Mendocino College Faculty in Focus: Susan Janssen
Professor Susan Janssen, began her academic career teaching Spanish classes part-time at U.C. Davis and Sacramento City College during the 1980's, when budgets were tight and teaching positions were rare. She also worked in the restaurant business as a waitress and a manager during this time, "to support my teaching habit," she says.
Born in Los Angeles, Janssen grew up in Bakersfield, California, where she had her first college experience as a student at Bakersfield Community College. She went on to study at U.C. Davis, where she received her B.A. in Spanish and her M.A. in Spanish literature. Although she was a Spanish major, who landed a prestigious Spanish department award that paid for her graduate education, Janssen notes that due to the teaching methods of the time, she could read and write Spanish, but she could not speak it until she was in graduate school. “All of the other students were native speakers,” she says, and she was at the bottom of the academic heap for the first time in her life. “I only got through it because my professors and fellow students took me under their wings,” she admits. After grad school, she stayed on at U.C. Davis as a part-time instructor, while also working 2 or 3 other jobs at a time, until she was hired at Mendocino College.
"In the Spring of 1988," Janssen explains, "there was only one teaching position in Spanish in the state of California, and that was at Mendocino College." At her interview, she remembers being impressed by the friendly staff. When she was hired, she felt extremely lucky, but she had no idea about the community or what she was getting into by moving to a small town. A “city girl,” she recalls driving into downtown Ukiah for the first time and being surprised by the lack of large retail stores. "But Ukiah turned out to be such a wonderful place to live," she says. "I have loved it here!"
Janssen's passion is turning people on to what happens to their life when they know another language - even a little bit! A current student of Italian herself, Janssen is well aware of the frustration language students experience. With an Italian family heritage, Janssen says she finally “went Italian” a few years ago, and feels it has added depth to her Spanish teaching. She points out that foreign language students should expect to make lots of mistakes, as that is part of the learning process, but she encourages them to boldly do it anyway. She says she has learned to accept that “the frustration of being a second language learner never goes away.” She encourages students to embrace the fact of the frustration, and to persist anyway. “It is the door to such a rich dimension of life,” she says. “Do something in the target language every day,” she advises. “That is the secret to becoming bilingual.”
Janssen says her students might be surprised to know how frequently they are on her mind. “I often wake up in the morning thinking about my students, and how to best reach them,” she confesses.
An inveterate traveller, Janssen has led groups to Mexico, Italy, and Ecuador, and she plans to lead lots more trips in the future, perhaps to Cuba, Spain, Peru, and ... who knows?
When she has free time, Janssen can often be seen jogging along the streets of Ukiah. She dreams of cruising around the world in her own sailboat someday.