The language of teaching and connecting

“I've only spent two years on the Mount Holyoke campus. But looking back, it's been a really incredible experience because some of the opportunities that came from the challenges I faced, I did not anticipate one bit.”

In April 2020, Sophia Perillo ‘24 had a looming decision in front of her: Should she attend Mount Holyoke?

If it were not for the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision might have been easier. Like the rest of the graduating class of 2024, she would have to take their first-year classes online. The resources typically available to accepted applicants, like campus visits, weren’t available.

Just before the deadline to confirm yes or no, Perillo took the plunge and said yes. She knew Mount Holyoke had a strong education program — she had always been interested in teaching — and she also knew that Mount Holyoke had a sizable international student population and a high percentage of students studying abroad. Perillo was also eager to study abroad and improve her Spanish language skills in another country. Plus, Mount Holyoke offered her a scholarship.

Perillo, a Spanish major and Education minor, is now on her way to completing Mount Holyoke’s teacher licensure program, which will allow her to teach Spanish in grades five through 12 at Massachusetts public schools upon graduating. After spending her first year taking module courses online from her hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts, Perillo was able to study on campus her second year — only to then spend the following year studying abroad in Seville, Spain. This spring semester, she’s teaching at South Hadley High School and taking a seminar class at night as part of her practicum requirement.

“I've only spent two years on the Mount Holyoke campus,” she said. “It's definitely a different college experience in comparison to what I had thought it would be. But looking back, it's been a really incredible experience because some of the opportunities that came from the challenges I faced, I did not anticipate one bit.”

Those opportunities include taking a leadership role with Cafecito, a weekly Spanish-language coffee hour sponsored by the Spanish language department that’s been Perillo’s main extracurricular activity at Mount Holyoke. She remembers attending online her first year and feeling daunted; she loved studying Spanish in high school, but the others involved with Cafecito had more experience speaking Spanish. The pacing of the speech and grammar use were deeper than what she was comfortable with. “I was intimidated at first, but I kept going because I knew it would help me in the end to improve my Spanish,” said Perillo, who hopes to become a Spanish language teacher.

Being able to build a community with Cafecito in person during her second year made for an even better experience, she said. Separately, Perillo also served as a Spanish language mentor that year, where she held open office hours in the Ciruti Language Center. Students could come in and ask questions about courses, study techniques and her experiences with learning the language.

Then the following year, when Perillo was in Spain, she volunteered at a local high school teaching English to native Spanish speakers. Similar to Cafecito, Perillo interacted with a community and developed cross-cultural understanding, which helped her to forge a new affinity for the Spanish language.

The language practice and trust in her abilities that the year-long immersion offered Perillo helped her improve both her language and leadership skills by leaps and bounds. Inspired, she became a Spanish language assistant for Cafecito during her final year at Mount Holyoke.

“Now I feel very confident to run Cafecito myself and then also to teach classes in Spanish,” Perillo said. “And I never could have dreamed that I'd be running it or be capable of running it.”

She credits her Spanish advisor, Nieves Romero-Díaz, professor of Spanish on the Alumnae Association, for encouraging her to spend her entire third year studying abroad as opposed to just a semester, which was Perillo’s original plan. Romero-Díaz has guided Perillo throughout her entire four years at Mount Holyoke, including in choosing which courses to take to best support Perillo’s goals.

Perillo has subsequently found that she is on a unique path among her peers.

“When I went to Spain, I was the only person in my program who wanted to become a Spanish teacher that I knew of,” she said. “And at Mount Holyoke, in the licensure program, out of all the candidates this year, both at the elementary and secondary levels, I am the only world language teacher candidate.”

“Leaving Mount Holyoke for a year after I'd only been there for a year — that was quite out of the norm,” she continued. “But I'm super glad to be back on campus now. I can't believe it's all ending. It's flown by.”

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Christian Feuerstein
  • Director of Public Affairs and Media Relations