All for the love of linguistics

European roots span global boundaries for joy of language


Christian Urrutia / The Advocate

Foreign languages department Chairperson Irena Stefanova, was born in Bulgaria but teaches Spanish here on campus. Stefanova is fluent in six languages.

By Mike Thomas, Scene Editor

When the Berlin wall was torn down on Nov. 9, 1989, citizens in European countries were granted their freedom to travel anywhere and were released from social and political communism.
People from all European countries were finally free to roam other countries without repercussions.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, Contra Costa College foreign languages department (professor and) Chairperson Irena Stefanova emigrated from Bulgaria to Vancouver, Canada. While in Burnaby, Vancouver she earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies at Simon Frasier University in 1994.
Learning to speak six different languages, she moved to California in 2001 and started teaching at City College of San Francisco and other community colleges until 2008 when she was hired full time at CCC.
“I’ve always been fascinated by (Latin) culture and the way people live in those countries,” Stefanova said. “My main focus is on bilingual and border culture and at that time it was the border between Argentina and Brazil.”
Stefanova, 50, was born in Bulgaria on March 7, 1965. She has influenced many students and faculty at CCC with her warm personality.
She is the mother of a 20-year-old daughter who is attending Santa Clara University and is also a respected professor on campus who always puts her students before anything else.
Music department Chairperson Wayne Organ’s office is right across the hall from her Spanish night class on Mondays.
“(Stefanova) is a very knowledgeable and warm person. She is a spectacular person having that ability and that’s just not talent, it’s also hard work,” Organ said. “Every time I walk by her class, the students seem interested and engaged with in the class.”
Organ also knows her from working on the Academic Senate with her. Stefanova is also quick to help faculty members feel welcome at the college.
Adjunct professor Akemi Uchima-Decena has been teaching Japanese at CCC since 2012 and she was not familiar with the area. But Stefanova was the first person to make her feel welcome.
“When I first came (to CCC), I didn’t know much about the school,” Uchima-Decena said.  “She spent a lot of time with me showing me how this college works.”
The last time Stefanova went back to her birth origins was in 2014. Even though she feels homesick because her parents still live in Bulgaria, she said she now feels like a tourist in her own country.  She has become detached from her childhood friends from Bulgaria.
“I miss home, but now I feel like a foreigner there,” Stefanova said about visiting Bulgaria. “My friends and most of the people of my generation have already moved away from the country, so I have nobody but my parents there now.”
According to her students, her lectures are engaging and helpful. In her class she encourages the students to interact with each other, and encourages them to hold a conversation in the language that she is teaching.
“She teaches very well and she interacts with everyone in the class,” fire science major Michael Murray said. “She is extremely patient with her students and makes sure they understand her lecture.”
She challenges her students, but rewards them also. That helps them to learn and comprehend the new language. It helps them become better at speaking and engaging with Spanish, undecided major Doug Taylor said.
“I’ve known a little Spanish. But the way (Stefanova) teaches it, it sticks to my brain and makes it easier to use Spanish outside the classroom.”
Stefanova continues teaching Spanish and other foreign language classes at CCC. Her students and colleagues recommend taking a class with her.