Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rebecca Zanolini: my Costa Rican rebirth

Rebecca Zanolini
Photo by Leslie Rodriguez Photography
By Rebecca H. Zanolini, Ed.S.

It was in Costa Rica where I experienced a rebirth of self. I had been born in California with a cleft lip and palate and faced many difficulties in overcoming both a speech impediment and social stigma as a child and young adult. But when I first went to Costa Rica 13 years ago, the experience brought me out of my cave and exposed me to realities I never knew existed.

I strongly believe when an individual is on the right path in life, he or she is compensated with a certain sense of ease and continued opportunities. For me, ease came in the form of an innate ability to learn the language and adapt to the Tico culture; opportunities came in the form of life long relationships, education, and ultimately a career path. I felt a strong connection to the land and its people. Even after I left, this connection intensified.

Returning to the United States the first time, I was blindsided by reverse culture shock. While I was away, cell phone use had evolved, the Clinton controversy had subsided, and Christina Aguilera had just released her first hit. I remember a sense of confusion as I tried to reconcile my life in my hometown in Tennessee with what I had just witnessed and experienced in Costa Rica. Coming home, I remember thinking it was almost like my Costa Rican experience was nothing but a dream. For months I continued to trip over my words in an attempt to articulate what I saw, felt, and loved for the first time. All of these new experiences were now stratified in my new language and culture. I remember the frustration of trying to transfer all of this to my native modes of communication. As many who are bicultural and bilingual might agree, not all experiences, feelings and words lend themselves easily to another culture or language.

Furthermore, I also realized that it wasn’t until I left my country that I developed a clear sense of patriotism for my homeland. Leaving the United States for the first time helped me to better appreciate and understand my own ethnic roots and culture. Thus, two things became clear to me: I wanted to continue to pursue Spanish and to educate others locally on global issues.

Fortunately, I continue to do both of these things. I went on to graduate high school, obtain a Bachelors of Science in Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies from Middle Tennessee State University, a Master’s of Arts in Teaching from Middle Tennessee State University and most recently an Educational Specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Culture, Cognition and the Learning Process, also from Middle Tennessee State University. Currently, I am pursuing doctoral studies at Tennessee State University in Curriculum and Instruction. Since 2008 I have had the opportunity to teach full-time as a Spanish Instructor for Middle Tennessee State University. I have also had the opportunity to educate students at Lipscomb University and Nashville State Community College during the summer semesters.

My passion for the Spanish language coupled with my compassion and understanding of people from around the world has helped me to become a better instructor and a better person. Knowing what it is like to be different has helped me to better relate to my students and to immigrants in my community. Despite my birth defect, I stand up in front of my students daily in an effort to teach and inspire them that they too can overcome life’s obstacles. At the end of the day, when the facts are forgotten, I want my students to walk away from my class with a better understanding of who the Spanish speaking individual is, what he or she looks like, and the experiences he or she has had. While teaching the Spanish language is my primary objective in my profession, I am determined for my students to gain the cultural knowledge needed to insure they are better prepared for a diverse 21st century

Personally, my Costa Rican husband and I are committed to raising our daughter in a home environment that celebrates both of our native cultures and languages. We refuse to forfeit one culture or language for the other. While we have decided to make Tennessee our home, we make frequent visits to Costa Rica in an effort to strengthen family and cultural ties. Costa Rica always welcomes us back and offers us to the opportunity to refresh and recharge so that we may return to Tennessee and continue to pursue our passions.

Beyond my love for teaching the Spanish language, I am committed to achieving social and educational equality for Tennesseans of minority and immigrant backgrounds and improving the quality of life for all people in our community. Most recently, I have served on the Equity Task Force Committee with Franklin Special School District, volunteered with the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Guatemala as a translator/interpreter through the Shalom Foundation, volunteered with the FUTURO organization of Middle Tennessee State University, and helped to lead and moderate an equality forum at Middle Tennessee State University known as, “We are Created E.Q.U.A.L.” 

In the end, I believe we all must use our talents and circumstances to better our communities and the lives of those around us. Therefore, I am determined to continue my efforts to better my own education, improve my community, and help educate those around me.

Rebecca Zanolini lives in Nashville and is a contributor to

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