar in the United States due to unforeseen challenges occurring in Nicaragua and globally.  

Credit: Katherine A. Masters
Reyna and Katie work with computer literacy at a small university in northern Nicaragua

Unexpected Change  

Unbeknownst to me at the time, after eight years of partnership, my fieldwork with Reyna and her cohort would be the last time I would travel to Nicaragua. It culminated at the end of 2017, just months before nationwide protests began on reforms to social security, among other issues. I had intended my work to continue, with the goal of building an engagement-based teaching-abroad program with my affiliated university and the Nicaraguan schools with which I developed relationships. However, by April 2018, Nicaraguans’ frustrations with an increasingly dictatorial government led to demonstrations that endured for five days before they were brutally suppressed by President Daniel Ortega’s police and military. Roughly 300 people were killed, many disappeared, and many opposition voices to Ortega’s presidency have fled the country. Over the last five years, President Ortega has continued to suppress citizens and the media and remove international aid programs and organizations, including the Peace Corps and an NGO with which I had volunteered many times. The US Department of State now has a Level 3 Travel Advisory imposed on Nicaragua: reconsider travel. Adding to the Nicaraguan government’s suppression, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of all travel sealed my end in Nicaragua indefinitely.  

When it became clear I would not be returning to Nicaragua, I initially fell into a period of mourning. With time, I came to realize that while I no longer had a physical presence in Nicaragua, I could still connect with the people I had worked with and learn together virtually. The pandemic actually made it easier to be inclusive of scholars who typically are left behind in academia. For example, as conferences moved to an online format, a Nicaraguan colleague and I were able to co-present a paper on decolonizing critical thinking in English teaching at the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in 2021. He would never have been able to afford the membership fee, registration fee, flight, hotel accommodations, and meals that such conferences require when in-person. I covered his membership and registration fee, and he was able to participate in an academic genre he had always hoped to be a part of, as well as update his curriculum vitae with a presentation that helped him demonstrate his expertise. 

To overcome disappointment, I became involved in my community. While still working remotely with Nicaraguan teachers like I did with my colleague at AAAL, I turned my gaze to my location in California, which, like Nicaragua, was also experiencing profoundly shocking political changes. Immigration polices under the Trump administration included a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries and a “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal immigration to the United States, which allowed for the separation of children from families at the US-Mexico border. I knew I needed to begin learning about this crisis and seeing how my expertise and experience could be put to work. I learned about local organizations that support migrants, and I became a volunteer tutor for high school immigrants and refugees in Oakland, California, through a nonprofit organization that supports refugee and immigrant youth. I began in-person after-school tutoring in 2019, supporting teenagers from Central America with their math, science, and English homework. Due to the pandemic, tutoring moved online in March 2020, which provided further layers of inequitable conditions in student learning, like unstable internet access, struggles with digital literacy, and no quiet space to learn (many students lived in small spaces with extended family).  

One of my tutees, “Keyla,” sometimes had to bring her toddler sister to our Zoom sessions because her mother worked. I stayed on our sessions longer than the allotted time in order to support her and her school needs. In time, Keyla felt comfortable enough with me to seek help outside the traditional tutoring role of the program. For example, she approached me for help about how to pay her family’s bills online because they did not feel comfortable with the language and technology barriers. Our tutoring relationship continued to strengthen, and after she graduated high school and moved out of the program, she asked if I could still support her in college. Then in community college, still online due to the pandemic, she struggled to access campus tutoring, email her professors for support, find and pay for her books, and plan her thinking and writing processes. I remained a steady resource for her and helped her problem-solve through the extra layers of difficulty in college.  

The longer I worked with Keyla, the more parallels of circumstance, resources, and learning I saw between her and my Nicaraguan colleague Reyna. The year-long tutoring endeavor in Oakland pushed me to better understand issues at home related to youth refugee and immigrant struggles and empowered me to begin a new avenue of engagement to improve conditions for all who call California home. Currently, I am researching English-language learners’ development of multiliteracies through a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework, which is a way to design instruction and interventions with research-based, culturally and linguistically relevant instruction for all learners. While MTSS in the California Department of Education has been implemented to understand how to ensure equitable access and opportunity for all students to achieve the Common Core state standards, clearly Keyla and thousands of English-language learners like her across the state were in need of more equitable support.  

Credit: Katherine A. Masters
Katie co-teaches English for secondary school students with another English teacher who was a part of her case study.

Pushing a Growth Mindset 

While I experienced a profound sense of loss in my identity as an ethnographer of education in Nicaragua when my project came to an untimely conclusion, the practices involved in my transition to a new setting and focus were helpful for me professionally as an early-career academic, as well as personally. Identity is socially constructed. We are a part of many discourse communities in our past and present and already in our imagined futures. We are not defined by just one passion or one project, but we have layers of interests that we have wanted to explore. When we conclude one project, we are merely taking from our experiences gained there and applying the relevant parts of them to new areas, never fully ending that project but pursuing the larger goal—equity, justice, and inclusion—from a different angle. Professionally, this transition has allowed me to feel more comfortable with unexpected changes that occur in large and intense research projects. Personally, it has grounded me with a sense that I do not have to travel thousands of miles to engage with the language concerns that challenge me. As a sixth-generation Californian currently raising a seventh generation, I look to participate in making change in language-education policy here. While I do believe that my presence in Nicaragua was one that affected change in the lives of the teachers with whom I worked, and they affected change in me, I will take that amazing era of my life with gratitude and with resilience to continue to push for change. 

The goal of sharing my transition from Nicaragua to California is to inspire ethnographers who may also have found their projects caught in unforeseen circumstances, pandemic or otherwise, not to resign to forces outside of their control. The power of ethnography lies in the resilience of relationships, old and new, in hopeful paths forward. There is always a path forward. I look forward to my new path, and while I will always mourn the untimely end to my partnerships in Nicaragua, I am excited to be an agent of change in a new capacity that embraces my home state. 

Tricia Niesz is the section contributing editor for the Council on Anthropology and Education.


Katherine A. Masters

Katherine A. Masters is a lecturer in the Department of English at Cal Poly Humboldt. She researches Global English discourse; volunteer English teaching abroad; teacher identity development; mentor-mentee dynamics and success; and ethics in critical and decolonial methodology. She is a 2022 Concha Delgado Gaitán Presidential Fellow, Council on Anthropology and Education.

Cite as

Masters, Katherine. 2024. “Transitioning with Grace and Gratitude  .” Anthropology News website, February 6, 2024.