Dr Sheena Van Der Mark, Assistant Professor of the English Language and Literature Studies Programme, is the proud recipient of the President's Award for Teaching and Service for Academic Staff (2016-2017).

However, behind every success story is a long and enduring back story, and Sheena's tale is a captivating story of academic pursuit, decisive crossroads, and rewarding journeys.

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Dr Sheena Van Der Mark in Papua New Guinea for her PhD fieldwork

An resident expert in language studies and linguistics at UIC, Sheena’s initial pursuit wasn’t even in linguistics. Originally planning on becoming an English teacher, Sheena’s dreams faltered when she failed to get into the BEd programme in English after her first year at the University of Calgary. Forced to choose between her two favoured electives, psychology and linguistics, due to a new Bachelor’s degree requirement for the BEd programme, Sheena chose psychology, only to find out her true interest lies in linguistics after her third year.

Without enough credits to graduate with a degree in linguistics within one year’s time, Sheena decided to give it a shot anyway.

With her newfound passion in linguistics, Sheena drove herself into coursework and readings, eventually completing her BA with a thesis in the acoustic correlates of Blackfoot pitch accent, which is the study of vocal patterns of Blackfoot, an indigenous language spoken in Western Canada and the US.

“At this point, I had discovered that phonetics and fieldwork were my favourite sub-disciplines within linguistics,” said Sheena. Phonetics is the study of the sounds of language and fieldwork is the study of under-described languages.

Encouraged to stay at the University of Calgary for her MA, Sheena continued her work on the Blackfoot pitch accent and improved her linguistic skills for her PhD application. That summer, she took part in a six-week summer programme in Fiji doing fieldwork in the Fijian language and working with speakers on language description. The exposure had only furthered Sheena’s interest in linguistic fieldwork as well as the South Pacific.

After returning to her MA and proceeding with PhD applications, Sheena was at a crossroad when receiving her offers. She could either go to La Trobe University in Melbourne for a three-year programme and do extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea or go to her dream school UCLA for a five-year programme studying phonetics. In the end, she went to Australia, since she couldn’t pass up the chance to work in Papua New Guinea.

“Sometimes I still wonder if it was the best career choice,” said Sheena. “But I will always be grateful for the experiences I gained living in such a different culture, and Papua New Guinea will always be part of me.”

Although grateful for her experiences in Papua New Guinea, a personal trauma in her fieldwork and the presence of certain unethical academic practices had deeply affected Sheena. Disillusioned with academia, after completing her PhD and working in the same university in Australia for two years, she decided to detach herself from academia and moved back to Canada. After teaching part-time in Calgary for half a year, Sheena decided to join her family in China, who were teaching English in Shenyang at the time.

“This is how I first moved to China,” said Sheena. “Although I was teaching English in a university in Shenyang, I felt that I was away from the academic world that I needed a break from, and spending time with family that I had missed out on after living in Australia for seven years.”

After a year of teaching, one of her father’s former colleagues who was working at UIC passed Sheena’s CV to the then TESL programme in 2011 and everything else was history. Little did Sheena know that she would soon be returning to the academic world she was avoiding.

“But UIC has been a good transition back to academia for me,” said Sheena. “It’s allowed me to focus on my teaching, and focus on the students while rekindling my love of linguistics.”

Now teaching courses in general linguistics and the interaction of language and culture at UIC, Sheena’s wealth of cross cultural experience and educational experience has truly changed the classroom. Employing e-learning technologies as a tool instead of a distraction has created a new platform where students can access an English environment even when they are outside of the classroom. By the creation of course materials through mediums such as animated videos, students are able to gain fluency they are otherwise unable to attain through formal teaching methods.

A strong focus on student-centred pedagogy may help students better understand how certain concepts may relate to their own lives. Instead of using foreign examples to explain linguistic concepts, Sheena uses Putonghua or sometimes Cantonese to make it more relatable.

“It should make it more real for them,” said Sheena. “It should help them see the ideas in their everyday life, so the concepts go beyond the classroom, and allow them to think critically about how they apply such concepts to their own life.”

Written by Jennifer Chiu
(republished from Issue 4 of UIC magazine New Dimensions)