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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

The DM: Professor Hosts Latino Culture Day

November 17, 2015 | By Taylor Cook, Courtesy of The Daily Mississippian

Spanish professor Ivonne Whitehead prepares for Cultural Day party in her office. Photo by Taylor Cook

Spanish professor Ivonne Whitehead prepares for Cultural Day party in her office. Photo by Taylor Cook

One modern languages professor is going above and beyond to share her culture with a very special group of students.

Ivonne Whitehead, lecturer of Spanish, will be “throwing the house out the window” at her annual Latino Culture Day this Wednesday.

Born and raised in Panama, Whitehouse takes pride in her heritage and is eager to share the Latino culture with her students. She not only wants her students to learn Spanish from a textbook, but also through immersing themselves in the culture. Through her Latino Culture Day fiestas, she is able to bring her classroom lessons to life in ways that a textbook cannot.

Whitehead goes above and beyond what is asked of her as a professor. Her students aren’t just names on an attendance sheet. The passion that she has for her culture inspires her students to embrace the Spanish language and learn about the Latino culture.

This year in particular, her fiesta will have a special significance to her as she says goodbye to a group of students she has known throughout their academic careers.

“This is a special and somewhat different party,” she said. “I have 10 students who have been my students through different semesters over the past two years, and four have been with me through four semesters.”

This year, Whitehead has two parties planned at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the group, of whom she speaks very fondly. For these ten students, this Spanish class is their last before they graduate this year. As their one and only Spanish professor, Whitehead wanted make this particular Culture Day not only her annual fiesta but also a party to celebrate the accomplishments and the futures of these students.

“I want my students to remember me as more than just their Spanish teacher but as a teacher who cares for them individually,” she said. “I have worked very hard to make a difference in their lives.”

Whitehead has been hosting her Latino Culture Day parties for her Spanish students every year since 1990 as way to encourage her students to embrace the Spanish culture beyond just language. When she was a student in Panama, her native country, her teacher would have an American culture day on Thanksgiving Day. The menu was stocked full of traditional Thanksgiving favorites: turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and even candied yams. With classic tunes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley filling the air, she got a taste of American culture. Inspired by her experiences with learning about American culture, Whitehead wanted to keep sharing her Latino culture as a professor.

“The purpose of this cultural day is not only for my students to self-reflect on their Spanish language training they have had throughout the semester, but to gain and have an appreciation for the culture that goes with the language they have been learning,” Whitehead said. “I thought that was such a great idea—not only was I learning the English languages, I was also learning about the culture of Americans.”

Whitehead transforms the day into a fun-filled fiesta, complete with traditional Latino food and music. Some of the food is catered, but Whitehead said she does prepare her personal favorites for her students. The menu typically includes a buffet of queso, taquitos, cakes, tortillas, salsa, candies and much more. The most important item on the menu, she claims, is a special dish of her own creation that she makes every year. The dish, which consists of layers of yellow rice, beans, ground beef, white cheese and lettuce, never fails to impress.

“I love [seeing] the smiles on my student’s faces,” said Whitehead. “I care more about them just learning the language I am teaching them but also I want them to experience the culture.”