Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Heather Sweetser had just graduated from high school and worked in a bakery.
“I was there because I didn’t want to go to college,” she said. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
Decades later, Sweetser, a lecturer in Arabic at the University of New Mexico, won one of the top honors for language teachers. The American Council on Foreign Language Education named her National Language Teacher of the Year 2022 in November.
“It’s a little ironic that I didn’t even want to go to college,” she said. “And now I work in a college. “
It was an Army recruiter who set her on the path to becoming a esteemed college teacher. She joined the US Army at age 19, hoping to first become a military musician.
“There wasn’t really a job for me, so they suggested I become a linguist,” she said. “I took a test and they decided that I would learn Arabic. I had never spoken of it in my life.
Sweetser said she really has no idea what to expect. Most of its instructors were native speakers, but not all were good. She also struggled to use what she learned in the classroom in the real world. Even years after being considered fluent, she said the various dialects baffled her.
“The idea of not doing well didn’t come to me until I started to learn and I was not doing well,” she said. “… I decided to teach Arabic to help others because I learned from my struggles. “
She attended Ohio State University and obtained a BA in Arabic, Islamic Studies and International Studies, as well as an MA in Arabic.
Arabic is one of the six languages of the United Nations and is spoken all over the world, including New Mexico. She said people have different motivations for learning Arabic here. Some hope to one day work for the government. Others want to help refugee populations and some do so out of curiosity.
Her goal, she said, is to teach her students how to communicate in real-life situations like renting an apartment, ordering food, and asking directions.
Emma Trentman, associate professor of Arabic at UNM and director of the Arabic program, said they had worked hard to develop their program and Sweetser had done a lot of work beyond what was expected. She helps students apply for scholarships, uses feedback from her students, as well as colleagues, to adjust her teaching methods throughout the year, and arranges student outings.
Sweetser, she says, is popular among her students. In 2020, she was named UNM Speaker of the Year. This award and more recent recognition was based in part on student feedback.
“This is the most prestigious language teaching award in the United States,” Trentman said. “We’re very excited. She deserves it more than anyone.
Sweetser said she considers the recognition not for herself, but for the work of the entire team of Arabic instructors who often collaborate and teach as a team. She said she thinks it’s more important than ever to learn a foreign language.
“This is a pivotal moment in American and world history,” she said. “We have to learn to communicate with each other.
The Journal continues “The Good News File”, a series of uplifting stories in partnership with KOAT-TV and KKOB Radio. The Journal will publish a “Good News” article on the first Friday of the month, KOAT-TV will feature its article every second Friday and KKOB every third Friday.