Susana Cisneros, ’09 M.A., sees the teaching of languages as a way to invite people to take a journey of self-exploration and join a collective learning experience.
“I challenge myself,” said Cisneros, a UNC Charlotte senior lecturer in Spanish, “to present my courses as an opportunity to learn a language that goes beyond vocabulary and grammatical conjugation. Students in my courses learn how the culture embedded in the language fosters deep critical thinking skills, a bigger frame of reference, an opportunity to embrace growth — sometimes with discomfort, and always with empathy.”
For the exceptional way that Cisneros guides language learners on their journeys, the Foreign Language Association of North Carolina presented her its 2022 Higher Education Teacher of the Year Award. The annual selection honors a higher education teacher who stands out as a leader among peers. A companion award recognizes a K-12 teacher.
“My first reaction when I learned I was chosen for this award,” Cisneros said, “was to cry, ‘me?!’ A female, Latina, a person of color, immigrant, adult learner of English, a non-Ph.D. And I kept on crying because of the countless hours I had invested in creating material, redesigning courses for an inclusive approach for all learning styles and abilities, and adapting the course delivery to the population in the mixed classroom, where native, heritage, polyglot, and learners of Spanish share their college experience.”
Graduating seniors regularly name Cisneros on their exit surveys as the one person at Charlotte who has made the most significant, positive contribution to their education.
“Students particularly appreciate her enthusiasm, dedication, availability, and her commitment to broadening their world view and their knowledge of the community,” said Michèle Bissière, chair of the Department of Languages and Culture Studies. “She is an innovative teacher who goes out of her way to provide real-life experiences for her students.”
Former student Rocio Arguijo describes Cisneros as the most impactful teacher she has known, describing how Cisneros has taken her life experience, her academic degrees and her passion for service to create the best environment for students to thrive.
“Profesora Cisneros looks at each student as their own person with their own experience and knowledge that is simply being refined through university studies,” Arguijo said. “She does everything in her power to arm them with knowledge and to pull out their strengths and helps them see how to tie their education about their life’s work. Profesora Cisneros’ humility shines through especially in the classroom.”
Cisneros has steadily advanced at Charlotte, where she has taught Spanish in the Department of Languages and Culture Studies since 2008, starting as a graduate assistant as she completed a master’s degree in Spanish, translation and translating studies. She moved on to roles as an adjunct lecturer, lecturer and, now, senior lecturer. She has developed, implemented and redesigned a number of language courses, focusing in particular on leadership and opportunities for language and cultural interactions outside the classroom.
Cisneros’ engagement and influence extend beyond her home department. She has been part of a team exploring ways to integrate intercultural competency in classes at all levels, as part of the university’s general education redesign. She also worked with colleagues from other disciplines to deliver a Center for Teaching and Learning faculty workshop and collaborated with College of Arts + Architecture faculty and community members on the play Migrant X.
She was a finalist for the prestigious Charlotte Excellence in Teaching Award in 2020 and for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching by a Part-Time Faculty Award in 2015. She was inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi honors society in 2021.
Cisneros has worked with traditional and nontraditional students and collaborated with Charlotte Mecklenburg School teachers, leading a year-long Charlotte Teachers Institute seminar series called Insight into the Latino Community in Charlotte Today.
“I provide my students with an exciting environment, including a conventional classroom, an interactive human library with community leaders, a Latino supermarket, a quinceañera store, or an archaeological site in the Calchaquí Valleys Tucumán Province, Argentina called Ruins of Quilmes,” she said.
For Cisneros, teaching is more than making sure students understand the content of the lesson, said Bobby Hobgood, director of Charlotte’s Language Resource Center. “She is also intent upon cultivating students who likewise manifest critical thinking skills, empathy, and intellectual curiosity,” Hobgood said.
Hobgood has noticed that she greets everyone with enthusiasm and respect. “These interactions almost always include some element of genuine recognition, praise, or support for what the other person brings to her,” he said. “In other words, Susana reminds us of the gifts we all have to share.”
She advises the Spanish Club, and she encourages her students to attend events and meet community leaders. Students participate in national festival days, such as Día de Muertos, and join Cisneros on study abroad trips. For years, she has organized a series of “tertulias” — weekly Spanish conversation tables — that became “Virtulias” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August 2019, she participated in a trip to Washington, D.C. dubbed “The Difference Makers Social Impact Summit,” organized by Communities in Schools in partnership with The Gambrell Foundation. Along with other adult community leaders and 18 CIS high school students, she attended workshops and events aimed at empowering young people, breaking down barriers and building bridges.
In October 2022 she took to Washington DC the first cohort of Cultivando Talento, which is aimed at increasing economic mobility, developing diverse talent, creating a social safety net for Hispanic / Latinx youth, and building social capital in the community.
She also has volunteered with local organizations including the Cabarrus Health Alliance, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), which twice awarded her its Presidential Volunteer Silver Award for dedication to service, and has participated in Leadership Charlotte. She even has published Spanish for first responders activity books and a children’s bilingual coloring book with the CMPD. In a previous career, Cisneros was a criminal law attorney in Argentina.
Founded in 1967, the Foreign Language Association of North Carolina has developed into one of the largest and most active state language associations in the country. With over 900 members, FLANC represents the professional interest of educators and administrators from the elementary grades through the university level.
Words: Lynn Roberson