As Hope College welcomes a historically large freshman class, it also welcomes a number of new faculty members including Dr. Genesis Portillo, an Assistant Professor of Spanish Instruction in the World Languages and Cultures department. Although it is her first year teaching here, Dr. Portillo already feels at home in Holland. “I feel like they [my students] embrace me because everyone is just so nice. It’s part of the culture, it’s not something that is fake, it’s like I can feel it. It just feels so familiar to me here and I just love it because this is my first time teaching a full load, I am teaching three classes and I am loving it.”
Dr. Portillo is currently teaching Spanish Five, Spanish Literature from the 20th and 21st centuries, and French One at Hope. Though some might find it very difficult to teach and work in three different languages, for Dr. Portillo language is a lifelong passion. She recalls practicing reading as a very small child in a book that contained words in Spanish, English and French. “It is something that I always remember, one of my earliest memories, like reading the words in two other languages, not even knowing how to pronounce them but just being in contact with that.” Currently, she is fluent in Spanish, French, and English as well as proficient in Italian and Portuguese, despite not using them much in day-to-day life. “I can understand a lot of it. I can read and watch movies, interviews and stuff like that. I am still planning on learning some more. I love languages and literature.” Additionally, she is learning German and Japanese and has even studied some Korean. In her words, “learning is a process that never ends.”
She recalls being spurred to learn French after a trip to Europe in 2018 where she had difficulty ordering in a restaurant. “I made a mistake and the waiter corrected me. And that was shocking for me, that told me you need to learn French right now.” Upon returning to her home and birthplace in Lima, Peru, Dr. Portillo began to intensely study the French language. “It was very fun because I took it so seriously that I would take four-hour classes four times a week.” Shorter classes were just not enough time to spend immersed in the language. “I just loved it because it was so fun. I studied at Diarios Frances, the French Institute that is everywhere in the world. They would only speak French in every class, it’s not like in here, [where] they take care of you a bit much.” Her hard work on the language paid off within a few short years. “I went again to France in 2020. I was able to speak the language and it was completely different, and that’s one of the things I love about Europe. You can go there and use ten different languages because people speak them. You know, in Europe it’s a very normal thing that people speak three or four languages because they are all so close.”
In addition to traveling internationally, Dr. Portillo has lived in three very distinct places: Lima, Peru; Miami, Florida; and Holland, Michigan. She was born and raised in Lima, then completed five years of university there at the National University of San Marcos. Founded in 1548, it is the oldest university in the Americas. In Dr. Portillo’s words, “It was very hard to get in and even harder to get out, but I really enjoyed it. It just confirmed that I loved literature and that’s what I wanted to do and study. That’s the reason I pursued a Ph.D.”
The next chapter of her life took her to sunny Miami, Florida. She describes it as a shocking transition, because “Peru is a country that is still developing, but you get to Miami and you see all of these structures that are very well developed. The airport, the highways, we don’t have that kind of stuff in Peru. There is so much space, in Peru you walk and you get to places, in Miami it is impossible to walk, and even less here in Michigan, you can’t get anywhere by walking, it’s impossible.” It was also strange to go to a primarily English-speaking place, but Dr. Portillo describes Miami as a very diverse city, especially for people coming from Latin America. “It was so easy in Miami because everyone is bilingual, so even if someone does not speak Spanish exactly they will still understand what you are saying.” She also considers it the capital of the Latin American world outside of Latin America and found great comfort in the variety of good Peruvian food and ingredients available.
While in Miami, she both earned her Ph.D. and began her career as a professor. “I started teaching in 2015 so I’ve been doing this for a while. I studied at Florida International University, which was a huge university that I loved. You already have a lot of diversity in Miami but this is an international university that gives out many scholarships, so I had students from Egypt, Vietnam, India, Columbia, Venezuela, Japan [and] China.” Although she enjoyed her time there, she also appreciates the transition to a smaller institution. “The culture in Miami is completely different. Some of them already know the language so they are just taking the class for credit, some of them don’t really want to take it, and it gets bad because it’s a big institution, and in a big institution you don’t get to have contact with your students and they don’t always see you as a person with emotions, character and things like that they just see you as someone who’s working there. And they need to pass the class and that’s it.”
Though moving from Lima to Miami was a big transition, Dr. Portillo found that “it was just as shocking moving from Miami to Holland.” Here in Holland, it is nearly impossible to get Peruvian food and ingredients, although she has begun to appreciate the ritual of cooking a favorite meal, describing it as both “relaxing and challenging.” Here, too, she has gotten to experience a true winter for the first time. “I just love the snow, I had never seen snow in my life and I was just so happy playing in the snow.”
While some might be intimidated by such big transitions, Dr. Portillo is glad she’s gotten to experience such distinct places. “I love the three places I have lived. I miss Miami sometimes because they have such good food and if you want to go to the beach it’s so beautiful, it’s like stepping on sugar, the sand is so white, and the water is so warm. I also love it here because nothing beats fall in Michigan. Nothing will ever beat that. Each [city] has a different beauty.”
Going into the new school year, Dr. Portillo’s biggest piece of advice for students is to be gentle with themselves. “They need to give themselves grace. I have felt so much anxiety from my students… they want everything to be perfect. And I understand when you are learning you need everything to go well and you want good grades. But learning is a process. And sometimes it works for some and sometimes it doesn’t and if it doesn’t you shouldn’t punish yourself. Treat yourself with grace and listen to yourself… This is an experience and you build as you learn. Nobody has everything figured out, not even the professors themselves!”
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