Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Heather Sweetser had just graduated high school and was working in a bakery.
“I was there because I didn’t want to go to college,” she said. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Decades later, Sweetser, a senior lecturer of Arabic at the University of New Mexico, earned one of the top recognitions for language teachers. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages named her the 2022 National Language Teacher of the Year in November.
“It’s kind of ironic I didn’t even want to go to college,” she said. “And now I work at a college.”
It was an Army recruiter that set her on the path to becoming an esteemed university educator. She joined the U.S. Army at 19, initially hoping to be a military musician.
“There wasn’t really a job for me, so they suggested I become a linguist,” she said. “I took a test and they decided I would learn Arabic. I had never spoken it in my life.”
Sweetser said she really had no idea what was in store. Most of her instructors were native speakers, but not all were good. She also struggled to use in the real world what she learned in a classroom setting. Even years after being considered fluent, she said the various dialects stumped her.
“The idea of not doing well did not occur to me until I started learning and I wasn’t doing well,” she said. “… I decided to teach Arabic to help other people because I learned from my struggles.”
She attended Ohio State University and earned a bachelor’s in Arabic, Islamic studies and international studies, and a master’s in Arabic.
Arabic is one of the six languages of the United Nations and is spoken all over the world, including in New Mexico. She said people have different motives for learning Arabic here. Some hope to work for the government some day. Others want to help refugee populations and some do it out of curiosity.
Her goal, she said, is to teach her students how to communicate in such real-life situations as renting an apartment, ordering food and asking for directions.
Emma Trentman, an associate professor of Arabic at UNM and director of the Arabic program, said they have worked hard to develop their curriculum, and that Sweetser has put in a lot of work above and beyond what is expected. She helps students apply for scholarships, uses feedback from her students, as well as colleagues, to adjust her teaching methods throughout the year and hosts student outings.
Sweetser, she said, is popular among her students. In 2020, she was named UNM Lecturer of the Year. That award and this most recent recognition relied partially on feedback from students.
“This is the most prestigious language teaching award in the United States,” Trentman said. “We are very excited. She deserves it more than anyone.”
Sweetser said she considers the recognition not for her, but for the work of the entire team of Arabic instructors who often collaborate and team teach. She said she believes it’s more important now than ever to learn a foreign language.
“It’s a crucial time in American history and world history,” she said. “We need to learn to communicate with each other.”
The Journal continues “The Good News File,” a series of uplifting stories in partnership with KOAT-TV and KKOB Radio. The Journal will publish a “Good News” feature the first Friday of the month, KOAT-TV will present its feature each second Friday and KKOB each third Friday.