Growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, Oscar Reynaga never believed he’d see much of the world. His mostly Latino community, just north of Los Angeles, celebrated such local legends as Ritchie Valens and George Lopez, but Reynaga didn’t expect to go far.
“I remember sitting in front of the TV eating my Cheetos and thinking it would be so amazing to see this or that place,” says Reynaga. “I told myself I would work as hard as I could, but I never really imagined I would be able to travel.”
After arriving at the University of California Berkeley, however, it didn’t take long for Reynaga to discover opportunities to study abroad. While completing degrees in psychology and Spanish, he studied in Chile, Argentina and Cuba, spending more than half of his undergraduate career outside the U.S.
Reynaga first pursued a path to social work or psychiatry—then fell in love with language and literature. Upon graduation, he was recruited for a master’s program in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa, where he also began teaching for the first time.
“It was like a spark went off, and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” says Reynaga. “I’m sure that first semester I was a nervous wreck. But I learned how to continuously improve, and I look fondly on all that work because, by the end, I won Iowa’s graduate teaching award.”
Reynaga joined Central’s department of modern languages in 2007, where he is lecturer of Spanish and class dean for Central’s current juniors. Besides teaching language classes, capstones and first-year seminars, Reynaga frequently leads Central students on new ventures to other parts of the world.
In his most recent trip, Reynaga helped lead seven student researchers to Costa Rica for Central’s newest research program, developed with assistant professor of exercise science Sara Shuger Fox. During the five-week summer program, students created original research in environmental law, nutrition and health, family cultures, bee diversity and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
Reynaga also led a Spanish immersion program for students in Merida last winter, and he’s created new on-campus courses with international components in Peru and Spain. With associate professor of biology Paulina Mena, Reynaga developed two capstone courses—“Pachamama Never Left: Nature and Culture of Peru” and “From Lady Bugs to Lady Gaga: The Evolution of Sex in Nature and Culture.”
Central’s close-knit community is perfect for collaborations like these, Reynaga says. He’s now leading the Costa Rica program with Shuger Fox every summer—and presenting the project at an international conference in Paris this spring. Not to mention, Reynaga says he still has plans for additional new courses.
What’s next? Perhaps a trip that lets students explore European history while participating in part of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, says Reynaga, who’s already made an exploratory trip.
OPEN A NEW DOOR
It’s important for students to learn opportunities are everywhere, Reynaga says. “It’s how I was recruited into so many great things—I learned to actively put myself in situations where opportunities can present themselves.”
Learning a new language holds many such opportunities, he says. Students must take a risk—and make many mistakes—to learn to speak freely. Part of Reynaga’s role at Central is creating a safe environment for Spanish students to ask any question and learn those lessons.
“I let them know, I have been that student afraid to speak or ask questions,” Reynaga says. “But everyone has something wonderful to share.”
Reynaga is an inspiring role model for students, says Paulina Mena, and he’s someone they can feel free to approach for support and empathy. “It shows especially when we go abroad with students—you can see his passion introducing them to new experiences out of their comfort zones,” she says. “He’s such an open and charismatic person, willing to listen and help.”
I SEE YOU
Central is a great place to teach students about powerful connections, Reynaga says, because professors and class members can get to know each other personally. “I get to see what makes each one unique,” he says. “That strength of relationships and community makes Central unique too—it’s something to cherish.”
Reynaga strives to help students see each other’s uniqueness too. This allows them to cultivate rich, respectful discussion of important issues, he says, which is more valuable than ever in an age of digital communication.
IT’S HOME NOW—WHY IOWA IS AWESOME
1. Sun, then snow—it’s exciting!
It’s a thrill to see each first snow, Reynaga says, and the cold makes summer that much sweeter. In Iowa, you’ve got to take every chance to get outside so you don’t miss nature’s show.
2. You won’t miss California traffic.
“That’s what I tell my whole family in California,” Reynaga says. “I feel Iowan now— Iowa is awesome.”
3. Central people are cool.
While teaching at the University of Iowa, Reynaga often visited his friend Jamie Wilson, former lecturer of Spanish, and met other Central faculty members on campus. “I secretly fell in love and wished I could be here,” he says.
4. Iowa Nice is a real thing.
Iowa fully deserves its reputation for a laid-back, welcoming culture, Reynaga says. From close-knit communities like Central to strangers’ friendly greetings, it’s not something to take for granted.
5. “Our Liberties We Prize”
Iowa’s state seal says it—state courts are committed to equality. “I met my husband in Iowa the first semester I taught at Central,” Reynaga says, “and we married in 2010—before same-sex marriage was even legal in California.”
6. Iowa is full of variety.
Just like Mexico and South America are home to many unique cultures, Iowa is far from uniform, Reynaga says. “I have connected to people from all over the world in Iowa.”
7. Plus, there’s that bakery.
“Also, I love Dutch Letters,” Reynaga says. “I usually have one every week.”