Abigail Padilla

Managing Editor / Campus Life Editor

Doreen O’Connor Gómez has been with the Whittier College community for 32 years. Ever since she set out on her academic adventures, she’s always been very interested and passionate about teaching and learning Latino Studies. 

“[I] was born and raised in New York and went to school in Washington DC, lived in Madrid, Spain, and I went to the university there. [I] taught at a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, and I had the opportunity to do a national endowment for the Humanities Institute at Arizona State University.” With this education, she was thinking that she’d be doing something at some “‘think-tank’ in Latin America ”, however, she was offered a teaching assistant position that changed her path. “[W]hen you become a teaching assistant, they pay you a very small stipend… it was ridiculously small, but they pay your tuition. So I was able to do my Master’s degree. Once I finished my Master’s, they said ‘Why don’t you get a PhD?’”

Mario Rojas, her advisor in college, was a big influence to take the dive to get her doctorate. Though retired, Gómez and Rojas keep a close friendship. 

Currently, O’Connor-Gómez teaches Elementary Spanish, and a senior level class about Latin American Literature. The higher level class Gómez describes as “a panoramic view of literature from the middle ages until about 1700. So it’s really a course designed for majors and minors, but we look at all the different genres, and all the works of literature.” This class is taught only in Spanish, and it exposes students to literary criticism. 

Gómez’s doctoral dissertation is on the Spanish Golden Age; it’s one of her areas of expertise. “[Over the years, since I was doing Golden Age, I got into more colonial studies and I’ve become somewhat of an expert on Juana Inés de la Cruz, the great Mexican poet, from the 17th century.” She elaborated, “ [m]ore recently I’ve been looking at Theater in Spain… I look at 21st century theatrical representations on stage of Golden Age literature… Texts that were written in the 1550s, 1650s, coming alive on a 21st century stage.” During March 2020, Gómez was actually on sabbatical to study more theatrical performances, but then “[…] everything got put on hold with the pandemic.” 

In the past, Gómez has had very enriching experiences for students. She recalls a time when she was pregnant when she , “taught a seminar on Don Quixote de la Mancha, the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Both parts. So, it was a total of about 1200 pages of reading; it was a graduate level seminar. But to this day [the students] thank me. [They say] ‘Thank you for making us do that because it was really an experience.’” 

Another experience she had with her students was their JanTerm-turned-MayTerm Spain trip. “We’ve been taking students to Sevilla, Spain, for the past couple years… and what a delightful group of students, the best cultural ambassadors from Whittier College. Everyone talked about how wonderful it was. We even got on the news in Spain!”

 Spanish literature isn’t her only passion; she also loves to teach her Spanish language classes. “Very memorable classes over the years,” She recalls.  She describes her teaching style as a natural, communicative approach. Native speakers would come into the class in the past;. Such groups like Las Madres! Las Madres was a group that would come into the learning Spanish classes every two weeks, and immerse the students in the language by playing games and singing songs. The students were able to practice their Spanish in fun ways that ultimately made them more fluent. Gómez is also involved with writing textbooks, “I just showed my students yesterday a chapter 2 of a textbook that’s being published in Spain. I’m always working on new pedagogies for my classroom and learning Spanish.”

But for Gomez, her real passion lies with her students. “I learn something new everyday from my students. I really focus on bringing…their experiences into the classroom… We all learn from one another.It’s just that chispa, that just kind of keeps you on your toes. [The students] definitely give me the passion… to keep teaching.” She said, and went on to express concern for her students’ and the studenty body’s mental health. She said, “[…] right now,  I’m noticing students are getting very, very tired. We’re mid semester, and I’m thinking, guys, we have to switch gears. And then I think how can I facilitate that? (…)It takes a long time to do a syllabus, plan out my course, aAnd I have learning outcomes and goals… At times you just need to switch gears. So, I worry they have too much on their plates… I worry about burn out.”

Gómez strives to create diverse experiences in the classroom. For example, one day someone from Facilities by the name of Wilfredo was in her Spanish class, fixing the air conditioning. They started to interview him, the students getting a fun way to not only practice Spanish, but to get to know someone from the campus community. “And then we decided we were going to bring a whole plate of pupusas one day, just to hang out and talk to them. Because that’s learning Spanish. [It’s about the] the immersive setting.” 

However she can create a memorable experience, she will. Previously, she was the Faculty Master of Hartley House, and used that opportunity to bring Chilean author Isabel Allende. “[…]… we’re going back a number of years… prolific writers. She wrote ‘The House of The Spirits’, … [she was] the first Latin American woman to break the barrier of magic realism in Latin America.” Gomez elaborated, “Whittier has given me wonderful opportunities. I have to say. Starting the Latinx studies program was big for me. [When] I was faculty master of Hartley House … and those were the best years of my life.”

She told herself when she became faculty master that she would try to bring more diverse programs to the school. She advised many speakers coming, along with Rigoberta Menchú who came with the help of the Native American Association on campus. Gómez also worked to get Latino theater productions to be performed at the Shannon Center. Gómez got schools around the Whittier community involved so kids could attend a Spanish theater production, and see themselves in the entertainment position. It was “creating a vibrant community for Latinos.” 

Doreen O’Connor-Gómez wouldn’t dream of teaching somewhere else, however, the College makes it difficult. For the last 30 months, professors have not been receiving retirement benefits. Gómez especially feels like she never stops working. She herself, is at risk of burnout. We’re all at risk of burnout. But if there’s one thing that Gómez wants her students to know, it’s that she cares. She’s passionate about teaching, wants to answer questions, and wants to train the future that comes through Whittier College.

Photo Courtesy of Staff Directory

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