Julia Mack provides students with a place to grow comfortable in their identities
Sophomore Isabel Salas never really felt connected to her Mexican roots growing up in North Carolina. Upon coming to UNC, she met professor Julia Mack in Spanish 266, a course specifically designed for native Spanish speakers.
Through Mack and her class, Salas became involved with the University’s diverse Latinx community and developed a love for a language that many native students are often discouraged from speaking in school growing up.
Mack had these goals in mind when she designed Spanish 266 and Spanish 326 almost ten years ago. Besides developing bilingual Spanish speakers' skills to a professional level, she wanted to give the students a supportive community that will help them grasp their identities.
“For this population, the experience of being Spanish has been difficult and somewhat strange,” Mack said. “They may have grown up in small-town North Carolina where speaking Spanish was not easy and they suppressed it. Then they get to UNC and discover that other people are trying to speak like them, and their identity blooms, but it blooms in confusion.”
Mack uses many methods to help her students connect to their culture. In one of Salas’ classes, Mack brought in desserts from her native country of Puerto Rico. Sophomore Jorge Monteagudo remembers going to Lenoir with Mack, where they discussed their Latinx cultures.
For Mack, teaching runs in the family. Her father was a college professor in Puerto Rico, giving her a childhood that involved learning how to write instead of watching TV, reading novels instead of comic books and most importantly, spending summers with her father on study abroad trips in Europe. She would eventually start her career as a linguist, teaching French and German in Puerto Rico.
Originally a physics major, it was her father that encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to get a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Southern California.
“The longer I live and get away from (my father’s) death, the more I realize how much of an inspiration he was all along,” Mack said. “I saw the tradition of giving everything to your career, believing in your students and teaching.”
Now a professor at UNC since 1994, Mack tries to help her students both in and out of the classroom. In the current political climate, Mack said it is becoming harder to keep her students from worrying about themselves and their families.
Salas remembers a student from her class who had an undocumented father. Mack drove down to Charlotte to help her family understand the paperwork and legal processing for undocumented immigrants.
“Some of my students are DACA students and they are under an extreme amount of stress,” Mack said. “I have them in class and they are so resilient. You can only see if you’re looking closely that they’re stressed. You ask them why they miss class or look like they got hit by a truck and you see that they’re worried or concerned for the future, and carrying the weight of their entire families on their shoulders.”
Students remember Mack’s impact long after they take her class.
“On graduation day, families come and insist on finding out who I am, who has made their children think about Spanish-speaking and being Spanish in a different light,” Mack said.
Now, Mack has plans to help the Latinx community beyond the University’s campus. She’s seen the way Puerto Rico has changed, from the new infrastructure and increasing diversity on the island to the alarming brain drain caused by a mass population exodus.
“Now that things are so bad in Puerto Rico I have been thinking about going back,” Mack said. “(My children) won’t need me as much as they used to, but Puerto Rico needs everybody.”
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