The Big Picture
Ask Associate Professor of Spanish Betty G. Sasaki how she identifies herself and, without hesitation, she answers that she is "a citizen of the world.” She brings that perspective to everything she does at Colby—in and out of the classroom.
Whether it be redefining the "Colby bubble" by working to make the campus more culturally and socially diverse or helping students connect language to culture, Sasaki aims to engage the community with the ethics of social justice and multicultural awareness. By organizing campus events or assigning texts that expose how racism and discrimination permeate society, Sasaki hopes to spark discussions that lead to change on campus and beyond. "Her teaching informs her activism, and her activism informs her teaching," Professor Mark Tappan, Education Program director, said. "Betty's skill as a teacher enables her students to understand the importance of activism on behalf of issues of social justice, both on and off Mayflower Hill."
The only Japanese-American in a diverse California neighborhood that included many Mexican migrant farmers, Sasaki understood multiculturalism and discrimination from an early age. This awareness gave her a sense of social responsibility that she now feels obligated to share. And share she does—with her own students and with the broader campus community, in her classes and as a tireless advocate for an aware and inclusive community.
With her upbringing, and following her experience as a high school exchange student in Brazil, Sasaki said double majoring in Portuguese and Spanish as an undergraduate was a logical next step. Ultimately her passion for multiculturalism, literature, and the Spanish language culminated in her earning a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.
She never imagined living in Maine, Sasaki said, but when it came time to finding a job, Colby was at the very top of her list. Since she grew up in California, moving to Maine required quite an adjustment. "I survived the first ten years figuring out how you can make friends with the winter," Sasaki said. "The secret is to go to L.L. Bean or one of the other outlets and get the clothing. It really makes a difference." Beyond the weather, her initial impressions of Colby—amicable colleagues and zealous students—made the vibrant community appealing, she said.
In the classroom Sasaki considers the Spanish language a portal to Hispanic and Latino culture. Lessons on grammar, vocabulary, and literature evolve into discussions of the implications of race and discrimination in these cultures. "She makes language fun and interesting," said Caitlin Vorlicek '14, a student of Sasaki's. "She makes me care about not only the language, but the culture."
Sasaki has taught almost every Spanish course offered at Colby at some point, as well as courses in other departments, including education. Even so, she especially enjoys SP128, Intermediate Spanish.
As the first course students elect following their fulfillment of the language-requirement classes, SP128 is the first real discussion class. “It gives me a window into students that I don’t have in the other levels," Sasaki said. “It allows me to know my students in a different way, and it also gives me the opportunity to show the students who I am. … I get a lot out of that class. I learn from my students.”
Sasaki says she has many exciting moments while teaching. "The 'wow' is really about how the synergy of a discussion can come together when students are curious and alive and thinking and thoughtful about things,” she said. “It’s the light bulb moments. ... I think Colby students are fantastic. They really are."
Outside the classroom Sasaki juggles a dizzying array of extracurricular responsibilities, including serving as head of the Multicultural Affairs Committee and the Committee on Race and Racism. Both committees look at Colby's policies and practices as they relate to multicultural matters, and they organize discussions and events to increase awareness of race and multiculturalism on campus. "Teaching is a vocation for me. I love teaching and, for me, in every aspect of my work in the committees, the teacher part of me is there," Sasaki said.
The impact Sasaki has on the campus community through these committees is substantial, said Lisa Arellano, assistant professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. "She inspires faculty and students alike—and does a tremendous amount of the actual labor involved in arranging events, meetings, and in bringing real change to the campus."
"She is also extremely generous about creating space and opportunity for faculty and students to engage with each other and to express their ideas," Arellano said.
The committee work is a means to an end for Sasaki. “I hope that [Colby] can have so many things,” she said. “I think we are working towards them.” Of the initiatives this year, she added, “I have seen more student engagement for social justice, for a change on campus, than I have seen in ten years. So it has really been exciting to work in this committee and have all this student activism and student energy and student vision.”
These multicultural committees give Sasaki a forum to collaborate with other campus groups, make connections, and work towards a common goal of increasing diversity on campus and creating a community that appreciates multiculturalism. Her accomplishments include developing a protocol for what college officials need to do when an incident on campus involves bias or discrimination. In 2010-11 she organized a panel on issues of sexual violence.
Knowledge is a powerful privilege, Sasaki realizes. Whether through teaching or leadership activities, she aims to help her students become citizens of the world.