Kathryn Dwyer-Navajas

I first met Kathy more than 10 years ago, when she was (as she still is) a first-year Spanish co-ordinator. At the time, she was also in charge of the second-year Listening and Speaking course. We had just installed an interactive computer lab and Kathy was ruthless in making sure that the TAs and students got the most out of their lab sessions: everything had to work! the lesson plan had to generate dialogue! She was excited about presenting Latin American cultures through video clips and songs, in those pre-YouTube days. She is still excited and exacting in her most recent new course, where Spanish majors have been, not watching, but making videos representing the cultures and experiences of various Gainesville residents.

In 2005, she won a college-wide Teaching Award. Not too surprising.

Kathy was born in the Bronx. Her mother was Cuban, and Kathy recalls the music and “Caribbean sun and happiness” of her grandmother’s little apartment. Although she heard Spanish spoken, no effort was made to teach Kathy’s generation any language except English. Kathy left college after a year and became a small engine mechanic; until her mid-20s, she saw no reason to look beyond the home circles of the Bronx and Yonkers.

At that point, though, Kathy was wondering “what else there is to do with your life” besides showing up for work. She had made some European friends; she took her savings and travelled first to visit one of them in England, then by bicycle through France (where she felt the isolation of not knowing the language), and on to other countries, including Spain. After a year abroad, she decided to settle in Gainesville, based on reports that it was a place where people “had free time, which no-one has in New York.” Her political and social activism led to contacts with Central America, and eventually to a three-month stint doing solidarity work in Nicaragua, for which she prepared by taking a course to brush up her high-school Spanish. While working on engines in Nicaragua, she began to consider going back to college to study Spanish.

Back in Gainesville, Kathy enrolled at UF. An “unconventional” student—in her thirties, strongly identifying herself as working-class—she found mentors among the Spanish and English literature faculty, and won scholarships. After graduation she went to Johns Hopkins to work on a doctorate in Spanish. Her Ph.D. research focused on contemporary Argentine poetry. While she was in Argentina, a friend from Gainesville made her an attractive proposal: that they form a household to raise a baby she had just adopted. Kathy agreed and returned to Gainesville to finish writing, working again as a mechanic. Eventually she began to doubt her vocation as a literary critic and after long consideration of how best to use her knowledge and talents, and abandoned her dissertation.

At Hopkins, Kathy had taught elementary Spanish. She was alarmed to find that TA training consisted of “handing you a textbook and saying ‘Good luck.’” She raised awareness of the importance of language teaching in the department, which eventually instituted a Methodologies course for all new language TAs. When, back in Gainesville, Professor Geraldine Nichols, one of her UF teachers and mentors, asked if she would be interested in teaching a Spanish class, Kathy seized the opportunity to return to the classroom Kathy seized the opportunity to return to the classroom, though she was still employed as a small engine mechanic. But from term to term she took on more courses and, when a lecturer position became available, she went to work full time at UF.

As a lecturer at UF, Kathy has served as mentor to the TAs, and for several years she ran a Teaching Support Group, at first for Spanish language teachers, but later open to teachers of any language at UF. She has also been involved in UF’s Study Abroad programs in Spain and Mexico and (a recent favorite) the Service Learning program in the Dominican Republic.

Since 2006, every year Kathy visits Cuba, “the forbidden country of my mother and grandmother,” as a representative of Gainesville’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. She has written a brief history of the church relationships.

Why teach Spanish language? The attraction is “the contact, the dialogue”: “I love to work with students shoulder-to-shoulder as they’re struggling and watch them triumph, or help them when they hit the tough parts, and say, ‘You can do it, because I did it.’” It is received wisdom that it’s harder to learn a new language as an adult, and Kathy is living proof it can be done. She finds a special satisfaction in teaching Spanish in Florida, where we have so much contact with Hispanic cultures, so many various needs and opportunities for “the joy, the surprises that you can experience when you’re learning language.”