We bid farewell to Professor Bernice J. Mitchell
Interviewed by Jon Aske
The Department of World Languages and Cultures would like to announce the retirement of Spanish professor Bernice J. Mitchell, who has been teaching in the department for the last 30 years. It is with great sadness that we see her go, but we are also very happy for her, for she will finally be able to enjoy retirement in Florida all year round with her beloved husband Al who, we are told, has been waiting for this moment for some time now.
We met virtually with Professor Mitchell, who is currently hibernating in Florida, and asked her a few questions.
Question: Bernice, thank you so much for chatting with us. A lot of people around here are going to miss you a lot and we wanted to say good bye by means of having this chat with you. Perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself. For instance, tell us where you’re from and how and when you became interested in languages.
Answer: Well, actually, I am a local person. I am from Swampscott, MA, though I have also lived in Concord, NH, and in Houston, TX. I guess I was destined to make languages a career since I was a child. At the time, my grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish when they did not want children to know what they were saying. Obviously, that is the best way to learn a language, to make yourself understand so you know what they are talking about! At age 7 I began to study Hebrew in Hebrew School, and I loved it. In 9th grade I began Latin, which I took for 4 years, and in 10th grade I took Spanish for three years. My love of languages and different cultures became a major part of my personality.
After completing my Bachelor’s Degree and studying in Mexico City for my junior year in college, I began to teach at the old Classical High School in Lynn, MA, by day, and at General Electric at night.
In addition, from 1976-1980 I had taught at Boston State College, which became UMASS, Boston. I also taught at Rice University in Texas for three years and in Boston University’s CELOP program.
So you have moved quite a bit. And how did you end up at Salem State?
I started to teach at Salem State, Sept., 1985, the day after Hurricane Gloria. I was hired by Dr. Finkenthal, chair of the Foreign Language Dept. and Dr. LeClair, chair of the Criminal Justice Program, since students enrolled in the Criminal Justice courses in those days were required to take one semester of Spanish, SPN 101. I taught the police officers of the Somerville Police Dept. Vice Squad in Somerville on Saturday mornings, since they were not allowed to come to campus as they were in uniform and carried guns. They got off duty at 7 AM and we began class at 8 AM. I immediately realized that the traditional SPN 101 book was neither applicable nor beneficial for the police officers. Therefore, I was allowed to order the training manual in Spanish for the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Dept) since these books were much more in tune to the needs of police.
After that semester, I was invited to teach each semester, late afternoons, evenings, in the summers and on Saturday mornings at Salem State for the next 30 years! The courses I have taught in the Foreign Language Department/World Languages and Cultures Department are SPN 101, 102, 201, 202, 201X-202X, 203, 250, 350, 351, 353, 416, 417 and 418. Since I taught part-time at Salem State, I taught full-time at Swampscott High School for more than 20 years.
It sounds like you really enjoy teaching. And having talked to many people who have taken classes with you I know that students love taking classes from you. You have been one of the most popular instructors in the department and you ahve instilled a love of Spanish language and culture in your students over the years. I remember how last summer you taught a new course, Spanish for Medical Personnel, and how much fun you seemed to be having, even dressing the part, wearing a white coat and carrying a stethoscope in class.
I truly love teaching all levels of Spanish; however, my passion is teaching Latin American Literature. I do love teaching advanced grammar, as well. My biggest challenge has come within the last four years when we began using the computer based program (ANDA for Spanish courses). I was/am not part of the computer generation, so for those of you familiar with “SAM”, he has been my nemesis, and I anticipate an amicable divorce from him after I teach SPN 201 this coming Summer Session I!
I think we would all love to hear about your impression of the changes the University has undergone in the last 30 years. After all, none of us in the department has been here that long. We’ve all been here for less than 20 years.
I can honestly say that the use of technology in the classroom is one of the greatest changes I
have experienced. Other very noticeable changes I have seen and love are the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity amongst the student body, as well as amongst the faculty. I truly love being on the second floor of Sullivan Building and hearing multi-languages being spoken in the halls. Also, I fully endorse the new name of our department, from Foreign Language Department to World Languages and Cultures Department. This is what we are all about. I have also seen the entire student body increase over the years. We changed from Salem State College to Salem State University, a new and prestigious distinction.
Another change is the amount of students who take late afternoon courses and night courses after having worked all day and having to deal with family matters as well. I am so impressed that they are so focused and determined to continue with their education. A new breed of students, recent veterans, have appeared in several of my classes, and I have felt very honored to teach them considering what they have done for me. I enjoy having heritage speakers of Spanish in my classes who want to hone their grammar and vocabulary skills along with becoming certified to teach Spanish one day.
Another change which is truly exciting is the opportunity to study abroad. This program exists in many departments and just reinforces and enhances all the classroom learning by making it come alive. The amount of languages we now offer far exceeds what was offered 30 years ago. We teach Spanish, French, Italian, German, Latin, Arabic and Mandarin.
When in graduate school, I was in the first class that offered a degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Studies with an ESL endorsement. In fact, our class worked under the professorship of Dr. Ernie Mazzone, and we were the group that drafted the TBE (Transitional Bilingual Education) Act. In 1971 Massachusetts became the first state in the country to pass this Act. It mandated bilingual education for students of Limited English proficiency (LEP s) in the public schools. Salem State University now offers programs and degrees in the teaching of ESL. In fact, we even teach ESL classes.
So what are your plans for the future? Are you going to travel the world, write a book? I imagine you would also like to spend more time with your wonderful grandchildren.
I have been working in education for a total of 45 years, and I have loved every minute of it. In all probability I might look for an adjunct position teaching Spanish and/or ESL in Florida. I hope to travel to Europe where my grandchildren live. I know I will take courses here in Florida, also. I am really looking forward to spending full time with my husband who has been very encouraging and supportive of my career. I think he will be thrilled to see “SAM” out of our lives!
Well, Bernice, you know you are going to be missed. I know speak for all in the department when I say that we are going to miss you. We will miss our long chats about so many things. We will even miss your wonderful color-coordinated outfits, with shoes and colorful glasses. But you know you will stay with us in our hearts.
Well, you can be sure that the feeling is mutual and that I will be missing Salem State very much as well. I honestly loved each one of my Department Chairs, their administrative assistants and all my colleagues. They are truly superb, and you will learn a lot from them. Without all the focused and motivated students I have taught at Salem State throughout the years, I might have left the field of education a long time ago.
Best of luck to you in all your endeavors! And stay in touch!
Professor Mitchell is currently in Florida but she will be in Salem in May to teach Summer courses one more time.