“I decided to become a Spanish teacher so that I could bring the gift of language to students and to encourage them to make global connections and expand their world view,” says Dana Pilla, a part-time lecturer of Spanish for the Department of Foreign Languages. “I grew up knowing that I wanted to learn a foreign language.  I am a third-generation Italian-American.  I would hear my paternal grandmother speak her native languages, Italian and French, and this intrigued me,” she says. Although Dana grew up in a monolingual household, her parents introduced her to Italian culture, and encouraged her to explore it.

Dana attended Douglass College for her bachelor’s degree in Spanish, and then attended Rutgers University–New Brunswick and obtained her master’s degree in language education, as well as her master’s degree in Spanish, with a concentration in translation. Dana also attributes her interest in language and teaching to her language teachers in Cherry Hill that led her toward greater understanding of languages. She wishes to support her own students in their learning of another language. Dana recently received the New Jersey World Language Teacher of the Year Award and has also been the recipient of the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey (FLENJ) All-Star Teacher for best practice and the Governor’s Teacher of the Year Award.    

She initially studied Spanish, then French and Italian in high school, and finally Portuguese in college.  While attending Rutgers–New Brunswick, she describes her experience while studying abroad in Valencia, Spain, which she says pushed her towards fluency in Spanish. “I learned perseverance while studying abroad in Spain…I had no idea how difficult it would be to speak Spanish in social situations all day, every day.  It was the biggest challenge I had encountered.” However, she was determined, even when some locals commented on how inexperienced her Spanish sounded.  “I decided in that moment that no one would be able to say to me in June that I couldn’t speak Spanish.  It is because of this experience that I understand how my students struggle speaking a language… however, I also know that it is possible with perseverance, and encouragement.”   

Dana continues, “I remember the day I woke up, sometime after my sixth month there, and could just speak Spanish quickly, and say anything I wanted.  It was like a light switch was turned on.  From that day forward I never stopped studying, speaking, and immersing myself in Spanish and Latin American culture,” she says. Dana adds that she speaks Spanish every day with her husband, who is originally from Ecuador, and also a Spanish teacher. 

After being hired to teach the course “Spanish for the Health Professions” at Rutgers–Camden, she took a medical interpreter training course to further develop her understanding of medical interpretation. “There is a need in many careers for professionals to be bilingual, especially in health care, law, social work, law enforcement, and government translation/interpretation.  We need to prepare our students and future professionals to communicate in Spanish to better serve the community. This is especially true in Camden, where there are many native speakers of Spanish who could benefit from the services of bilingual professionals,” she says 

 Dana continues, “I enjoy teaching students of all ages and levels. In middle school, I focus on management and time on task in the classroom, while at the university I can focus more on delivery of content, since university-level students are intrinsically motivated to learn.  Teaching at any level is rewarding because I am providing a skill that my students can use outside of school.” In her position as a Spanish teacher at Haddonfield Middle School, Dana enjoys helping students gain proficiency and practice their skills. She adds, “As a teacher and lecturer, I am happy when my students are learning, and when they show progress.”  Dana says that she must move from classroom to classroom, and that it can be challenging to keep middle school students engaged the entire class period in the target language. At the university-level, the challenge is to give the required language courses a purpose outside the classroom.

“I loved my undergraduate and graduate studies at Rutgers,” she says.  As an undergraduate at Douglass College, she says she felt part of a community, and learned valuable leadership skills.  As a graduate student, she immediately connected with professor Dr. Phyllis Zatlin, Professor Emerita in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in New Brunswick, who encouraged her to become a translator and served as Dana’s mentor through her time in graduate school. Dana credits Dr. Zatlin as one of the reasons she published her thesis and established her own translation agency, Spanish Translation & Interpretation Services, LLC.  “As a faculty member at Rutgers–Camden, I want to provide this same support and encouragement to my students [that I had as a student].”  Dana believes there is much more than lectures in her profession. She wishes to support her students and to guide them to success. “I see our relationship as more collaborative than hierarchical.”  Dana likes the intimacy of the Rutgers–Camden campus and how faculty can be more invested in student’s lives and emotional wellbeing, to help students learn and grow. “Rutgers–Camden is truly invested in the community of Camden, and this is something unique.”

Dana balances being both a translator and a teacher, which are fundamentally different, due to translating being solitary and teaching being a hands-on, collaborative effort. “When I translate I sit at my computer with my dictionaries around me, and the office door locked…[but when I teach] I am always interacting with students.” In addition to helping students and translating outside of the classroom, Dana collaborates with other foreign language teachers by consulting with the Social Media Committee of Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (NECTFL), as the organization does some restructuring this year.  They plan how to promote professional development sessions through social media. 

Recently, Dana developed an online course for learning Spanish on Sakai. She says she is grateful for the help of Dr. Ana Laguna and Dr. Próspero García, both Spanish professors in the Department of Foreign Languages, who helped with the overall expectations for the online course. She also appreciates the efforts of Emily Corse and Christie DeCarolis, members of the Office of Instructional Design and Technology, who helped with course design and organizing content. “I spent about 60 hours creating each course from start to finish, and during the semester normally spend 4-5 hours per week grading and providing student feedback.” 

Dana will continue helping her students develop their passion in languages and propelling them toward their goals while exposing them to “the gift of language.”


Written By Rebecca Grubb