Foreign Language Department Chair recalls journey to Sam during speaker

Dr. Debra Andrist got two introductions, one in English and one in Spanish, before her lecture for the SAM Center’s ‘Up Close and Personal’ Speaker series. Andrist is the chair of the foreign languages department, and she also teaches Spanish.

Andrist talked about her life and the events that led to her decision to become a teacher.

“I thought of being an architect,” she said, “but when I was in high school, girls couldn’t take mechanical drawing. They had to take home economics.”

She took Spanish in college because it was offered at 9:30 a.m., instead of French, which was offered at 7:30 a.m.

“I was used to my father waking me up after several alarms every morning,” Andrist said. Because she was not a morning person, Spanish seemed like a better choice. She liked it so much that she decided to study abroad in Mexico.

Later, she got a short-term job teaching English in Venezuela. When she returned to the United States, she began teaching Spanish, first in Michigan and then in Nebraska.

“About that time, I decided I wanted to go to grad school,” she said. She wanted to work in anthropological linguistics and learn Nahuatl, part of the Aztecan language family. The best place to go for that was the University of Utah.

As a grad student, Andrist had a teaching assistantship. She also had a mentor, who suggested that she go for a Ph.D. She was accepted at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and she earned a teaching assistantship there as well.

“All these events just happened at the right time for me to seize them,” she said.

She also shared her feelings about teaching.

“Some people feel that it’s our job to help students find out where they need to be,” she said. Andrist said that those people help students by making learning hard, so that students who are successful will know to stay where they are while those who fail know to find something else. Andrist said that she prefers to help students learn all they can.

Since Andrist is the department chair, some of her work involves helping faculty as well as helping students, but she insisted that she is not in charge of the faculty.

“The chair of the department is not the boss of the faculty,” she said. “They work with people to try and facilitate things, but they don’t tell people what to do.”

Andrist is also a mentor to some students, and she talked about the importance of having mentors, and what students can do to find one.

“It’s kind of like having a cheerleader,” she said. “Look for somebody who helps you realize how valuable you are and how much you know. You have to put yourself out there a little.”

Andrist spoke personally to a small audience of students and staff in the Lee Drain Atrium at noon on March 19. The lecture was informal and comfortable, and Andrist answered questions from both students and staff.

The SAM Center plans to hold one more Up Close and Personal speech this semester. To suggest a faculty or staff member, students can e-mail Dr. Bernice Strauss at

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