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Gatepost Interview: Jennifer De Leon, English professor

By Nadira Wicaksana

What is your educational background and work history?

I went to Connecticut College and I majored in international relations ... so that I could study abroad a lot. And I ended up studying abroad in 12 different countries over my four years as an undergrad. ... I knew I wanted to be a writer and I felt like I needed to get in the world to have things to write about. ... Then I pursued teaching and government. I worked under Congressman [Ed] Markey for a year and then did Teach for America in California, came back and taught in Boston Public Schools and I’ve been teaching ... off and on – adjuncting at Berklee, UMass Boston and then [Framingham] came up, so I was so happy.

What drew you to writing and teaching English?

I have always loved storytelling. I didn’t know any writers growing up, but I was constantly surrounded by stories from my family. I grew up in a large Guatemalan-American family – actually in Framingham. I grew up – I went to school here from first grade to 12th grade. ... I was constantly hearing stories and entering essay contests. My first internship was at Ms. Magazine in New York City. ... I’ve always loved writing, but I also love teaching ... so this is a great way to merge them. In fact, a lot of what I write about is ... marginalized communities, and a great part of my activism work is to help empower people who don’t ... see themselves as writers or storytellers to put pen to paper.

How do you think your background has influenced your career?

I was a first-generation college student and that has greatly influenced my career choices. College was not a place where I ... felt comfortable right away, but I learned the tools to become comfortable. I think it’s so important to make all students feel welcome – not just welcome, but to feel like they should raise their hand, which is a big deal. ... [They should feel] empowered to become educators.

If you could pick a personal favorite work of yours, what would it be?

I edited an anthology called “Wise Latinas.” ... It’s a collection of essays written by Latina writers reflecting on their experiences in college. Actually, that’s how I first came to Framingham State. I did a reading ... from the anthology ... in 2013. I did the reading two weeks before I gave birth to my son, so I was at the podium about nine months pregnant. ... This project is one that still has a beating heart. I still present around the country and give talks on this anthology, because so much of the content is relevant. Sadly, many people still feel out of place in college, feeling like they don’t belong or just not knowing the codes. ... Being the first writer in your family ... it brings up so many knots. My parents ... wanted me to have a secure job. They wanted me to maybe be a lawyer [or] a doctor. ... In the end, they’re happy. They’re like, “Oh good, you’re pursuing your dream. That’s why we moved here.”

The book that I just finished – and I’m hopefully just finishing up the final edits now – is a young adult novel, and it’s called “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From.” It’s about a young girl, Lilliana, in Jamaica Plain, Boston. She’s 15 and she joins the METCO program, which is ... a desegregation busing program, so she can take the bus for an hour and a half every morning to attend a kind of fancy school in the suburbs, and then takes an hour-and-a-half bus back. So, every day, she’s kind of transported to another world. Meanwhile, her father’s been missing and she finds out he’s been deported. The whole book kind of escalates from there. I really am excited about this book.

What advice would you give to FSU students?

You do you. That’s what it all comes down to. You know ... make it work. Go to CASA. Get tutoring. ... Your tuition pays for it. Make an appointment with the librarian. Some students think they’re bugging professors or bothering librarians. ... No, this is why we’re here. That’s what your tuition pays for. Even if you’re on [a] scholarship, someone’s paying your scholarship ... so you have to get the most out of this experience that you can. ... The reality is that outside of this bubble ... people aren’t chasing you down, asking you to address the final paragraph of whatever you wrote.

Writing opens so many doors. ... Everyone always wants people who are good at writing. It is such a valuable skill.

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