SLA Program Newsletter: Spring 2021

SLA Director’s Message

Dear Members & Friends of the Doctoral Program in Second Language Acquisition,

I would be merely belaboring an obvious point if I talked about how challenging a year this has been. Instead, let’s remember all the great things that did not only just happen – but that all of you worked so hard to make possible. We have much to be thankful for and each other to appreciate. So, please bear with the commensurate length of this message.

Clearly, any enumeration of accomplishments is bound to leave out important achievements made by people we value and care about. So, please forgive me for staying general on some counts and for omissions on others. While it’s good to give a shout-out to specific people for specific contributions, it would probably be more appropriate to regard these mentions as representative of what we have done together. Ultimately, success and joy neither come from nor go to any one person.

Gratitude for people, actions, and successes over the past academic year.
All of us – and especially our students – would like to thank those who have gone through the program before them, either as SLA majors or as minors, and graciously shared in their professional expertise over the past year.

Together with former SLA colleagues Charles James and Tom Purnell, many of our alums have served as mentors to current students. Thank you (in alphabetical order of first name) Aree Manosuthikit, Ae Ree Nam, Alice Astarita, Atsushi Hasegawa, Bicho Azevedo, Carolina Bailey, Fatemeh Mirsharifi, Isabelle Drewelow, Isil Erduyan, Jacques Arceneaux, Kazeem Sanuth, Lauren Goodspeed, Maria del Carmen de Avila, Nelly Martin, Peter De Costa, Robin Worth, and Snezhana Zheltoukhova. Similarly, current students Hadis Ghaedi and Jose Luis Garrido Rivera accompanied Rebecca Sawyer through her first year in the program.

SLA program graduates Robin Worth and Akira Kondo together with former SLA minors who are now UW colleagues, Felicia Lucht, Jana Martin, & Sarah Korpi, and former SLA minors Ragnar Svare and Rose Rittenhouse joined campus colleagues Alan Ng, Alissa Ewer, Rebekah Pryor, and Weijia Li in one of three professionalization panels during Spring 2021. Our current students learned about careers in academia outside of traditional teaching-related appointments; in private industry and public agencies; and in higher-education administration. Each of us gained new perspectives on and appreciation for the variety of contexts in which SLA expertise can be applied usefully.

There is lots of great news to report about our current students, too. Chen Sun (Advisor, Richard Young) and Jennifer Gray (Advisor Monika Chavez) successfully defended their dissertations. Recent graduates won major honors. Bingjie Zheng (Advisor Maggie Hawkins) was awarded the Outstanding Dissertation Award 2021 (FIRST place!) by the American Educational Research Association, Bilingual Education Research Group. Sara Farsiu (Advisor Katrina Thompson) was named an Albert Markham Post-Doctoral Fellow here at UW-Madison.  Many of our students have presented – solo or in collaboration with faculty or fellow students – original and innovative research at conferences, such as the annual conventions sponsored by AAAL, ACTFL, and ATSEEL (American Association of Slavic Eurasian and East-European Languages) and published in leading research journals. To enhance the visibility of SLA research on campus, students Chen Sun, Marina Tsylina, Eric Ho, and Ryan Goble presented on their work in an SLA research forum that was organized by Language Institute associate director Jana Martin.

Our students have also supported community life in a number of tangible ways. Scott Stillar and Marina Tsylina served as co-presidents of our graduate student organization (SLAG); Chen Sun was SLAG’s information guru, and Jose Luis Garrido Rivera its social chair. Tim Cavnar, as faculty-student liaison, participated in every program meeting and facilitated ongoing communication between faculty and students in the program.

Particular thanks go to Rebecca Sawyer, who together with faculty members Karen Evans-Romaine, Mariana Pacheco, and Dianna Murphy (also director of the Language Institute) as well as Jana Martin (associate director of the Language Institute), program administrator Kristin Dalby, and me worked toward an outline of how the program envisions and puts into practice the goals of diversity, inclusion, equity, and access.  Other program members contributed their ideas via an online survey. The process is ongoing and will likely never be completed – but we are making progress. For example, the process has encouraged us to consider more closely how we value individual identities and histories in the context of multiple community memberships, including but by far not limited to SLA.

Gratitude for people, actions, and successes that we will soon encounter.
I wish to offer more than a retrospective. The SLA program is moving forward with energy, optimism, and a growing community. One of the possible projects that emerged out of our discussions on inclusion & diversity, points us in the specific direction of international students, as many of us have been exactly that at one point in time, virtually all of us work with and care for them, and as we have unique expertise in cultures and languages. While the specifics are still evolving, we have resolved to explore allies, participants, and contributors that would help shape this endeavor.  If you are interested in joining us, please let me know.

One particularly exciting piece of news is that after Natalia Petrova joined the program mid-year, we will welcome five additional new students in Fall 2021. They and their (at least, initial) advisors (thank you, colleagues!) are Emre Bozer (Junko Mori), Martiniano Etchart (Cathy Stafford), Mathilde Garnier (Heather Willis Allen), Lidia Gault (Karen Evans-Romaine & Dianna Murphy), and Patricia Haberkorn (Monika Chavez).

To make it all possible, many entities and individuals had to work together collegially and with generosity – and they did! A big thank-you to all of you, including and especially these programs and colleagues:
Program in French (SLA colleague Heather Willis Allen; DGS, Jan Miernowski; graduate program coordinator Shawn Ramer)
Program in Japanese (SLA colleagues Junko Mori and Naomi Geyer; TA supervisor Takako Nakakubo; department (Asian Languages and Cultures) administrator Jenn Hekman)
Program in German (DGS Hannah Eldridge; program head Mark Louden; graduate coordinator Mark Mears; director of German undergraduate studies Jeanne Schueller)
Program in Russian & Russian Flagship Program (SLA colleagues Karen Evans-Romaine and Dianna Murphy; DGS Irina Shevelenko; Russian Flagship associate director & Russian Language Program director Anna Tumarkin)
Program in Spanish (SLA colleague Cathy Stafford and her colleagues in the Spanish Linguistics section; department (Spanish & Portuguese) chair Ellen Sapega; director of the Spanish Language Program Rajiv Rao)
Department of English (chair Anja Wanner; English 101 chair Ron Harris)
Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS) (especially assistant director for awards Mark Lilleleht)
The Graduate School (especially, fellowship officer Nathaniel Haack; and deans Lisa Martin & Florence Hsia)
Fulbright Turkey (Tarik Tansu Yigit)

As we thank programs who are supporting incoming students, I would also like to say a big thank you to additional programs that have been supporters of our students over the years and, really, the entire endeavor that is our SLA program: The Language Institute; the Writing Center; the program in English as a Second Language; WIDA; African Cultural Studies; the programs in Chinese, Korean, and Persian; the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA); and Communication Arts (especially Sarah Jedd).

We are most grateful to the College of Letters and Science under the leadership of Dean Wilcots for the support that they have shown us and their partnership as we work toward more consistent funding for our graduate students. Associate Dean Susan Zaeske in particular has been an encouraging and broad-minded force in moving forward.

On behalf of all of us, I would also like to express our deep gratitude to our colleagues in English, Jacee Cho (also an SLA colleague) and Juliet Huynh for making available their courses to beginning SLA majors as well as SLA minors.

And, please do not forget: Mark your calendars! The SLA Graduate Symposium – shared among the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, and our very own UW – will convene in Madison (the Pyle Center) on April 1 & 2, 2022.  Manuela Wagner (University of Connecticut) has agreed to be keynote speaker. Please look for announcements (including a call for proposals) from conference planners Sandra Descourtis, Jose Luis Garrido Rivera, and Eric Ho. Here is a good place to stay informed.

To and about my colleagues
Part of our past, present, and future are our colleagues. Over the past year, they have published in a range of national and international journals and presented at teaching and research conferences on a broad variety of topics that reflect the breadth as well as the depth of our program. What is more, they have made their research accessible to an array of audiences including teachers, teachers-in-training, fellow researchers, graduate as well as undergraduate students, school districts and their administrators, national governments, international organizations, and the public at large. They have worked hard and successfully not only to produce path-leading research but also to make their research count in tangible and critical ways.

They (often with the help of our graduate students and the Language Institute) have organized conferences and speaker series, including the recent very timely and internationally visible series on critical approaches to language.

My colleagues are tireless advocates for our students, they guide our students toward professional success & happiness, and put their hearts into helping our students thrive as people.

There are no monetary rewards for their work in SLA, they volunteer their time and effort to our program but I also strongly believe (at least I sincerely hope so) that they get back considerable gifts – I know that I do.  They and our students give me intellectual companionship, a very specific sense of accomplishment, and a shared sense of belonging.

Specific thanks belong to my colleague Naomi Geyer who – for many years – has served as SLA minor advisor for a (literally) uncountable number of students. Naomi, Kristin, and I spent the earlier part of the academic year reaching out to related campus units with the intent to build and retain administrative as well as intellectual connections and to improve procedures related to declaring an SLA minor (so that we can actually count our many minor students).

The Language Institute is officially our administrative home. However, it is so much more. It is a ‘nest’ in which we are sure to find the warmth of a shared outlook and common affinities; in it, we are comfortable enough to disagree in the knowledge that disagreement does not divide us; it is populated by colleagues whose exceptional professionalism invariably pairs with a welcoming, open-minded, and inspiring attitude. Their virtual, metaphoric, and (pre-pandemic, real-life) embrace keeps us together and happily so. Much more than a mere ‘institute’ the LI is a group of exceptional individuals whose expertise and kindness makes every day and instance of collaboration a truly invigorating pleasure. Thank you, (director) Dianna Murphy, (associate director) Jana Marin, (assistant director) Kristin Dalby, Skender Jahiu (accountant), and Kaitlin Koehler (international directions advisor).

The grand finale belongs to our program administrator (appearing in a double role!) Kristin Dalby. While her feet most definitely belong to (and, on) the Ice Age Trail, she is the heart, soul, brain, ears, eyes, and hands of the program. From the long process of graduate student admissions to guiding current students, colleagues, and all members of the SLA community, Kristin’s expertise, insights, dedication, and personality make whatever is good -even better and whatever is not so good, better, too – or, at least, easier to accept. How fortunate we are to have you with us, Kristin!

I thank you all for a year that deserves so much more than a ‘pandemic prefix’ – it was memorable for so many much better reasons. And more good things are coming our way – we will share in them.


Picture of Rebecca Sawyer
SLA Student, Rebecca Sawyer

SLA Student Spotlight: Rebecca Saywer

This has been a year like no other, and it has certainly been a strange year to start a PhD. It’s impossible for me to capture what this first year has been like without looking through the lens of our pandemic-changed lives. Like everyone, I have felt alternating stress, sadness, anxiety, and grief as we navigate a world turn upside down, but even on my hardest days I am so thankful that I am here in Madison. Despite every gathering happening through a screen, I truly feel like part of a community.

The most challenging and rewarding shift that I have experienced this year is the shift from being a “knowledge consumer” to “knowledge producer.” Although I learned a great deal in my previous university experiences, I feel a new weight to the work that I do and a deep responsibility to contribute in meaningful ways to this field. It has been a messy and energizing process of reexamining or discarding old ideas, while building up new ways of thinking and refining emerging understandings. As I careen across the first year finish line, slightly bewildered and in desperate need of a nap, I’m surprisingly ready to think about the year ahead. Looking to the future feels both hopeful and daring in a way that felt impossible when we were deep in lock down last year. While I’m ready for a summer to recharge and reconnect with my family, I’m excited to think about what the next year will bring.

Rebecca's desk, featuring dandelions picked by her son
Picture of Natalia Petrova
SLA Student, Natalia Petrova

SLA Student Spotlight: Natalia Petrova

I joined the SLA program after I received my master’s degree in Russian Literature and Culture here at UW-Madison. I enjoy teaching languages, and I have been doing it since my graduation in Russia. I was the recipient of the 2016 Fulbright Scholarship, which introduced me to the world of teaching Russian as a foreign language. Before that, I taught English to young students and adults. Currently, I teach first- and second-year Russian and have experience working in the Russian Flagship program. I am inspired daily by seeing the results of my efforts both in teaching and studying. In my free time, I like working in the garden and exploring every nook and cranny of Wisconsin.

The Eagle Heights Community Gardens is pictured in an aerial view of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during autumn.
Picture of Sara Farsiu
SLA Alumna, Sara Farsiu

Sara Farsiu: From UW-Madison SLA Doctoral Student to Albert Markham Memorial Fellowship Recipient

When I first started my PhD journey, I looked for a thesis topic that would allow me to explore social justice issues facing immigrant and refugee families from the Middle East to the West. My advisor, Katrina Thompson, who I have enormous admiration for, helped me connect language, social justice, and diversity which has become the focus of my teaching and scholarship since then. Throughout these years, I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work at one of the nation’s leading research institutions, filled with accomplished scholars, supported by talented staff. They helped me cultivate professional connections and scholarly activities that helped me become an Albert Markham Memorial Fellow and postdoctoral researcher in Second Language Acquisition.

The postdoc position has provided me an opportunity to practice independent research. It is also an ideal preparation for academic teaching-focused jobs. I am currently studying the impact of U.S. sanctions on Afghan refugees in Iran. I will conduct fieldwork in Iran, applying my expertise studying language, culture, and society to collect first-hand stories of Afghan refugees there.

I aim to open a window into the realities of the lives of marginalized ethnic minorities outside of the United States and Europe. My hope is that this project will draw the attention of educational researchers and practitioners on the ongoing political conflicts in the Middle East to applying our knowledge to the solution of real-world issues. My study emphasizes the importance of understanding the relationship between human nature and society and finding new directions in creating successful multicultural and multilingual societies. I am pursuing a career in an institution of higher education. In particular, I seek an academic position that would give me the opportunity to teach in the field of language and education, with a focus on social justice in foreign language education.