Q. Welcome to Bryn Mawr! Would you introduce yourself and share a bit about your path?
A. Thank you, it’s so wonderful to be here! My name is Vanessa Petroj and I am the new director of multilingual writing. I joined Bryn Mawr College this summer and I am absolutely thrilled to be here!
My hometown is Uzdin, a village with a Romanian ethnic majority in Serbia. I first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate exchange student at the University of Mississippi. I liked studying in the U.S., so, after completing my B.S. at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia, I came back as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut where I completed my Ph.D. in linguistics. My thesis explores the topic of code-switching between Romanian and Serbian, an informal, spoken-only dialect of Romanian used by people who identify ethnically as Romanian in my hometown in Serbia. Since then, I’ve worked in writing centers and as a writing instructor across the country, where most of my work involved supporting multilingual and international students.
Q. How did you become interested in linguistics and decide to teach writing? How do these interests inform one another in your work?
A. I think I have always been passionate about linguistics, even before I knew what linguistics was. Reflecting on my background and education, I have always been surrounded by multiple languages, dialects, cultures, and different ways of expression. My K-8 education was in Romanian, my high school education was in Serbian, my college education was a hybrid of classes in Serbian and English, and my graduate education in linguistics revolved around learning about different languages in a department that was filled with international and multilingual students and faculty. During all these experiences, I remember always being fascinated by different ways of expressing thoughts, by the interaction between languages, and, in general, I simply always wanted to know more—more languages and more about those languages. Linguistics, in a way, was a natural choice for me.
It wasn’t until I started working at the University of Connecticut’s Writing Center that I realized that teaching writing and being involved in the writing center circles is truly what motivates me most about going to work every day. Working with writing, especially by multilingual writers, is like a playground for linguists! Analyzing multilingual writing and finding ways to consider the influences of other languages in an English text has always intrigued me. At the same time, I see myself in my students who are navigating being a college student in a foreign culture, through a foreign language, while pursuing their education in a completely new environment. It takes a lot of courage, determination, and mental and emotional strength. I am always in awe at their drive and how graceful they are in their pursuit.
Q. What courses are you teaching this year?
A. Every fall, I will be teaching a couple of sections of WR 120: Workshop for Multilingual Writers, intended for first-year multilingual students. I like to describe this class as home room because, while the focus is on academic writing and reading, we spend a lot of time on cultural adjustment, building relationships, and simply having a safe space for my students to share their experiences and bring any questions or concerns they are having at the time. This spring, I will teach WR B210: More than Language Barriers: Adjusting to the U.S. Academia, intended for non-first year multilingual students where we will be tackling cross-academic, cross-linguistic, and cross-cultural aspects of the U.S. academia, focusing on highlighting the challenges and contributions by multilingual and multicultural students and scholars, as well as ways in which to navigate path towards success and a sense of belonging.
Q. What is your role in the Writing Center?
A. In the Writing Center, I tutor students in one-on-one conferences and, in collaboration with the Jen Callaghan, the Writing Center director, I provide training for tutors by focusing on multilingual writing support.
Q. What is your role at the College in general?
A. Outside of the Writing Center, I am the go-to person for all questions regarding multilingual writing. I meet with faculty and staff who are interested in best practices and strategies for supporting multilingual students. I am involved in organizing various workshops geared towards multilingual writing, whether it be within Bryn Mawr College or within Tri-Co. Finally, I am involved in committees that support multilingual and multicultural students, such as the International Coordinating Council and International Students Planning and Programming. More information and resources on multilingual writing is available on my departmental webpage.
Q. What are your goals and aspirations?
A. Besides working with students, one of the main reasons that this position attracted me to Bryn Mawr College was the flexibility to be involved in various committees and projects around multilingual matters. Being a part of a strong community that believes and advocates for linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity and inclusion is rewarding in itself, but it also means that there are multiple avenues through which we can create a safer and more inclusive environment where our multilingual and multidialectal students can have a true sense of belonging and where their voices and their identities are empowered and celebrated. That, I would say, is my overarching goal fueling how I show up to work every day.
A more concrete, immediate goal is a research project that I have been thinking about for several years and I think I finally have the bandwidth to actualize. I am working on a research study that would enable us to capture and explore the influence of our students’ native languages on their writing in English. This, in turn, will allow for more concrete training material, strategies, and an overall increased awareness on how we can support our multilingual students as they are navigating their college education in the U.S. Ultimately, I am hoping to work on a documentary that amplifies multilingual voices, that celebrates their perspectives on education in the U.S., and that serves as an informative and training opportunity for educators at Bryn Mawr College and across the U.S.
Q. And finally, what do you like to do in your free time?
A. I enjoy spending my free time with my husband and our 14-month-old son, regardless of what we are doing. I also enjoy hosting student gatherings and having friends and family over whenever possible. Both my husband and I are immigrants in the U.S., so we truly value spending quality time with people and being a part of a community.
As a former Serbian professional table tennis player, I am always looking for ways to stay active. Before the pandemic, I enjoyed playing table tennis and going to local and national tournaments, especially as a part of the U.S. National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. This is something I’m hoping to resume once playing sports indoors is safe again. I also enjoy traveling, meeting new people, and trying different food everywhere I go. These days, however, I’m spending most of my free time outside, hiking or running, with my husband and our son.