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Hispanic Studies graduate students one of the best teaching assistants at UH

Cecilia Marrugo Puello

Doctoral student Cecilia Marrugo Puello was honored in April with a 2010-2011 University of Houston Teaching Excellence Award for her work as a teaching assistant.

The university-wide commendation recognizes Marrugo Puello’s efforts as a Spanish instructor in the Department of Hispanic Studies, where she is enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate. Her success in the classroom led to her being the first teaching assistant appointed to teach a class in the department’s “Spanish for Honors” track.

“When new TAs or lecturers arrive to our program, Cecilia is one of the instructors whom we praise as a great example and mentor in regard to teaching Spanish as a Second Language,” said Dr. Anadeli Bencomo, chair of the Hispanic Studies Department.

The graduate student, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and French written translation from the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia, discussed her research and teaching philosophy in a recent conversation:

Q: What led you to come to the United States to pursue graduate degrees in Latin American and Hispanic Studies?

A: I grew up in Barranquilla, a town and main port in the Colombian Caribbean region which has been a home to many immigrants – from Europeans to Africans and Middle Eastern peoples. This contrast created in me an awareness of other cultures different from my own. I wanted to learn other languages and be able to interpret them. I dreamed of traveling to other countries and learning from their cultures. So, after graduating and working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor for a decade, I decided to pursue my dream.

In my hometown, I met an alumnus of the University of Arkansas who talked to me about the Masters in Spanish Literature, and I decided to apply and was accepted. I get the best of both worlds: being immersed in and learning both about Hispanic literature and American culture. Right after finishing my M.A. in 2007, I moved to Houston (a very international city) to do my Ph.D. in Spanish at UH. If I had studied in Colombia, I would have certainly learned about Spanish Literature, but would have missed learning about other cultures and meeting wonderful people from all over the world. I love my country, but I have truly enjoyed and grown from this experience in the U.S. by becoming part of an international community.

Q: What is the difference between Latin American Studies and Hispanic Studies?

A: Latin American Studies are engaged in the study of Latin America, including Brazil and the Caribbean, from all disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, literature, etc. They do not focus on Spain. Hispanic Studies on the other hand comprise the study of all disciplines in Hispanic countries where Spanish is spoken as the main language, for example South American and Central American countries, including Spain. They also include the study of U.S. Latino literature and culture, which is related to Hispanics in the United States.

Q: What is the focus of your dissertation?

A: In my dissertation Croniqueñas (1950- 2009): La crónica caribeña del Caribe colombiano directed by Dr. Anadeli Bencomo, I focus on Colombian journalistic chronicles from the Caribbean coastal region. The corpus I analyze includes mid-20th century literary columns published in newspapers as well as 21st century chronicles written by renowned journalists and authors from the Atlantic coast, such as Gabriel García Márquez.

Q: What are your goals for your Spanish-as-a-second-language students?

A: At the most basic level, I want my students to gain a proper communicative competence in Spanish. But in order to reach this goal, there needs to be another component at a higher level: a good knowledge and understanding of my student’s backgrounds and interests. This is why from the very first day of class, I get engaged into getting to know them, showing that I respect and value them for what they are and for what they have to contribute to class. I treat them as individuals whose opinions or ideas are valued and appreciated. To me, this is really more important than just explaining grammar or new vocab. If they get to feel comfortable and confident to participate and be open in class, then they will feel more encouraged to study the language and grammar rules. So, my goals for students go in hand with my teaching philosophy inspired in Bertrand Russell’s words: “No man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection towards his pupils, and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value.”

Q: Do those goals differ for your Honors College students and, if so, how?

A: These goals do not differ for my Honors College classes but, on top of them, I make a greater emphasis on culture. One of the most important goals in this class is for my students to get a broader understanding of Hispanic culture. For them to understand that we can’t really talk about ONE single Hispanic community, but that it is composed by a great variety of countries, peoples, backgrounds, costumes, races, geographies, and even Spanish dialects. Research is one of the tools to achieve this goal, since they have to develop a semester long research project about a topic of their choice in relation to Hispanic culture. I used the best ones as examples of good research at different events. In my classes, I have also invited guest speakers from different countries (Spain, Perú, Argentina, México and Venezuela) for students to hear different dialects and interact in Spanish with native speakers.

Q: What is the best thing students trying to master a second language should do?

A: In short, be interested and dedicated students! I think the instructor plays an important part to trigger interest in students, but dedication comes from their discipline and understanding that to learn a language you need TIME: time to study and review materials after class, to do further consultation, to come to office hours to ask specific questions. If a student lacks one of these aspects, she or he can’t expect to get the best results. But if they do, they can expect to gain an expertise of the language, and become fluent bilingual speakers in the long run.