A first-generation college graduate who “continues to love what I do” has been named the recipient of Lander University’s Moore Award for Excellence in General Education Teaching.
Dr. Osvaldo Parrilla, a professor of Spanish in the Department of English and Foreign Languages, joined Lander’s faculty in 2007 and teaches all levels of Spanish.
His passion for teaching began at his high school in St. Croix, when he discovered a love for language and literature during a Spanish class for Spanish speakers. “I learned to appreciate books, plays and short stories,” he said. “I fell in love with literature, and I decided to become a Spanish teacher.”
Parrilla was determined to go to college. His parents, both from Puerto Rico, had not earned high school degrees, but they were proud of his goals and supported him in his undergraduate program at the University of the Virgin Islands. His first job in bilingual education and Spanish began in 1985 at the island’s John H. Woodson Jr. High School, a post he held until Hurricane Hugo arrived in St. Croix in 1989 and destroyed the tropical paradise.
The disaster led Parrilla to Buffalo, N.Y., where he found a job in the Buffalo Public School system. “It was a new culture and new weather,” he said with a laugh, noting that he went from a sunny island to a state with snow beginning in October.
Working in a disadvantaged neighborhood school was challenging, Parrilla said, and the move led him to doubt his choice of professions. But the desire to teach was so strong that Parrilla persevered, and he earned a master’s degree from New York University. During a visit to family in Tennessee in 1992, Parrilla “took the risk of seeking a teaching job at Austin Peay State University” in Clarksville, Tenn., and was hired as an adjunct professor. That position led to his decision to begin work on a doctorate at Texas Tech University.
His career in higher education was launched. After teaching posts in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, Parrilla found his teaching “home” at Lander.
“I am happy that I didn’t give up teaching,” he said.
Many others are happy about that decision, too. Students rave about Parrilla’s teaching, said Dr. Mark Rollins, dean of Lander’s College of Arts & Humanities.
“Dr. Parrilla’s students enjoy learning Spanish with him because he makes class lively, interactive and fun. Students love his sense of humor and effective use of class time,” Rollins said. “Many students take introductory Spanish classes simply to fulfill a requirement. Dr. Parrilla gives them much more than they bargained for. Students often cite his class as their favorite of the semester. Several mention that they decided to pursue a Spanish minor or major after taking one of Dr. Parrilla’s class.”
As a colleague, Parrilla is greatly admired. “His hard work, dedication to students, and friendly disposition earn the respect of students and peers alike,” Rollins said.
Beyond the classroom, Parrilla is the faculty advisor to Somos LU, which serves and promotes the interests of the Hispanic community on campus. His encouragement and support for the club and its members led to Parrilla being named the 2022 Advisor of the Year, a significant annual award given to a Lander faculty or staff member for their significant voluntary involvement in co-curricular activities.
Parrilla’s smile when he talks about Somos LU underscores his pride for the students. “I was really happy when I was asked by a student to be their advisor. I happily accepted the offer. Over the past four years, they have become so involved … sharing their culture.”
Ashley Jearim Vargas-Luna, a member of Somos LU, described Parrilla as “an amazing professor and advisor. He has always put the interests of his students first.”
She added, “For Somos LU, it has been such a blessing for him to be our advisor! He strives to make this organization better by doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work. He is extremely hardworking, friendly, motivated, and loves to teach and enrich young minds about the Latinx culture.”
Parrilla’s tenure at Lander is marked by other significant service to the University. His posts include numerous department and faculty assignments. Most recently, he has been faculty advisor to Sigma Delta Pi, which is the Spanish Honor Society, and the University’s Tenure and Promotion Committee.
His intellectual contributions include books and book chapters, as well as the presentation of papers at academic conferences throughout the United States and abroad.
In spite of the many demands on Parilla’s time, Rollins said, “It is also worth mentioning that Dr. Parrilla has maintained his superlative teaching while pursuing a B.S. in Visual Art degree at Lander, which he earned in May. Dr. Parrilla has not only taught four classes per semester, continued his scholarship, and participated in university and departmental service in recent years. He has also been taking a full load of art classes.”
Rollins said being a student “may contribute to Parrilla’s outstanding teaching and the concern he displays for his students. He knows what it’s like to be a busy student at Lander. He can empathize, not merely sympathize.”
At the heart of everything he does, as Rollins points out, is Parrilla’s desire to ensure that students pursue and realize their dreams. When a first-generation college student dropped out after his freshman year, Parrilla texted him repeatedly. “Come back. Come back. You need to finish.”
The student returned and graduated and now is planning to attend graduate school. “I didn’t give up on him,” Parrilla said. “I enjoy having first-generation students. I see a lot of myself in them.”
He also views 2022 as an exceptional year. “I received two awards, and I earned a new degree,” he said.
And for that degree, Parrilla marched in Lander’s 165th Commencement Ceremony and sat among the students with whom he had taken classes and those whom he taught. “It reminded me once again how valuable a college degree is and how much it can change your life,” he said.