Interview with Associate Professor Estela Ene, PhD, Director of the English for Academic Purposes Program and Director of the MA and Certificate Program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at IUPUI (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis), USA. An emeritus student of the “Lucian Blaga” University in Sibiu, Estela Ene went to America more than 20 years ago on a scholarship.
Many diverse conditions pushed Romanians to cross the ocean and go to the Promised Land. Some aimed at discovering the world, others followed their professional calling and the need to reach success, others ran away from communism, poverty, while others chased luck or a chimera. Some lived the American dream, while others went through the American nightmare. Some still dream, while others, more realistic, take their lives in their own hands and make great efforts to build their own destiny!
Do you see yourself as a successful person?
Estela Ene: I think I am doing quite well, which doesn’t mean I’ve achieved everything I wanted, but I haven’t said everything yet. The end crowns the act. We shall see.
What does being successful look like for you?
Estela Ene: Success can be measured in multiple ways. It’s a sign of success when others find value in your words. Or if you can make a change in your environment, in your personal life. Strictly speaking, at personal level, if you are content with what you do, what you are, you can consider yourself successful. It depends on the standard used for comparison!
How did you come to emigrate to the United States?
Estela Ene: I’ve never identified with this immigrant label, because I’ve always thought of myself as an immigrant by accident. I didn’t come to the United States to stay. I came for an exchange programme. I wanted to see what America was like, just to learn – both academically and about life. My intention was to return to Romania. Ever since I was a student, it was quite clear to me that I could have become a university professor (at LBUS), but during that year I met Gabi, we fell in love, got married and I went back to the States mostly because, at that time, bio-medical engineering, his major, did not exist in Romania. In my fifth and final year of college I received a scholarship, through an exchange programme between the University of Sibiu and the University of Missouri, Columbia. Back then, shortly after the Revolution, they offered one or two places per university every year. In previous years, participants had been chosen, but the year when I got a place, they had a competition too.
Where do you feel at home? They say home is where your family is, but your family is both here and there.
Estela Ene: We’ve often discussed and joked about the topic of the many “homes” we have. Home in Sibiu, home in Indianapolis, home in Boston, home in Craiova. Yes, we have several “homes”, all equally important. The complicated thing is to juggle them all and to enjoy them differently.
In small amounts?
Estela Ene: Yes, and in a very special way that is impossible to experience for a stable person who’s only ever known only one culture, one language, one job. Over here, life is much more dynamic, from the moment you find a job until you retire. You experience things you couldn’t reach otherwise. On the one hand, it makes life more difficult, but also more colourful.
It wasn’t easy to study abroad when you came to America.
Estela Ene: Yes, you couldn’t go to Europe, as we were not part of the European Union yet, and it wasn’t as easy to go to the States either, like you can go today on a study visa for the summer. Two years before I came to America, I had a scholarship in Budapest to learn English language and literature. The classes there were based on the American system.
Which is the model you now know very well.
Estela Ene: Yes. But not everyone uses the most advanced teaching model in the United States either. You can have surprises. However, I’ve had excellent teachers everywhere I went.
In conclusion, don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
“I have a PhD in applied linguistics, I am a pedagogue, trainer, and programme manager. I want to write a study on the evolution of foreign language teaching in Romania.
I will present the results of this research at an international conference(sic) isatt2019.org that will take place this year in July at the Sibiu University.”
So, how would you introduce yourself? An expert in…?
Estela Ene: Specifically speaking, I am an expert in “second language writing and technology, and teacher education.”
We’re clear now (and I smile because it’s hard for me to find a Romanian equivalent of this specialization).
Estela Ene: I also do research in Romania, as it can extend and apply to the training of teachers everywhere. In order to be able to teach a foreign language, be it English or any other, you must understand how the brain works, how people learn, the social factors that impact successful learning and so on. Applied linguistics has several components: linguistic, psychological, cultural, socio-political, methodological, etc. For instance, one of my articles that also includes Romania refers to foreign language learning policies. It matters that the European Union has a certain multiculturalism policy that must be implemented in all member states. The priorities of the European Union are important, as their trickle-down effect will influence each future teacher, what they learn in high school, college, teaching college and so on. The relation between the opposite sides of this spectrum (i.e. government policy and individuals) is a fact and it must be understood – this is one of my goals and a reason I always come back home. I conducted a longitudinal study, which started in 2010 at the “Lucian Blaga” University. I also taught some classes there for MA students, as well as the available professors. And since I did my latest study in 2017, I want to write an article on the evolution of foreign language teaching in Romania.
Would it be beneficial for these articles to reach teachers in smaller cities or at the countryside, perhaps “translated” and popularized in a less scientific language, so teachers who don’t get to travel as much can have access to information too?
Estela Ene: Sure, if someone were interested in this and asked for my contribution, I’d be open for collaboration. (She smiles again and admits her love for the native country couldn’t let her refuse – Ed.) The problem is that, in Romania, just like in the United States, in the university system, publications are directly related to promotion criteria. In my case, in order to reach my goal of becoming full professor in 2020, such a publication would be of no value. Of course, it would mean a lot to me.
Sure, it doesn’t help your career, but it can help others.
Estela Ene: You’ve got to weigh your options. My work day is 10-12 hours long, so it’s hard for me to find time for another activity. However, if somebody did invite me, the affective ties with my country and my alma mater would make it hard for me to say no.
This is the weakness you and others who left Romania feel.
Estela Ene: It’s true. The workshop I held in Romania was my suggestion. I created this opportunity and asked for nothing in exchange.
And no one thought of coming up with a reward.
Estela Ene: No. I think this is a fairly common experience for those who left and specialized here (i.e. in America). I think those who stayed home treat us with a certain degree of reluctance. I don’t know why! I believe it’s easier to negotiate with Romanians who specialized in various countries than with foreigners and we could learn from each other.
When you draw the line, in the States, if you keep at it, you can become a university professor in less than 20 years! And that’s fast!
How long has it taken you to become a full professor? I know it’ll still take a year, but the hay is in the barn.
Estela Ene: It didn’t last long. It’s happened exactly as it normally does here. Each stage lasts a certain amount of time. My MA took 2 years, my PhD 5 and a half – I had Sofia during the last year and I wrote my thesis while breastfeeding. Then, for 1 year, I worked for the corporation my husband was working for, until we both realised we had no interest in that environment. Coming from Romania, where freedom of opinion had been restricted for so many years, we felt that experience was limiting our rights. So I went back to academia and worked as an assistant professor for 5 years, according to the tenure clock. Once you’ve signed your contract, the countdown begins: after 3 years, you are evaluated and in the 4th you can apply for tenure and promotion. Then, once you’re an associate professor, the clock is not as strict, so another 5 years is actually quite soon. On average, people hold the position of associate professor for 7-8, even 10 years. So I will be one of the few to receive the “full professor” title in a pretty short time. I’m rushing to get this done so I can focus on the research I’m interested in and to open other doors to different means of achieving success, that don’t necessarily have to do with a certain amount of publications or public presentations.
If you want to call yourself an expert in a certain field, you do have to specialize in it. (Very true, right?!)
Do you believe excessive specialization can limit you?
Estela Ene: Even as an expert, you still have to understand the broader context, what’s going on around you, what happens to the specializations in your major. In fact, my training is interdisciplinary. Teaching English does not stop at mastering English grammar and two-three methods to make the students learn. My field, Applied Linguistics, is the Romanian equivalent of Applied Modern Languages, but this is not the most precise or appropriate term, because you don’t “apply” modern languages. Applied linguistics is a social SCIENCE. It’s a science based on and making use of the same scientific method used in all sciences. There’s only one scientific method, that’s what we call it in academia. There is no plural for the so‑called “scientific method”, only different techniques and ways to implement this method.
What would you like to develop once this stage is over?
Estela Ene: The reason I chose applied, not theoretical linguistics is that I am interested in its applications. I want to see the results of scientific discoveries, regardless of the research field. I want to see a change for the better in a social or professional class, irrespective of the place it focuses on. In general, in academia, the positions that can apply these ideas are administrative, for they allow you to come up with a vision and draw a development path.
As you were saying, you are already trained, for you are the director of two US educational programmes. How did you get there? Was there an application process? Or did somebody recommend you?
Estela Ene: I applied, yes.
It wasn’t a political appointment?
Estela Ene: Laughter. I haven’t reached that level yet. Yes, I finished my PhD and then started applying for academia jobs. Here, all PhD students apply for various positions in September. I must’ve sent hundreds, all over the USA. If they like your application, they call you, ask you to go to an interview, you go through three interviews, and then you’re offered the job.
We’re at your Boston home now, the city where your husband works, and your daughter goes to school. You work in Indianapolis, where you all lived for a while and now you commute by plane.
Estela Ene: Yes, 2.5 hours by plane. We all lived there for a while, then my husband came to Harvard. We thought it would be a temporary position, but often times temporary becomes definitive, so here we are. At first, my daughter stayed with me and my husband commuted, then she came to Boston and now I do. I hope we’ll reunite in the end.
In America, it’s pretty common to commute for 2.5 hours, it’s true, normally by car, but by plane is not that uncommon either.
Estela Ene: I don’t recommend this lifestyle, and I don’t think anyone takes pleasure in choosing this, but it’s true that it’s common and encouraged for doubtful reasons by employers who, instead of helping you reunite your family, helping you find a job for your partner, husband, wife, child, they reply with “Oh, this is common!” I’ve heard of more desperate cases, with one partner in Boston and the other in California.
“One must take the step from understanding to activism.”
Why do you think Americans encourage this system?
Estela Ene: Because above all, this society aims for productivity and they don’t value human relations at the same level. The idea that life can be divided is promoted. As if you lived two parallel lives that didn’t interact. One personal, the other professional. This is the employer’s official attitude: you don’t bring your personal issues to work and this is a way to not consider or to overshadow certain social problems which are very much there. As a woman, it’s easy to be discriminated through this attitude. You have children now, so you know that motherhood comes with a new level of complications and responsibilities that simply prevent you from splitting your personal and your professional life as easily. And at work, you should be able to discuss certain realities of your personal life. When the system is built such that we don’t speak about our personal problems, we don’t have the power to ask for certain rights. You must suffer the consequences for making a personal choice, as they say. I don’t know how these messages will be received in Romania.
How could people receive them?
Estela Ene: It seems to me that in Romania, women are aware of the difficulties in their lives, but they accept this as fatality, as a fact of their biologic condition, of culture and tradition. At some point, I believe one must take the step from understanding to activism. I hope I haven’t offended anyone.
Readers must understand that you’ve been living under the influence of a different civic culture for 20 years. At this very moment, there is a women’s march taking place in the centre of Boston.
Estela Ene: You should know that step didn’t work in the end and the movement broke apart. I was listening to a story on NPR right before you arrived. The leaders had a fight. But I wondered why the first women’s march against Trump took place after the elections and not before! Americans strongly believe that democracy works no matter what and this attitude sounds pretty naive to me. They may learn some things if they looked around and tried to understand the world. I mean, they should react quicker, for example, if they want results.
Perhaps Americans are like Transylvanians. (n.tr. In Romania, Transylvanians are considered very slow.)
Estela Ene: Laughter. Yes, well at least Transylvanians are steady. They keep on marching.
What are you reading these days? I sensed your interest for Barbara Kingsolver. Have you had the time to read Poisonwood Bible? I know you wanted to.
Estela Ene: Yes, I just finished it.
You were saying this is a book you’d recommend to anyone who likes to read. Why?
Estela Ene: It’s a long book, I started reading it several times, but its length and density of ideas got the better of me. However, I did finish reading it in the end. It tackles many important issues. Like any other good book, it’s about humanity.
How would you rank it among the best books you’ve read?
Estela Ene: Quite high. It’s also about the condition of immigrants, geopolitics, gender differences. I found the experience of this family of missionaries who follow their father, their pater familias, to Congo and radically change their life, very interesting. I was stricken by the discussion about democracy and the comparison between the American point of view, as represented by some characters, and the standpoint of those in a country used as ping pong balls by major powers. It’s a situation Romanians closely identify with and I thought it was interesting that an African context showed a similar perception on democracy and on what it meant to live in a rich, but powerless country. This book is also about women, about being spiritual, about religion – what’s the right way to perceive it, to spread it and so on.
We could end with this reading recommendation. Any other message for the readers?
Estela Ene: I don’t have any grand message for your readers. A conclusion entails an end, as if I’m dying and I must say my last words of wisdom. Copy something from Andrei Pleșu, I usually agree with him. Laughter
We find this terribly funny, but in the end, we agree this isn’t a bad conclusion after all.
Laura Bândilă Goldberger