Vivian Leskes chosen for Marieb Award, HCC's highest honor
English as a Second Language professor Vivian Leskes will carry the ceremonial mace and lead the procession of graduates at Commencement May 27 after being chosen for HCC's highest honor, the Elaine Marieb Faculty Chair for Teaching Excellence.
Leskes has been an ESL teacher at HCC for 25 years. She is fluent in Spanish and has been studying Russian since taking a sabbatical trip to Ukraine in 2001.
"I need to keep practicing because if you don't use a language you lose it," she said. "My Russian — they call it advanced, but I'm never satisfied with it, so I have tremendous respect for the students who are taking their degrees in a language that's not their native one, and it's been so useful for me here at the college because our second largest group of ESL students is Russian speaking."
The announcement was made Wednesday afternoon during an assembly of faculty and staff in the Leslie Phillips Theater.
Also receiving annual staff awards were Jennifer Maccarini, coordinator of HCC's Nursing Success Program (Professional Staff Award), and Valentyna Semyrog, administrative assistant, Business & Community Services (Classified Staff Award).
The Marieb Award was endowed by HCC professor emeritus Elaine Marieb, '80, to recognize a full-time member of the faculty who exemplifies the characteristics associated with outstanding classroom teaching. Award recipients serve for one year and receive a small stipend for professional development, lead the procession at Commencement, and also give the keynote graduation speech.
The identity of the Marieb winner is a closely kept campus secret until the big reveal at the final Professional Association meeting of the academic year. The announcement caught Leskes completely off guard. She recently announced her retirement.
"I assumed that since I was retiring that would disqualify me," she said, "so I was totally unprepared."
Leskes, 69, who lives in Ashfield, with her husband, HCC Visual Arts professor and photography instructor Frank Ward, is originally from the Bronx. She attended the famous Bronx High School of Science, and spent two years at Wellesley College before transferring to Barnard College at Columbia in New York City, where she earned her bachelor's degree in English.
She had already been studying Spanish for many years when she participated in a program called Encampment for Citizenship in Puerto Rico, where she developed much of her Spanish fluency. She honed those skills working for a community center in the South Bronx.
"Spanish has really been the key to every job decision that I have ever made in my life," she said. "And I've told people that's the power of being bilingual, to have those two languages and be available to different communities. Every time there was a personnel decision to be made, I had the advantage because I could speak Spanish."
She started her ESL career as a tutor in Greenfield Public Schools working with young Puerto Rican students. She then went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to earn her master's degree in bilingual education. She was hired at HCC as an adjunct to teach both Spanish and ESL, then after a year she was offered a job as a full time ESL teacher.
Over the years, Leskes has also worked for the U.S. Dept. of State as an "English Language Specialist." She has given workshops and plenary addresses at embassies and conferences all over the world. "They've sent me to Russia several times and all those countries in central Asia, and I've been to Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait and Peru."
During her award acceptance speech - unprepared and unrehearsed, because it was a surprise - Leskes told her colleagues how much she believes in the mission of community colleges. "I feel at the community college we are really doing the work that needs to be done to facilitate opportunities for students who might not get them otherwise," she said.
She and her husband Frank are on their way to Germany next week to see their first grandchild, son of their son Caleb. Their daughter is getting married at the end of the summer, so she will be busy as she prepares for retirement. She will remain chair of the ESL Program through the summer and said she plans to use her Marieb stipend to continue studying Russian, but not toward any kind of degree.
"I'm doing it because I love the language so much," she said. "And I'm so interested in the culture."
Depending on how much she misses teaching, she said, she hinted that she might come back in some capacity.
"I don't feel my career is over," she said, a few hours before a retirement party held in her honor. "My work's not over."
STORY and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: ESL professor Vivian Leskes, winner of the 2017 Marieb Chair or Teaching Excellence, with her husband, HCC Visual Arts professor Frank Ward.