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New Face: Marieta Simeonova Pissarro

The new director of the English Language Center says collaboration is key to helping international students attain English proficiency.

People  |  Nov 13, 2017  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
Portrait of Marieta Simeonova Pissarro

Marieta Simeonova Pissarro, director of the English Language Center (Amanda Keating/UNLV Creative Services)

Marieta Simeonova Pissarro can translate her many titles into six languages — her native Bulgarian, English, Russian, German, French, and even a little Spanish. She is a scholar, wife and mom of two, and avid do-it-yourselfer. One of her favorite titles is teacher. 

What about UNLV strikes you as different?

The diversity in a very positive way in terms of faculty, staff, and the student body, which is what real diversity means. It’s very important to see it reflected in the staff and definitely the faculty. It’s how students connect with their professors at different levels, not just academically. It’s very conducive to exchanging ideas about our identities and backgrounds. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to participate in such conversations.

It’s a positive challenge to be able to show the amazing things we can do with our partnerships. I have established partnerships with (the colleges of) Hospitality and Engineering, the office of international students and scholars, and The Intersection. Mentorships and collaborations are happening at UNLV that have not happened anywhere else I have taught. I really appreciate that.

Why UNLV?

I worked in a conservative, rural institution before, and I was ready to go into a bigger, more “daring and diverse” playground. In Kentucky, I started an intensive English program and ran it mostly by myself for four years. For me UNLV was the next step up. It had a working ESL (English as a Second Language) program with three full-time teachers. It is a wonderful bridge to what I feel I can do with the right tools. I feel at UNLV internationalization is valued, and there is a lot of interest to attract international students and support them with quality ESL and academic classes.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you.

A Chinese print. I attended a conference at Indiana University, Bloomington in 2015, and they had a wonderful extracurricular program after the conference. They had international music and hats from all over the world. There was a Chinese gentleman providing calligraphy demonstrations. He had different characters we could choose from. The character I chose was “dare.” In hindsight, this institution was a perfect fit since UNLV includes “daring” in its motto!

Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.

I have always been an intellectually curious person. I think intellectual curiosity is daring — to talk about or to learn things that take you out of your comfort zone or that are on the cutting edge. I learn and dare to work across my students’ consciousness.

What was it like growing up in Bulgaria?

I was born in Veliko Turnovo, a European city with a long and colorful history and rich cultural heritage. Communism was a utopia that suggested that people can share everything they have and work for virtually free. It’s a beautiful idea that doesn’t work because people are not that advanced in their thinking. Ultimately, my country and city were a very safe, happy, and friendly place to grow up. It was the complete opposite of what some Americans might think of communism as a repressive regime…but I didn’t know actually what it stood for when I was a child.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I’ve always been interested in languages. I started studying English in third grade as an extracurricular activity that my sister encouraged. In third grade, I also started studying Russian at school, and I absolutely loved it. Languages kind of naturally connected with me. I think studying Russian and English at an early age prepared me for going into literature and linguistics.

In fourth grade, we started studying English in school, and I had only A’s, so I said, “that’s the thing I’m going to do.” I went on to college and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English philology (at University of Veliko Turnovo St. Cyril and St. Methodius). We were trained to be English teachers. I thought I was going to be an interpreter. Interpreting is just that – helping people understand each other at the most basic level of communication, but also culturally and socially.

Tell us more about your career.

After the master’s, I taught seventh graders “prep year” in the best intensive English school in town. Next, I taught English in a hospitality and tourism school for sixth - twelfth graders. I was the only English teacher and served about 150 students. Then I worked in Sofia, Bulgaria, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army’s recreational program for soldiers who had served in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was high-level interpreting for the Ministry of Defense and high-ranking military officials. This was my last job before I left home in 2001. I graduated magna cum laude from the University of Cincinnati with an Ed.D. in Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language.

Pastimes or hobbies?

Traveling, exploring, hiking, making jewelry, and going to the gym. It’s important to create a good routine for yourself. I’m always looking for interesting ways to engage in the community.

Finish this sentence, “If I couldn’t work in my current field, I would like to…”

…not do anything at all. Retirement! I would sit on my wraparound porch in the mountains with a beehive and chickens and a dog – and books, lots of books, and crafts. Maybe I’ll pick up a musical instrument and just enjoy learning to play it. I’ve always been a teacher. I enjoy helping young people achieve their full potential. With language teaching, it’s something beautiful. That is why I got into languages. It’s our window to other cultures. It’s not just the words; it’s what’s behind the words, the history, the artifacts, and the people. I cannot imagine myself in any other profession.

Tell us about someone you admire and why.

I was raised by my grandmother from ages 1 to 5. In Bulgaria, it was a common practice for women to work. Usually it was the grandparents that helped out with child-rearing. I remember my grandmother’s spirit of do-it-yourself. She lived in her own house with me. She went to the forest to get wood and collected herbs for tea. It was almost like a fairy tale. We lived on the edge of the woods, kind of Little Red Riding Hood-style. She gave me a lot of freedom and confidence in what I wanted. She taught me to knit, how to be industrious, not to be lazy, and to have a connection to nature. My grandmother saw what needed to be done, and she did it. I admired her independence and strength.