Professor Spotlight: Dr. Iliana Portaro Admires the Work of SUU Students During Pandemic

Teaching Through the Pandemic

The early days of the pandemic took a heavy toll on Southern Utah University faculty, as they were forced to spend Spring break overhauling their courses to be taught in a completely different modality.

After surviving the rest of the semester, faculty were faced with additional challenges such as conducting research remotely, changes to university admissions, rank advancement and tenure pausals, and uncertainties surrounding the upcoming school year.

Amidst these challenges, some members of the faculty also found time to innovate their classrooms as they incorporated new teaching methods to serve all of their students, regardless of how they chose to attend class.

Dr. Iliana Portaro – Assistant Professor of Spanish

This year, in light of the pandemic, Dr. Iliana Portaro chose to teach completely from home, setting up her Spanish classes in a synchronous-remote format. This format, although an adjustment to the completely in-person classes she was used to teaching, has proved to result in more flexibility and stability for both students and herself throughout the year. 

Portaro tried to replicate the in-classroom language experience as much as possible by having students chat with partners and groups in breakout rooms, structuring specific time durations for various activities and being mindful of different learning styles by offering a mix of activities. 

“In some ways it has helped ease the nervousness in my classes because it has patterns,” Portaro said. “Students know what to expect daily, there are certain routines in the activities, and I regularly ask for feedback about what’s working and make changes accordingly.”

Portaro noted that her teaching goal this year was to make sure her students had the best experience she could give them with the tools she had.

“It doesn’t always work. There are failures along the way, but the goal is always for my students to learn and hopefully feel joy in the process,” said Portaro. 

Portaro’s resilience that she showcased during the pandemic began over 25 years ago, when her parents moved with her from the violent and economically unstable city — at that time — of Lima, Peru to Orange County, California in 1992. 

“My parents had a business and they were always struggling because the economy was always so up and down. We moved here so that they could afford and pay for my education and give me the opportunities they never had,” said Portaro. “Looking back, you appreciate your younger self and how resilient you were without realizing it.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of California Santa Barbara, Portaro went on to receive her master’s and Ph. D. from the University of California Davis in Spanish and Latin American literature and culture. 

Portaro has been at SUU since 2011 and has enjoyed her time here, as she said the small university size gave her the undergraduate experience she never had at her highly populated universities in California. 

“Coming to SUU was sort of a dream in some case. It sounds cliche, but [here] you have that relationship between students and professors where professors know your name,” Portaro said. 

Portaro has continued to exemplify the resilience she gained in her childhood during the pandemic as a professor. 

“Sometimes when you’ve been teaching for awhile you get comfortable with what you’re used to, but that spring when we went completely online with Zoom was a huge learning curve, and I spent my spring break transferring my classes online and trying to figure it out,” said Portaro. 

Portaro voiced that she expected learning to navigate technology while teaching strictly online to be the largest challenge as a professor, but was surprised at what actually proved to be the larger challenge. 

“One of the hardest things now is to separate my home and work life,” said Portaro. 

In addition to teaching her university students completely from home, she and her husband are also teaching their son, as they decided to homeschool him with the help of an elementary school teacher that checks in. 

“He’s in second grade. I started school in the U.S. in sixth grade, so I’m trying to learn all the things I didn’t get to in elementary school,” Portaro said, laughing. 

Portaro said that another challenge that comes with teaching from home is missing out on the human aspect as a professor. 

‘It’s been hard to not see my students face to face and not interact with my students. You miss that human interaction,” Potato said. “I’ve been constantly asking myself, if I were taking an online class, what would I appreciate, so I’ve been constantly trying to check myself with that.”

However, Portaro noted that she learned something she greatly needed to during the pandemic as someone who is “always in such a rush.”

“I think that there’s nothing wrong with slowing down a bit,” Portaro said. “I’ve also really learned to encourage my students to be mindful and practice self care and reach out if they need help.”

Although Portaro has shown a resiliency and positivity that deserves to be acknowledged, she stressed that the strength her students have shown is what should be highlighted. 

“I’m blown away with a lot of what students go through, and they come to class and show up,” Portaro said. “I think that shows an immense amount of strength. I think that sometimes students don’t know that what they’re doing is extremely admirable.”


Story by: Liz Armstrong
Photos courtesy of Dr. Iliana Portaro