Brakebill Recipient Offers Inspiring Words
By Veronica Anover
Veronica Anover, professor of French and Spanish for the Department of Modern Language Studies, recently received the Harry E. Brakebill Award, which annually acknowledges a professor who demonstrates excellence in teaching, research, creative scholarship and service to the campus and the broader community. Anover offered the following remarks during the spring faculty assembly on Jan. 20:
I would like to start by thanking Dr. Ann Bersi, daughter of Mr. Harry Brakebill, for establishing this award named after her father that recognizes the accomplishments of faculty in teaching, research and service. It is truly an honor for me to enter the ranks of faculty who have been recognized for their accomplishments with this prestigious award. I would like to continue by thanking President Neufeldt for selecting me as this year’s recipient of the Brakebill Distinguished Professor Award. I am extremely humbled to be joining the list of awardees, my distinguished colleagues whom I admire much. I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to the person who believed in me and took the time to nominate me. When I read the nomination letter, it moved me deeply.
I am very grateful to the members of the Award Selection Committee for their thorough and careful review of my dossier and for recommending my name for this award. I realize that this award is competitive, and I am humbled to have been recommended among other nominees. I am indebted to my colleagues and community partners who supported my nomination with their compelling letters. Without their support, I would not be speaking here today. And, of course, last but not least, my dear students. I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart for the beautiful and touching letters that they wrote on my behalf as soon as they knew that I had been nominated for the Brakebill Award. When I read their beautiful words, I told all of them that I felt like I had already won the award.
Please allow me to dedicate this award to them, my students. And to my son, who is currently a college student, and who was once my student (in spite of him!), when he was at home, and we were doing endless hours of homework!
I would like to thank all of you whom I was hoping to see in person today. Your presence on the other side of the screen means a lot to me.
You see, teaching is my raison d’être. I would not know what else to do if it were not for teaching. At a very young age, I knew what I wanted to be already in preschool: a teacher! My identity was defined very early on by my passion for instructing others. Some kids want to be firefighters or lawyers; I wanted to be a teacher! I used the door of my bedroom as a white board to teach languages, first to my teddy bears and later on, when I could have play dates, to my neighbors and friends. [Yes, that meant that when you would come to my house for a play date, you knew that you would eat crêpes first – my mother always had crêpes ready for everyone - and then you would receive a crash course in French or Spanish, depending on the country where I was!] My teddy bears were aligned on my bed in rows, I would take attendance, I had previously prepared lesson plans, created mini language manuals and I would even send teddy bears to detention for disruptive behavior if need be! [I am happy to report that I have never had to do this in my entire career. My real students’ academic conduct is exemplary!]
I assigned homework to my play dates/students, grades and even prizes and awards. I put them to work in groups and called their names to participate. In retrospect, I am surprised that they were diligently listening to my “classes” and sitting in rows on the floor. Perhaps they did all of that because they knew that they were getting crêpes - with Nutella!
When I first started teaching my teddy bears, using chalk on my bedroom door, the powder of the chalk would pile up on the wood floor under my door. To my mother’s despair the wood floor on that section of the house where my bedroom was, was always covered in chalk powder. At the end, she decided to buy colored chalk when she saw that I was not going to give up my teaching addiction. She fed into it! My lessons became multicolored and it was like adding a multimedia component to them. What a discovery! I could color-code my lessons and highlight important information.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that my teachers in Europe inspired me. Most of them were distant, somewhat careless and, yes, at times, a little intimidating. They detracted me from showing interest on certain disciplines and they made me doubt my skills. No one had heard of the growing mindset back then or how teachers are supposed to help students believe in themselves. Nevertheless, my years of schooling made me even more convinced that I needed to pursue a career in academics so that I could be the teacher or the professor I did not have. I wanted to be the teacher I was back in my room, teaching languages to my neighbors on the back of my bedroom door. I was determined to make a difference in my students’ lives, and to never teach the way I was taught.
Florida State University gave me the opportunity to become a graduate teaching assistant while pursuing my doctorate. And that was a revelation! I studied formally how a second language is acquired and what are the best pedagogical practices. I was lucky enough to have wonderful mentors, TA coordinators and professors who gave me many opportunities to explore in order to succeed and to fail as well. That is when I realized that I wanted to have a career teaching in the U.S., where students were offered opportunities and resources to help them succeed and where I could be part of that success.
As I was finishing my Ph.D., I was offered a job as a lecturer at Oregon State University teaching French literature and coordinating the first-year Spanish program. I am very thankful to have had that job because I wore many teaching and administrative hats. I also went from teaching students from the Southeast of the United States to teaching students from the Northwest. Their needs were very different as well as their backgrounds. I learned to adjust and to reinvent myself as a teacher, one of many constant transformations that we as educators may do in order to better serve our students. We must not be stagnant as new generations are constantly changing.
In 1999, I found my dream job at CSUSM. The French program was emerging, and the university was growing strong. I immediately saw how I could professionally grow with our campus – a challenge and an opportunity. When I had my campus interview and I taught my first class, I immediately connected with the students and I knew that is where I wanted to be. I also realized the many ways I could collaborate with colleagues across disciplines and divisions.
What attracted me about CSUSM was the fact that I had room to grow professionally in many different areas. And that is still true today! Indeed, I am very grateful for all the opportunities I have been offered over the years to serve our campus and our local community.
As I just mentioned, what attracted me about CSUSM was the fact that I had room to grow professionally in many different areas. And that is still true today! Indeed, I am very grateful for all the opportunities I have been offered over the years to serve our campus and our local community. I have had wonderful mentors during my junior years with whom I collaborated, not only conducting research but who also encouraged me to seek leadership positions. I have tried to find opportunities that would always help me improve as a teacher and as a scholar. I remember fondly my time at the Faculty Center, first when I served as Faculty Fellow for Online Teaching and Learning and then as interim co-director. It was an honor to support my colleagues and a pleasure to meet new faculty, while learning new pedagogical approaches and teaching techniques, which I later applied in my classrooms; not to mention what a wonderful team the Faculty Center has to work with.
When I served as interim faculty director of Service Learning I was given the opportunity to promote among faculty one of my strongest beliefs – teaching through caring and learning through serving or doing. I also had the immense privilege to meet the most compassionate and generous community partners and faculty. I became a better teacher in this area, particularly assigning reflections with more critical thinking components and assessing them more accurately.
Going back to why I chose CSUSM to build my career was the fact that it was different from other campuses where I had taught before. Indeed, being a new campus at the time, I could develop an entire program from the ground up; in fact, I was hired to build a French minor since at the time the French program only offered three lower-division courses: French 101, 102 and 201. Last semester, French offered 11 sections and it will be offering 10 sections this semester (lower- and upper-division courses). Since there were only three French courses, those are the ones I taught at first (occasionally, I would teach Spanish, too) until I created new courses. Nevertheless, introductory courses are my favorite because when students come without any prior knowledge (or very little exposure) of the languages and the cultures I teach, if I am able to instill in them my passion for those languages and cultures, that gives me the greatest joy. Seeing my students empowered by speaking a foreign language and curious about another culture is a very powerful feeling that makes me so proud of them. As a result, (of me teaching introductory courses) my research took a turn from literature to second language acquisition, and that is how I started developing first-year textbooks and manuals.
Although I was fortunate enough to have received support from my parents to obtain my bachelor’s degree, neither one of them were able to graduate from a four-year institution. I know what it means to hold a degree and be the first one to do so. It is a big responsibility, and at the same time, it comes with lots of gratitude. Many of our students are not as fortunate as I was getting the support they need to achieve an education. It appeared clear to me from that first day during my campus interview that student success was at the center of the mission of the university – and it remains today – so that students could achieve their education. The campus did not provide as many resources as it offers today, but I was very impressed by the energy, the passion and dedication of the staff and the faculty to make this campus a place where students were seeing their dream of acquiring a degree come true.
Twenty plus years later, and after having served in many different roles in different departments and divisions, I am even more impressed to see what it takes for our students to have their dreams come true. It still takes a lot of passion and dedication and hard work! It takes many task forces, initiatives, standing committees, resources and support centers, lots of innovation, and care, just to name a few, to make our students’ dreams come true. Our students come to Cal State San Marcos to receive an education while at the same time many of them hold employment to pay for their degrees. Many of them also have families to support and obligations outside of the classroom. Many seek social mobility and a betterment of life. Unfortunately, many encounter challenges on the way, such as financial hardships, food insecurity, or home insecurity. Now, with the pandemic, our students have experienced health issues themselves (or their loved ones) and even losses. I have seen firsthand how everyone in this campus has reacted to these challenges and hardships and how much energy and dedication has been deployed to help our students get an education and receive their degrees. I am proud of my contributions along with all of yours to help our students graduate in spite of the adversity some of them face.
With our current situation – the pandemic and the limitations it has imposed upon us – I worry about our students not being engaged, and therefore they might feel that they do not belong to our campus community. One of the causes for students leaving college before graduation is social isolation, which in turn results in poor academic performance. That is why – and in spite of what we are living today – it is so important to engage our students in our research, in service learning, in internships, in extracurricular activities (such as academic clubs or honor societies) or encourage them to study abroad. By being included in these types of activities, students might feel more integrated and they might feel more connected. Their academic performances might improve, too. This is one of the ways that I use to connect with my students and to show them that I care about them. I always remind them not to limit their horizons and to keep them wide open to opportunities outside of the classroom. More than ever, it is crucial that we establish individual connections with our students and that we provide a more personable and customized support to them as I know that these are key to assuring their academic success. Showing our students that we care has proven to be most effective for their success. This has always been my priority, but now it is more important than ever before.
I would like to acknowledge the positive impact my students have had on me, as a faculty, and hopefully, the impact I have had on them.
Learning a foreign language is scary (or it can be!). There is a stigma about it. I know it firsthand, because I had to learn English, but also, when I was a teaching assistant and I was my students’ age, I would sit with them 15 minutes before class started, on the first day of the semester, and I would pretend that I was one of them. I would start conversations about being nervous and being worried about learning a language. Among the students who sat next to me, invariably half of them agreed with me. They were petrified about being in a foreign language class. It is not just because learning a language poses its challenges, it is the fear of mispronouncing a word and sounding or looking ridiculous in front of everyone. The fear of talking like a baby (particularly in beginner’s courses), the fear of not knowing how to express oneself, the fear of not understanding what is happening (what is said, what is asked of them to do), the fear of being out of their comfort zone. All of that can be very intimidating.
I realized early on the importance of creating a safe and comforting learning environment for students to feel like they were in a place where making mistakes was encouraged and where no one looked ridiculous for that. I tell my students that “we learn from making mistakes,” “that no one laughs at one another but with one another,” and “that we grow by pushing ourselves.” As faculty, I try to model what I preach. Therefore, when I make an error in English by mispronouncing a word, I am no longer self-conscious and we can all laugh together if I said something that sounded funny. When we all laugh together at an error, it is easier to move past it and to dare to make another one.
By allowing my students to make mistakes safely, I have allowed them to be vulnerable; in turn, since I try to model what I ask of my students in the classroom, I have exposed my own vulnerability as well. Being vulnerable not only makes us human, it transmits trust to our students because it shows authenticity by revealing a part of ourselves that we usually keep concealed. Not knowing an answer when a student asks a question brings a vulnerable side of us as professors: we either admit that we do not know the answer, or we disguise our lack of knowledge by deflecting the question, for example. I encourage my students to reveal their vulnerabilities in my classes. When they do not know an answer, or when they have to present in front of the class (in a foreign language), or when they admit to me that they have not done their homework, that makes them vulnerable. Students might feel exposed. However, they own the situation, and they may learn from it. I tend to be more understanding and flexible in these cases. I have learned from my students that when I do not know an answer, I just tell them that I do not know it and that I will research it for our next class session. When I try a new approach and I do not succeed, I no longer see it as a failure. A certain courage is needed when trying new approaches and in admitting that they did not work; that is the part where one can feel vulnerable. However, there is nothing better than rectifying in order to keep improving and learning.
Being resilient these days in particular is extremely necessary to endure challenges. Students have shown me many examples of what it means to be resilient. I learned what it meant to be resilient from one student in particular. It was the year 2003 and Ivy was coming to campus to take a final exam on a December day. However, Ivy never made it to campus and instead her car was found 150 feet down a cliff. My student was brought to the ICU in Escondido in critical condition. Ivy was 19 years old at the time. I learned from her that one must never give up; that attitude is everything; that we must believe in our hidden strengths. In spite of spending two years in the ICU and needing an oxygen tank at all time after that, Ivy went back to school and today she holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. I used to go see her at the hospital and not once did she complain. Not once did she feel sorry for herself. Not once did she doubt of her strengths. Because of her – and students like her who go through hardships in their lives – I have learned the true meaning of what resiliency entails.
Students have shown a tremendous amount of resiliency during the pandemic – and they continue to show it, as it is not over. Our students have become online learners due to the circumstances, and they are trying their best to continue to receive an education in spite of enduring traumatic experiences at times. We, as faculty, must adapt our teaching to the changing needs of our students to be effective teachers; we owe it to our students to give them the best education. As we reinvent ourselves as teachers, we become more resilient, too, and more understanding; it is also another way to stay connected with our students and to show them that we care as we evolve and adapt to meet them where they are.
When students struggle in the classroom, sometimes these challenges conceal something much bigger in their lives. We may not ignore when a student shows learning difficulties what issues lay behind them. Not everyone is resilient and certainly not all the time. We must deploy compassion and flexibility in order to develop the whole student – and not just cover what is on our syllabi. I have learned that it is important to teach with a holistic approach caring about our students as a whole, monitoring their learning process, while also checking their well-being.
My students have inspired my teaching and informed my research in second language acquisition with their pertinent and thoughtful questions. When they face difficulties understanding specific class material, when they have made recurring errors on an assignment or a test, or when they make suggestions in order to improve an existing activity, they have been the source of my ideas for my textbooks. My last textbook is a good proof of that. My students expressed their interest in French and francophone films, and I could see their motivation and engagement in our class discussions. I observed how I could explore the cultural and linguistic pragmatics in a more practical way thanks to movie-based instruction, and that is why I decided to develop an advanced textbook about French and francophone culture and language through film.
At times, I have been touched in a very profound way by my students. I will be remiss not to mention the sadness I felt after I lost one of my students back in 2013. Lucas really touched my life by his determination and his years of hard work and preparation to go study abroad. Due to an unfortunate accident, his life ended abruptly as well as his dreams. Thanks to an endowment, that I started on his name – and that was made possible by generous donations by many of you who are listening to me today, and the help of University Advancement – although Lucas could not study abroad, he is “sending” each year one of his peers to do what he could not through his endowment.
I would like to end by stressing how privileged I am for doing a job I am passionate about; a job I dreamed about since I was very young; a job where I have made lifelong connections and friendships with my now graduated students; a job where when I am in the classroom, I enjoy myself so much that afterward I think how could this be work?; a job where many of my colleagues are my closest friends; a job where I have the privilege to touch the lives of my students and where my students touch mine. As a professor, the way I try to touch my students’ lives is by believing in them, empowering them and supporting them to reach their best potential. As a faculty member, the way I try to serve my field, the campus and the community is by making contributions that are meaningful and connections that are longstanding.
I do not take this award lightly nor do I take it for granted. I will honor it and cherish it for years to come. I would like to thank all of you for being here today. I look forward to continuing working with all of you and teaching our wonderful students.
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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