Romance languages and literatures associate professor receives Sheedy Award

Author: Carrie Gates

Marisel Moreno Marisel Moreno

Marisel Moreno, an associate professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, was selected to receive the 2016 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award.

The highest teaching honor in the College of Arts and Letters, the Sheedy Award was created in 1970 to honor Rev. Charles E. Sheedy, C.S.C., who served as dean of Arts and Letters from 1951 to 1969.

A reception honoring Moreno was held on Dec. 6 at the Notre Dame Conference Center.

Moreno, whose research and teaching focus on Latino literature and culture, helped launch a community-based learning program in her department in 2010. Students in her classes enhance traditional literature study by volunteering at La Casa de Amistad, a local Latino community organization.

“Professor Moreno does not approach teaching as an activity that stops at the classroom door,” said Ben Heller, an associate professor of Spanish. “Her teaching is innovative, bridging academia and community, making learning real through engagement with the local Latino environment.

“The experience for her students—and the local community—is transformative.”

Breaking down walls

Teaching her first community-based learning course was such a positive experience that Moreno now ensures that at least one of her courses each semester includes work at La Casa.

“I love teaching literature because it opens up other worlds and allows us to connect with each other. And the kinds of encounters students have through community-based learning make the literature far more powerful,” she said. “Because of these personal experiences, they appreciate the literature more, and because they have a background in literature and history, they can better relate to the community.

“When you connect human to human—forgetting all the labels—these are the moments when the walls are broken down.”

Over the past six years, the community-based learning Spanish program, supported by the Center for Social Concerns and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, has expanded to include numerous faculty members in the department and courses at several levels of language learning.

Much of that success is due to Moreno’s tireless efforts each semester to build on previous accomplishments and address challenges, said Rachel Rivers Parroquín, director of the program.

“Marisel Moreno is an exemplar who innovates, continually improves, and genuinely impacts students in profound ways,” Parroquín said. “The lessons her students learn are both fully situated within the disciplinary context of Latino/a literature and deeply grounded in life and the community.”

The result is a powerful new perspective that students carry with them, well beyond their time at Notre Dame.

“No professor has had such an impact on my education and discernment,” a senior Spanish and pre-health major wrote in recommending Moreno for the Sheedy Award. “She inspired me to go outside my comfort zone, volunteering at La Casa and abroad, to serve and learn from a community that speaks a different language, and she has empowered me to strive for equality, knowledge, and positive social change in my career.”

Marisel Moreno outside LaCasa Moreno outside La Casa de Amistad, where students volunteer as part of her community-based learning courses.

Exploring new perspectives

Engaging with families at La Casa—which offers tutoring for children, parenting classes, English language classes, a citizenship program, and more—also brings current issues to life for Moreno’s students.

“When these families opened up about their struggles with immigration, it transformed distant statistics into personal issues affecting people who had graciously welcomed me into their homes for a weekend,” wrote another student who took Moreno’s Migrant Voices course.

“Unlike classroom learning, which has its own merits, learning from the community in which I serve has created a powerful imprint that will be impossible to negate in my future decisions.”

Moreno, who recently joined La Casa’s board, emphasizes that she and her students work in partnership with the organization.

“At the beginning of each semester, we talk with La Casa about what their needs are, what issues they’re dealing with at the time,” she said. “It’s not about what my students can get out of it or what La Casa can get out of it, but it’s what we both need. We both win in the end.”

The program has not only impacted her students and the community—it has affected Moreno personally as well.

“I feel that it has made me more compassionate toward my students, because I see them struggle and I see their growth. I have gotten to know my students much better than I would in a regular literature class,” she said. “And I’m more in tune, more connected, more passionate about issues that have to do with social justice in our town and our country.”

“As an academic, I know it’s very easy to separate yourself, living in the four walls of your office and the four walls of your classroom and just focusing on your research. But as a society, we’ve gotten to the point where we cannot afford to do that. We have a responsibility to see how our work can have a more direct impact in our communities.” 

— Marisel Moreno

Building bridges

Moreno is currently working on her second book project, focused on Caribbean borderlands and representations of undocumented migration in literature and art. She is examining U.S. Latino perspectives and Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican depictions of the same phenomenon.

She brings that research into her classroom this fall in a new undergraduate course, Borders and Bridges.

The course, which explores issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border and movements of people within the Hispanic Caribbean, also draws on her recent visit to the border through an immersion experience offered by the Center for Social Concerns.

“I wanted to integrate some of that experience into the classroom,” Moreno said. “I thought designing a course that focuses on the idea of borderlands and connecting people across borders was a good platform for it. I learned so much there and I wanted to be able to bring some of that to my students.

“There is really no better time in history to be talking about borders and bridges.”

Making an impact

In 2011, Moreno received the Governor’s Award for Service-Learning—Indiana’s most prestigious honor for engaged academic work. She has also won the 2015 Exceptional Teaching Impact and Motivation Student Voice Award for Outstanding Spanish Teacher from the Indiana chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

Moreno said she is deeply honored to have won the Sheedy Award, and she sees the recognition as an opportunity to shed light on the importance of integrating community engagement into education.

“As an academic, I know it’s very easy to separate yourself, living in the four walls of your office and the four walls of your classroom and just focusing on your research. But as a society, we’ve gotten to the point where we cannot afford to do that,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to see how our work can have a more direct impact in our communities.”