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Rosa Sanchez, teaching students inside the caldwell university classroom.

Reading, Writing and Diversity

Professor Rosa Sanchez is standing in front of a cross with a group of students. That isn’t unusual, considering she teaches at a Catholic university. But this cross is not located on the university campus, and she and the students are nowhere near Caldwell. On this June day, they find themselves in the shadow of a 500-foot granite cross, embedded in the rocky mountains of Spain. They are there for a study-abroad program, and they are far from your average tourists.

When Sanchez arrived at Caldwell University, she was confident of several things. First, she believed studying abroad was a powerful experience for students. Second, she knew literature had the power to transform lives for the better. And she was confident that her role as assistant professor of Spanish language, literature and culture would allow her to show that diversity is a wonderful thing.

Sanchez was 10 years old when her family moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic. After high school, she attended Barnard College and majored in Latin American studies with the intention of becoming a successful businesswoman. But after pursuing the nine-to-five life through jobs in marketing and public relations, she realized she was on the wrong track. And this became clear at a book club, of all places. Sanchez had started a reading group with friends from college who were also living in New York City after graduation. The more time she spent with the book club, the more she realized she wanted to spend her life working in literature and culture. So she applied to graduate school and attended the University of Virginia to earn a master’s and a Ph.D. in literature.

Sanchez was working as an adjunct professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn when she first heard about the study-abroad program she would eventually bring to Caldwell. An alumnus of the college was advertising a course of study that allowed students to travel to Segovia, Spain. The program turned out to be an amazing opportunity, and when Sanchez arrived at Caldwell University, she knew she wanted to introduce the program to her students. She traveled with her first group of students to Segovia in the summer of 2017.

Students stay with a host family for a month while they take two classes that revolve around the sites they will visit in Spain. They also have ample time to interact with locals, visiting cafés and parks during their leisure time.

“It’s been great,” said Sanchez. “I love seeing the students, the impact going to a foreign country has on them. A month is a nice chunk of time. You are more able to have the culture sink in.”

New experiences give students a fresh perspective. Instances of culture shock may be as simple as the way people in Spain are careful to conserve water and electricity or as profound as realizing the stereotypes that exist about Americans in other countries. After enjoying the warmth of their host families, the slower pace of the culture and the rich traditions of the country, students often return with a passion for travel and for Spain specifically.

“They are more comfortable stepping out of their shells and just getting to know places,” Sanchez said.

During classes, students get a preview of the sites they will visit during their month abroad. Among these places is the Valley of the Fallen, where they encounter the 500-foot cross. The monument is stunning, but it is also tragic, having been built by a controversial leader using forced labor. Visits to such places allow students to consider buildings and monuments in light of history. Conversations about a monument in Spain have sparked thoughts about historical sites in our country and how students interact with them. This and the experience of living abroad prove to be very powerful for students.

Sanchez has played a large role in other immersive experiences at Caldwell.

In a previous teaching position, she attended a weeklong workshop at Saint John’s University. While there, she had the opportunity to see The Saint John’s Bible. This handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible was carefully produced, beginning in the late 1990s, to reflect a diversity of cultures and the faith of modern believers.

“I was just blown away,” Sanchez said. “It was so stunning to see it in person and to hear about the work it took and all the thought and research that went into it.”

When she heard Caldwell University would have the opportunity to host a portion of that Bible, Sanchez was overjoyed. She remembered her encounter with The Saint John’s Bible years earlier and quickly volunteered to train the docents who would share the Bible with visitors. Three students agreed to take part in the program for the semester, and Sanchez contributed her enthusiasm to the project. During weekly or biweekly meetings, she encouraged the students not only to share facts about the Bible but to invite those who saw it to reflect on the impact the work had on them. Sanchez will continue to train docents this fall while the Bible is on display at Caldwell.

“That has been beautiful, just to be part of that,” she said. “The Saint John’s Bible is so stunning.”

The personal application of The Saint John’s Bible is easy to see. The artists worked hard to incorporate cultural diversity, science and women in the illuminations paired with the text. And that same desire for diversity drives Sanchez every day as she teaches at Caldwell University. “That is at the core of my discipline,” Sanchez said.

Through her classes in the Spanish language, literature and culture program, Sanchez encourages students to listen to music and podcasts from different countries as they read Spanish texts. Students also have the opportunity to attend a play in Spanish in New York City. All of these mediums expose them to a variety of cultures, views and accents.

Sanchez shares her passion for Spanish culture and literature in a number of other ways. She serves as an advisor to the Spanish Club and to the honor society. She was also chosen to participate in the Ancient Greece in the Modern Classroom seminar on “The Ancient Greek Hero” at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies campus in Washington, D.C. this past July.

She organizes a Spanish conversation hour for students every other week at Rock ‘n’ Joe in Caldwell, where students are treated to coffee as long as they commit to speaking Spanish for the entire hour. Thanks to Sanchez’s hard work and passion, whether students choose to study abroad or stay close to home, they have opportunities to think deeply about diversity and culture and about their place in it.

“I see myself at the center of the effort to teach about other cultures, to see students appreciate other cultures,” she said. “And my hope is that they develop a curiosity for other cultures. I tell them that whatever they learn about in my class is only a snippet of what is really out there.”

—Nicole M. Burrell ’09

Two of Professor Rosa Sanchez’s Favorite Books

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel García Márquez

“I read it as an undergraduate on my own. After reading that book, it was the first time I ever felt that I really was going to miss the characters, so that book has a special part in my heart. It was such a long book, and it was really, then, the first time I felt alone afterwards because I had been in the company of those characters for so long.”

Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes

“‘Don Quixote’ was impossible to read the first time I picked it up. But then it became one of my favorite books once I got acquainted with the style of the Golden Age, because it was published in the 1600s. That book also has a special place in my heart because I had a long-distance relationship while I was in Virginia for my Ph.D. To have something to talk about with my then-boyfriend, I would tell him what happened in whatever I was reading at the time. And I started doing that with ‘Don Quixote.’ I would bring it up with him to the point where in one of the weekends where I was in the city, he took me to see a play based on ‘Don Quixote,’ and that’s where he proposed. And here we are several years later, married, and with a precious three-year-old daughter who is already acquainted with a kiddie version of the Spanish classic!