Faculty Fulbright

Making a Difference a World Away While Close to Home
Tiece Ruffin, associate professor of education, and Agya Boakye-Boaten, associate professor of Africana Studies, with the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, Robert P. Jackson.

Tiece Ruffin, associate professor of education, knew she wanted to spend her life working in special education before she even finished high school. It was a journey that started early in her childhood, and has led her around the world to her 2017-18 residence in Ghana where she is fulfilling her Fulbright Scholarship.

Ruffin’s exposure to special education needs started early. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Ruffin grew up across from Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Her family and neighbors included individuals with varying intellectual disabilities. Then, at the age of 10, Ruffin was injured in a drive-by shooting. The experience left her without the ability to walk, a process she had to take time to re-learn.

The first in her family to go to college, Ruffin said her experiences as a survivor of gun violence and first-generation college student helped to shape the work she wanted to do in her life.

“I knew at the age of 17,” Ruffin said. “I knew I wanted to be a special ed teacher. I wanted to be teaching and working with kids that had differences in ability.”

After graduating from Ohio University, Ruffin taught in Ohio as a high school special education teacher for a year. She then moved to Honolulu, Hawaii where she worked as an inclusion special education teacher. During the summer, she taught at a youth correctional facility.

She also worked as a home hospital instructor during her time in Hawaii.

“I remember vividly working with one kid who had leukemia,” Ruffin said. “I would go to his home to work with him on his studies and I would also go to the children’s hospital and work with him, sometimes right after chemotherapy. It just gave me this perspective on what it means to be not only an educator, but really a special educator.”

Ruffin moved back to her hometown to work in the D.C. public school system as a special education administrator before relocating to North Carolina to first teach at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and finally arriving at UNC Asheville in 2010. She’s offered classes in teaching and learning in the 21st century, teaching students with instructional differentiation, introduction to special education, and teaching students with diverse needs in the general education classroom—a class offered to all teacher licensure students at UNC Asheville.

Struck by her visits to Ghana, starting in 2003, and that nation’s interest in providing for people with a variety of abilities, Ruffin began applying for a Fulbright Scholarship in 2016. She received the prestigious award in 2017.

“My process was thinking about the notion that I wanted to have an international exchange opportunity,” she said. “I wanted it to be in a place where I had been before and I was informed of what was actually going on on the ground.”

Ruffin with students from the Nature and Needs of Students with Intellectual Disabilities class, during an educational visit and experiential learning trip to Dzorwulu Special School in Ghana.While in Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar, Ruffin said she focuses on four main categories of work: teaching, mentoring, research, and community outreach. Ruffin teaches two courses a semester, one undergraduate and one master’s level, both focusing on special education. She’s also mentoring three female doctorate students, an initiative stemming from her host university, and she’s served as a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator in several school districts.

As a research scholar, Ruffin observes inclusive classrooms and interviews the teachers who work in them to gain an understanding of how new inclusive education policies are actually faring in the classroom. She’s also met and engaged with national and regional leaders in special education.

She also has been awarded an additional grant by the Fulbright Program, the Africa Regional Travel Program, which will allow her to travel to Malawi to engage with universities there on issues of inclusive education.

“I’d like to have a deep understanding and insight into how this implementation is faring for them, particularly for teachers in the classroom,” Ruffin said. “That’s what I do at UNC Asheville. I prepare our general ed teachers in a course for working in inclusive classrooms, and I also work with our special ed teachers in a course for working in inclusive classrooms.”

“When we’re talking about something and we have those ‘aha’ moments where we both learn from each other, those are the best,” said Tiece Ruffin. “When we learn from each other in class it’s so enriching to me.“

Ruffin says her Fulbright experience in Ghana has strengthened her global knowledge of special education, and enhanced her intercultural and global competence. And she’s drawing inspiration from workshops offered and individuals that she’s worked with in Ghana.

“The most rewarding has been in the classroom with the students, just sharing some readings from a variety of sources from different models from my own cultural context, and then also hearing their models or context of special ed. When we’re talking about something and we have those ‘aha’ moments where we both learn from each other, those are the best,” Ruffin said. “I wanted it to be mutually beneficial. When we learn from each other in class it’s so enriching to me.”