It’s no secret that learning a new language can be an intimidating and difficult undertaking, but I have yet to meet someone as fit for the job as Dr. Seales, one of Cal Lutheran’s wonderful Spanish professors. Growing up in Panama with her younger siblings allowed her to gain familiarity speaking Spanish, and after coming to the United States at only around 18 years old to pursue her college education, she learned that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to being a Spanish teacher in this country. She persisted through numerous obstacles that a new life in the United States placed before her, determined to discover her identity in a tumultuous societal climate. She attended San Diego State University to earn her master’s degree in Latin American Literature, her second master’s in Spanish Literature at the University of Buffalo, and her PhD in Latin American Literature. When it comes to breaking stereotypes, making a difference, and spreading positivity, Dr. Seales is a woman in charge.
Photo courtesy of Panama City of Pixabay
Her Campus at Cal Lutheran: What was it like growing up in a different country and how was it different compared to the United States?
Dr. Laverne Seales: For me, in general, I would say race. In Panama, we don’t really have conversations around race- its more about nationality and were all Panamanians. In the United States, its more about race than about being an American. That was the biggest shock for me. When I came to this country, suddenly, I was a minority. I never had to think about those things growing up. Because I’m a black woman, that was extra difficult; I couldn’t be put in any single category, having an accent and being from a Spanish-speaking country. That was the biggest obstacle– having to understand who I was in this country. I had to educate myself on the history and realities of the United States and figure out how I fit into it.
HCCLU: Was adjusting to this aspect of the United States an obstacle you felt like you had to work to overcome?
LS: Absolutely. I remember the first class I taught at SDSU. I was very naïve and I remember walking in to a huge class of about 45 students, putting the book down and all of a sudden, 7 or 8 of them said “there’s no way you’re the Spanish teacher” and they walked out. At the time, that really hurt me and I didn’t understand it. But soon I realized what that situation meant to me… I knew that I had to get the highest possible degree in this country if I wanted to continue to teach so that nobody could ever question my intellect because unfortunately, I didn’t fit the “typical Spanish teacher” mold. I had to be very educated to do that. That is partially what started my interest in race and ethnic studies. Ultimately, what is important is to be able to educate others about who I am and decide for myself where I fit.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash
HCCLU: What is your favorite thing about teaching Spanish?
LS: I think my favorite thing and the most important thing to me – besides the grammar, the vocab, and all of those basic thing students are expected to learn – is the opportunity to have students look at my part of the world through a different lens. I remember one of my students in an advanced Spanish class read a poem that criticized the United States, and he got very upset because he didn’t want to hear the side that viewed his home country with a negative lens, he didn’t want to address the negative. I remember saying to him “You can disagree with me, but if you do, you have to bring evidence”. After I said this, his evidence was on point, he was bringing all this additional information to help his argument. Fast-forward to after he graduated… years later, he came back to work for his masters degree, and he told me that he ended up choosing Latin America as one of his areas of specialty – just because of that one conversation! When I told him to come back with evidence, he spent so much time researching the politics and history behind everything he assumed he already knew. This made me so excited because it had an impact beyond the classroom. That’s what I hope I can do. Even when students are uncomfortable or insecure about their Spanish, it is so important to know what its like trying to communicate with someone in a different language – even if it isn’t perfect! I love that part of teaching.
HCCLU: What do you hope your students will take away from your class?
LS: When students leave my class, I want them to leave it with a better understanding of the world in general – I hope they can also look at themselves and others with a new level of understanding and compassion. I believe that this is something that they can take for the rest of their lives, not just to use in Spanish class. That’s kind of my hidden agenda- that students question some of what they think that they know and learn through that exploration.
HCCLU: Is there a quote or saying you like to live by?
LS: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I’ve had so many positive experiences with people choosing to be kind to me. Even though you can’t always give back directly to that person, you can do it for others. For example, when my father passed away, I didn’t know what to do. I went to a teacher, and she told me about all the potential she saw in me and recommended graduate school – that changed my life. Now, I try to do the same thing for my students – I always share information with my students because you never know… one little piece of information can lead a person to discovering their future. That teacher was kind to me, and so my mission is to be kind to all my students, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. They deserve to know about all the possibilities that the world and this university has in store for them. What you put out is what you get back, and if your message is positive, you can’t go wrong.