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February 23, 2004

Grad student follows dual passions of linguistics and field hockey

By Scott Rappaport

Academics and field hockey may seem like strange bedfellows, but for Vera Lee-Schoenfeld, the combination is as natural as the redwoods growing outside her Stevenson College office.

"When you graduate with a Ph.D in Linguistics from UCSC, other universities that hire you know that you’ve been highly trained as an excellent educator,” notes Vera Lee-Schoenfeld. Photo by Scott Rappaport

One of UCSC’s top linguistics graduate students, Lee-Schoenfeld was recently inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame for her field hockey achievements at Boston University, where she received her B.A. in French Language and Literature and Ed.M. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

Prior to that, she was named “1997 Female Scholar Athlete of the Year” by the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference.

A native of Hannover, Germany, Lee-Schoenfeld first came to the United States in 1991 to visit relatives in Menlo Park when she was still in high school.

She decided to study journalism in the United States and found out about the possibility of applying for an athletic scholarship. As an international student, she wasn’t eligible for other financial aid.

Eventually, Lee-Schoenfeld ended up studying French at Boston University on a full, four-year field hockey scholarship. During that time, she took a few linguistics classes and became interested in the theoretical side of language. Lee-Schoenfeld went on to study English as a Second Language at Boston University, completing a master’s thesis project she titled “Ride the Wave.”

“I like teaching English through songs and music,” Lee-Schoenfeld explained. “Singing along with songs makes it easier to pronounce foreign sounds. So I designed and created a workbook for non-English speakers where each lesson was based on a different song that was commonly heard on the radio. I used it a lot when I first started teaching ESL as a temp, because they didn’t provide us with any teaching materials.”

After finishing her master’s, Lee-Schoenfeld stayed in touch with one of her Boston University linguistics professors who told her about UCSC.

“I visited both Stanford and UCSC,” Lee-Schoenfeld recalled. “The campus here was so beautiful and the professors were warm, welcoming, and informal in a comforting way. I had a great feeling leaving here after that visit.”

Now in her fourth year at UCSC and with her Ph.D. in clear sight, Lee-Schoenfeld still has nothing but praise for the university: “Where else can you find this highly regarded faculty that has some of the best research professionals in the field, combined with such an exceptional environment--plus great athletic facilities with views of Monterey Bay?”

As a graduate student in linguistics, Lee-Schoenfeld has taken advantage of a variety of teaching opportunities over the past three years. In addition to her work as a teaching fellow and teaching assistant for various courses in syntax and phonology, Lee-Schoenfeld also had the chance to teach English to foreign Fulbright Scholars through UCSC Extension.

“My class was made up of German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Brazilian, Venezuelan, and various Eastern European students,” Lee-Schoenfeld said. “It was teaching ESL at a very high level. They were all pretty fluent, but they needed to learn certain patterns of speech--such as how to talk officially and politely with professors, how to set up a meeting, or how to participate in seminars.”

“It’s also a cultural thing,” she added. “For example, in some countries you’re not supposed to disagree with professors. But here, the professor mostly facilitates discussions. So we did a lot of role playing.”

Lee-Schoenfeld also taught for UCSC Extension’s Humphrey Program, leading a class designed for high-level workers from developing countries, such as government leaders, lawyers, and health care professionals.

“There were some famous people in that class, including Hauwa Ibrahim from Nigeria,” Lee-Schoenfeld said. “She was the lawyer for a woman who was going to be stoned to death—it was in the news. The case just recently got solved and she saved that woman. And I was teaching her English!”

Lee-Schoenfeld noted that an important aspect of her teaching experience has been instructing students how to give academic, oral presentations. Over the past year, she has presented linguistic papers at conferences in such varied venues as Durham, England; Buffalo, New York; and UC Davis. At each conference, she noticed a marked difference in the quality of presentations between students and faculty from UCSC, and those of most other institutions.

“Every time I go somewhere and present a paper, people are amazed at how good the UCSC talks are--they frequently ask me what’s different about our program here,” Lee-Schoenfeld said. “I always tell them about our department’s research seminar in oral presentations and they’re very impressed--they usually respond by saying they wished they had seminars like that at their schools.”

“UCSC has a reputation,” she added. “When you graduate with a Ph.D. in Linguistics from UCSC, other universities that hire you know that you’ve been highly trained as an excellent educator.”

Lee-Schoenfeld recently received an Institute for Humanities Research fellowship for 2004. She is looking forward to her next teaching assignment, which will be to organize and lead the Linguistics Teaching Assistant Training Course that all first- and second-year graduate students are required to attend.

But despite her busy schedule, there is still always room for field hockey. Lee-Schoenfeld plays every weekend at Stanford in the Northern California Field Hockey Association league. And true to form, her team has been the league champion for three years in a row.

To read other student profiles, check the Profiles in Excellence web page.

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