by Debayudh Chatterjee
This is the second of three profiles of alumni who majored in foreign languages at Illinois.
Meet Sandy Wagner, associate professor at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California. Sandy studied French at the University of Illinois from 1966 to 1970, a time when the campus was rocked by anti-Vietnam War protests. Her last year at Illinois was marked by important moments of societal dissent that went on to change American life forever.
Sandy was born and brought up on the South Side of Chicago. With a natural penchant for languages, she studied Spanish for two years in high school and went on to major in French with a minor in English at the U of I. She always wanted to be a teacher, but when she graduated, there was a dearth of teaching jobs. After working for Sears, Roebuck & Company in advertising and research, she eventually obtained a high school French teaching position with Chicago Public Schools, working with inner city students from diverse backgrounds and living in a time of sometimes violent turf wars between various marginalized groups.
Sandy’s career demonstrates how liberal arts enables one with the ability to adapt to changing realities. When life took her to Florida, she obtained a position as an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher for Broward County Schools. As technological advancements soon began to change education, Sandy kept pace with latest pedagogical interventions by obtaining a Master’s in Education in E-Learning and Instructional Design from the University of Phoenix. During her course of study, she learned to write HTML code and design and develop websites and online instructional applications, with a focus on language learning.
Sandy’s subsequent path demonstrates the many different forms that language teaching can take, particularly when coupled with technology. She joined the tech roadshow team for the Florida Department of Education, training community college faculty from around the state on integrating technology for language teaching and learning. In 2006, she joined the faculty of the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California, where she is currently employed. Sandy defines her job as “contributing to the language learning process by incorporating primary linguistic competence, teaching experience, and technology applications into the development of language proficiency.” DLI provides language training for military linguists in the local languages of the countries where their services are needed. Long before the pandemic hit, necessitating a shift from face-to-face to the digital realm, Sandy designed and facilitated online courses. Her core strengths of learning and teaching new languages are complemented by her lifelong interest in technology.
Students majoring in foreign languages often face the question, “So, you’re going to teach?” For those who do follow the path of an educator, “Yes!” is only a momentary answer, as the road to helping people gain multilingual abilities is vital work that can expand in many directions. Sandy’s career trajectory, which began with language instruction, has led to related destinations that involve technology, innovation, and teacher training. Her trajectory illustrates what many of our language alumni already know: that a passion for languages that begins in the high school classroom and pursued as a foreign language major in a Liberal Arts and Sciences program, builds a foundation to take you in many different directions in the ever dynamic landscapes of life.