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Dr. Hélène de Fays in the Department of Romance Studies, traveled far on her journey to becoming a Hispanic Studies professor and senior lecturer of Spanish. Her appreciation for the Hispanic world, its language and its cultures was cultivated over many years of visiting Spain and spending several years of her adult life in the country. The experience has given her an insightful perspective into the ways that identity is shaped throughout our youth and from familial connections. She generously shared her thoughts about her work and its impact on her students:

What specifically awakened your interest in the Hispanic language and culture?

I suppose you could say I have always been interested in it, although not consciously. My mother is Spanish and I was brought up speaking Spanish. Also, we travelled to Spain regularly and, during my childhood, I spent all my summer in Spain at my grandparents’ house.

Was there a defining moment you knew this was an area that you wanted to study?

After graduating from college in the U.S., I moved to Spain. Although initially I was in the business field, I quickly discovered that I was more interested in literature and culture. That’s when I decided that I wanted to go back to school and pursue an advanced degree in literature.

What has your journey to your current profession looked like?

After living and working in Spain for three years, where I worked in business, I moved to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in literature. I specialized in Latin American theater for my Master’s and then went on to do my PhD in contemporary Latin American novel.

Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

No, I always loved to read and travel and visit museums and such things. But I didn’t know I could do this as a living!

Is there a particular class — past or present — that you especially enjoy teaching?

I loved teaching SPAN 330 (The Cultural History of the Hispanic World I), but it was canceled when the Spanish major and minor program was restructured.

Is there anything about the Hispanic language or culture that tends to be difficult for students to understand/learn?

I think students sometimes have a difficult time understanding the vast diversity that is “Hispanic language and culture.” It is not one monolithic phenomenon, but rather a multifaceted, multicultural, extremely diverse mosaic. I often have students say, “My teacher told me it that it was this,” and it’s hard for them to understand that perhaps it is correct for one group or one culture within the Hispanic culture spectrum, but not necessarily correct for another group.

Is there anything about it that you still find difficulty with?

I find that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be Hispanic. In fact, sometimes I forget that I’m Hispanic. I am from Belgium and was educated in French, and in Europe I am never categorized in any way. However, here, in the U.S., I’m considered Hispanic because I was also brought up speaking Spanish and my mother is Spanish. So, I guess you can say that I don’t “look the part” (I don’t look like what some people assume a Hispanic should look like) and I often get weird looks when I am in the community or advocating for the Hispanic community.

Some of the courses that Professor De Fays currently teaches include: Spanish 330 (Cultural History of the Hispanic World 1), Spanish 331 (Cultural History of the Hispanic World II), Spanish 340 (The Cultures of Contemporary Spain) and co-coordinator for Spanish 204 (Intermediate Spanish II).